One December not that long ago, I read some terrific books. They were different genres set in different places—Florida, England, Colorado, Maine, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Mexico, Connecticut, and Texas—but most had one thing in common: great writing. Enjoy my reviews; I hope you find something to add to your TBR list!
Once Upon a Wardrobe
“No matter your age, may you never, ever grow too old for fairy tales.”—Pattie Callahan, Once Upon a Wardrobe.
I couldn’t have loved this book more. It started and ended with a flourish in moving, heartwarming, and magical prose. I loved learning about Jack Lewis’s life (you probably know him as C. S. Lewis) and the imagined inspiration for his classic book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This novel about faith and hope is utterly enchanting. 5 enthusiastic stars.
Megs Devonshire is brilliant with numbers and equations, on a scholarship at Oxford, and dreams of unraveling the mysteries of physics. She prefers the dependability of facts—except for one: the brother she loves with all her heart doesn’t have long to live. When eight-year-old George becomes entranced by a brand-new book called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and begs her to find out where Narnia came from.
Despite her reservations about approaching the renowned author behind the book, Megs soon finds herself taking tea with the Oxford tutor and his brother, Warnie, imploring them for answers. Why won’t Mr. Lewis just tell her plainly what George wants to know? What Megs learns in these sessions is far more precious than any facts or figures. They regale her with tales of the author’s life, of the joys and sorrows that shaped him into the person he became. As she listens to these stories, Megs learns that the truth lies both in physics and in fairy tales.
by Kate Manning
“I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there, and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad, he would be a United States Senator.” — Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.
The early 1900s is an epic time in American history and Moonstone, Colorado, is a harsh place to live. In Gilded Mountain, author Kate Manning introduces readers to Sylvie Pelletier, an unforgettable teenager who bravely exposes the corruption that enriches her father’s employers.
Sylvie is a first-generation American and the daughter of French-Canadian parents. To help put food on the table, the sixteen-year-old serves as an apprentice to the editor of the local newspaper. But when she is offered a temporary position as a personal assistant, she leaves her family’s dilapidated mountain cabin to work in the opulent manor house of the Padgetts, exploitative owners of the marble-mining company that employs her father. “Countess” Inge is charming, Mr. Padgett is lecherous, but it’s their son Jasper who has her affections.
The town of Moonstone is roiling with discontent. Labor conditions are dangerous, the camp is primitive, and what provisions can be had must be bought at the overpriced company store with company scrip.
A handsome union organizer, along with labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, is stirring up the quarry workers. The company hires union busters and the Pinkertons to quell the protests.
Gilded Mountain is drawn from the true stories of powerful robber barons and the immigrants who make them rich. Sylvie’s vivid first-person narrative and deeply sympathetic characters captured my imagination and didn’t let go. 5 stars.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” ― Their Eyes Were Watching God
First published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God was out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to the initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist. It was reissued in 1978 and has since become one of the most widely read and critically acclaimed works of African American literature.
Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Starks, fair-skinned, long-legged, independent, and articulate, who sets out to be her own person—no easy feat for a black woman in the ‘30s. After three marriages, she journeys back to her roots, where her small southern black community buzzes with gossip about the outcome of her affair with a younger drifter known as “Tea Cake.”
Hurston’s writing was magical in parts. Her description of the hurricane Janie and Tea Cake experienced was exceptional. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a vivid scene. The heavy dialect used in the dialogue was distracting, though, and in this case, I didn’t like the audio version despite the talent of the narrator. The book was enlightening on so many levels.
Zora Neale Hurston was a natural born storyteller, and she packed a lot into 238 pages. It’s sad she passed away before her writing was given the credit it was due. 4.5 stars.
Her personality and audacity were very much like Janie’s. You can read about her here: https://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/
** Although the book is categorized as 890 on the Lexile scale (5th grade level), I think it’s more appropriate for teens and adults.
The It Girl
by Ruth Ware
“She had the kind of beauty that hurt your eyes if you looked at her for too long but made it hard to tear your gaze away. It was, Hannah realized, as if a different kind of light were shining on her than on the rest of the room.”― Ruth Ware, The It Girl.
Now I can see why this book was nominated by readers in the Goodreads Choice Award Best Mystery & Thriller category last year—it’s a killer psychological thriller! The It Girl is told in alternating before and after chapters beginning at Oxford University (did you know Oxford consists of 39 separate colleges?) when freshman Hannah Jones meets her new roommate.
April Coutts-Cliveden is sophisticated, wealthy, the ultimate “it” girl. She has a malicious side, and by the end of the second term, she is dead.
Fast forward ten years and John Neville, the man Hannah helped convict of killing April, has died in prison. When a journalist contacts her, claiming Neville was innocent, her world is upended. What really happened that night?
Ruth Ware’s book is beautifully written with great flow and pacing, and I flew through the pages. She created unforgettable characters—the good, the bad, and the downright evil—and crafted a twisty plot rife with trauma and tension. If you prefer audiobooks, you might want to take a pass; the before and after construction is confusing. The book, though, is terrific. 4 stars.
I Know This Much Is True
By Wally Lamb
“America’s been living on borrowed time all these years, Dominick,” he told me. “Playing the world’s whore, wallowing in our greed. Now we’re going to pay the price.”—Wally Lamb, I Know This Much is True.
On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, Thomas Birdsey, a paranoid schizophrenic, entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut, public library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and committed a shocking act of self-mutilation. He prayed to God it was an acceptable sacrifice.
Thus begins I Know This Much is True, which follows the parallel lives of Thomas and his identical twin brother, Dominick as the two approach middle age.
Narrator Dominick Birdsey relates what led up to his brother’s mental illness. Illegitimate, they never knew their biological father, and their stepfather verbally and physically abused Thomas. Dominick’s life is no picnic, either. Once a high school teacher, he is now a divorced housepainter.
I Know This Much is True is a hefty read (900 pages) and fairly depressing, but it is a moving, well-written character study. The book was made into a limited series in 2020 earning Mark Ruffalo an Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and nine other awards and nominations. 4 stars.
** This book contains disturbing content.
A Ballad of Love and Glory
“But wasn’t life like that? A powerful nation will always hunger for more power. And they will always find men like himself—starving wretches, so far from home and country and desperate to do right by their families—to do the dirty work.”― Reyna Grande, A Ballad of Love and Glory.
Reyna Grande’s historical novel about a Mexican army nurse and an Irish soldier during the Mexican-American War is inspired by true events and historical figures. The year is 1846. After the controversial annexation of Texas, the US Army marches south to provoke war with México over the disputed Rio Grande boundary.
Ximena Salomé is a gifted Mexican healer who dreams of building a family with the man she loves on the land she calls home. But when Texas Rangers kill her husband, becomes a battlefield nurse, a character immortalized in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Meanwhile, John Riley, an Irish immigrant in the Yankee army, is sickened by the unjust war and the unspeakable atrocities committed against his countrymen by nativist officers. In a bold act of defiance, he swims across the Rio Grande and joins the Mexican Army—an act punishable by execution. He forms the St. Patrick’s Battalion, a band of Irish soldiers willing to fight to the death for México’s freedom.
John and Ximena cross paths and begin a passionate love affair, even though he has a wife and son back in Ireland. Historical figures include John Riley, who led the Batallón San Patricio, General Lopez de Santa Anna, General Zachary Taylor, and US Army officer Braxton Bragg.
This is a very educational book. The battle over Texas is a forgotten war rarely written about in fiction. It is disheartening that noncitizen Irish soldiers fought for the Yankee army and were so badly treated that many deserted and fought for the Mexicans, in part because they couldn’t practice their Catholic religion.
A Ballad of Love and Glory is a beautiful love story filled with complex characters and vivid history. Intense, horrific scenes are well described by the author, so it might not be a good fit for those sensitive to violence. 4 stars.
Alice Elliott Dark
“Everyone who’d lost something of crucial importance wished he or she could go back to the moment when it was still theirs. The wish was so powerful it seemed it might reverse the direction of time. It bore apparitions and ghosts.”― Fellowship Point
Celebrated children’s book author, eighty-year-old spinster, Agnes Lee, has left an indelible mark on the literary world. But her goal to secure her legacy and protect the majestic coastline of Maine’s Fellowship Point really drives her. Now that the next generation is determined to sell the land to a developer, Agnes is adamant about protecting this bird sanctuary by creating a land trust, especially after her third breast cancer diagnosis.
However, her path is fraught with obstacles, not the least of which is convincing shareholders to dissolve a generations-old partnership. And to make matters worse, one of those shareholders is her best friend, Polly Wister. Agnes and Polly are childhood friends who grew up together in 1930s Philadelphia and summered in their cottages on Fellowship Point, an unspoiled coastal Maine peninsula shared by their Quaker families for generations.
Polly has lived a different life than Agnes. Despite her wealth and privilege, she has devoted her life to creating beauty and harmony in her home, friendships, and family. But as Agnes’s request pits her against the wishes of her three sons, Polly finds herself at a crossroads, torn between her loyalties and desires.
An enterprising young book editor named Maud Silver sets out to convince a cantankerous Agnes to write her memoirs, throwing a wrench into Agnes’s already complicated plans. The two form a unique attachment.
As a woman of a certain age, it was hard for me to read about Agnes, Polly, and her husband growing old. Getting old certainly isn’t for sissies. Yet the bond between Polly and Agnes was so endearing. I’m blessed to have long-term friends who support each other.
Fellowship Point’s plot was unique and well thought out. The book never really captured my attention, though, and I started losing interest almost right away. About halfway through, I was just plain bored. I found it well written, but at almost 600 pages, it was just too long. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
P.S. I learned something historically important about Quakers. Thomas Scattergood (aka the “Mournful Prophet” because he suffered from depression) founded Friends Hospital in North Philadelphia in 1813 as The Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason. The Quakers interpreted mental illness differently than most. They believed every person was born with an Inner Light that shone with integrity. In the mentally ill, that light flickered, but the mind might heal itself in an environment of rest, good food, fresh air, and general dedication to health. The Friends Hospital now sits on a beautiful 100-acre campus and still has the same mission.
We Are Not Like Them
Christine Pride, Jo Piazza
“So maybe the marching, rallying, showing up, it serves a purpose. It says, We will not be invisible or afraid. We will not give up. And that’s not nothing. It might actually be everything.”― We Are Not Like Them
Author Jo Piazza teams up with veteran book editor Christine Pride in We Are Not Like Them. Told from alternating perspectives, this novel follows two women, one Black and one White, whose friendship is indelibly altered by a tragic event.
Jenny Murphy and Riley Wilson have been inseparable since kindergarten. As adults, they remain as close as sisters, even though their lives have taken divergent paths. Jen, who married young, finally gets pregnant after a series of unsuccessful IVF treatments, and is finally pregnant. Meanwhile, Riley, a budding television journalist, is on the cusp of becoming one of the first Black female anchors of the top news channel in their hometown of Philadelphia.
But the deep bond they share is severely tested when Jen’s husband, a city police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Jen feels like her world is spinning out of control. Her future, her husband’s freedom, and her lifelong friendship with Riley are all thrown into disarray.
Riley is deeply aware of the implications this tragedy will have on her community and she’s not sure how to navigate her friendship with Jen in the wake of such a catastrophic event.
This book contained some important truths about racism and social justice, but I felt like there was too much preaching, like it was almost anti-white. The book is set in 2019, but Black Lives Matter and “woke” are referenced. Although both the organization and term existed then, they weren’t common nomenclature.
Highly recommended for book clubs as it would engender spirited discussion. It was a good read, but lacked impact and was too close to today’s headlines. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
The Seamstress of New Orleans
by Diane C. McPhail
“Just as this female krewe had turned the table on men, now they turned the table on convention. Not one queen, they agreed. No. Why should there be only one? “Let us have four, one for each point of the compass, to include the whole of womanhood. One each of the various symbols of female identity—Semiramis, Pocahontas, Juliet, and Brunhilde. All womanhood included in royalty!” they declared.”― The Seamstress of New Orleans.
The Seamstress of New Orleans is set against the backdrop of the first all-female Mardi Gras krewe at the turn-of-the-century. For those who don’t know what a krewe is (I had no clue), it is a private organization that stages events during Mardi Gras. Here, the event is the leap year ball of Les Mysterieuses, during which women could make advances toward men that would be taboo at other times.
The novel brings together two women from unique backgrounds. Upon the sudden disappearance of her husband, pregnant Alice Butterworth leaves Chicago for the more hospitable climes of Louisiana to make a living by providing sewing lessons at an orphanage. At the other end of the economic scale is Constance Halstead, a young widow who carries a heavy burden. Her husband, Benton, whose death remains a mystery, was deep in debt to the Black Hand, the vicious gangsters who controlled New Orleans’ notorious Storyville district.
The two become acquainted at the orphanage where Constance does charity work. In exchange for room and board, Alice sews Constance a gown for the ball. As a friendship blossoms between the women, a secret emerges that will upend their lives.
While some of the history was interesting, I didn’t care for the book at all. I’m tiring of books about deep dark family secrets; it is so overdone. The Seamstress of New Orleans had an amazing twist at the end, but overall the book wasn’t my thing. A word to audiobook lovers. The audiobook’s narrator was abysmal, so stick with the book. 3 stars.