Amy’s March 2022 Reads

In March, my soul was stirred, my brain engaged, and my funny bone tickled. I hope you find something wonderful to read on this list!

 

West with Giraffes
By Lynda Rutledge

“Few true friends have I known and two were giraffes…”

Inspired by true events, this part adventure, part historical saga and part coming-of-age love story follows Woodrow Wilson Nickel as he recalls his journey in 1938 to deliver Southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo.

Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away. But when he learns giraffes are going extinct, he recalls the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave.
It’s 1938. The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to deliver Southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo.

Behind the wheel is the young Dust Bowl rowdy Woodrow. Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world’s first female zoo director, a crusty old man with a past, a young female photographer with a secret, and assorted reprobates as spotty as the giraffes.

Many people recommended I read this book, so I finally took the plunge. Several of the primary characters have interesting relationships with the truth, which kept me guessing but also made me anxious nervous. Whenever someone tells lie over lie, they inevitably get caught, and man, did they ever! The depiction of life during The Great Depression was authentic and I could see and smell (but thankfully not taste) the dust, the despair, and the giraffes. (As usual I supplemented my reading with the audiobook. I didn’t care for the narrator at all.) This heartwarming, rousing historical novel is witty and charming and I enjoyed it very much. 5 stars.

Publish Date: February 2021
Genre: Adult Fiction, historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, Last Bus to Wisdom, by Ivan Doig, Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger, How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior

 

Out of the Cave: Stepping into the Light when Depression Darkens What You See
by Chris Hodges

It’s time to get your life back. It’s time to stop pretending that Christians don’t get depressed. It’s time to get real with God about where you are and who’s in charge. It’s time to step forward into his light and enjoy the life he has for you. It’s time to come out of your cave. — Chris Hodges, Out of the Cave.

I’ve shared little of my journey with depression on my blog or social media, and I won’t get into in depth now, other than to say that it has sometimes been crushing. That’s one reason I enjoy reading so much—a good novel can whisk me away to another place, another time.

Out of the Cave is an extraordinary book that has had a profound effect on me. Chris Hodges is the founding and senior pastor of Church of the Highlands, a non-denominational, multi-site mega-church headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. As of 2018, it was the largest congregation in Alabama and the second largest church in the United States, with an average of 43,030 attendees every week. Over the years, he has counseled scores of people who suffer from anxiety and depression. But that’s not what made Out of the Cave such a powerful book. It’s because he has had significant seasons of emotional pain. He has walked the walk.

Depression is the number one health issue in the world today, yet those who suffer are still sometimes stigmatized—especially followers of Jesus. Many assume God’s peace, power, and protection should prevent us from ever feeling anxious, depressed, and afraid. But the Bible teaches otherwise, particularly in its depiction of the life of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

In Out of the Cave, Chris Hodges uses Elijah’s life to illustrate that everyone is susceptible to depression. Even when we’re walking closely with God, we can still stumble and get lost in the wilderness of tangled emotions. But we don’t have to stay there, because we serve a God who meets us in the darkness. Hodges provides a comprehensive approach to wellness—mind, body, and soul—with his trademark blend of Bible-based wisdom, practical application, and vulnerability in sharing his personal struggles, Hodges explores the causes of depression we can’t change, the contributors we can conquer, and offers transformative hope and spiritual power to help us win the battle.

Hodges is an excellent writer, smooth and professional. He used an effective mix of personal anecdotes, biblical examples, charts, and questionnaires to convey his important message. One thing I most appreciated about this book is that he didn’t use a one size fits all approach, recognizing that some people suffer from a chemical imbalance and need medication to manage their depression, while others can use other management techniques for more situational depression. I related to so much of what he wrote because he has walked in my shoes. Bravo. 5 stars.

* I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

God’s Smuggler
by Brother Andrew, Elizabeth Sherrill, John Sherrill

“Suppose on the other hand that I were to discover God to be a Person, in the sense that He communicated and cared and loved and led. That was something quite different. That was the kind of King I would follow into any battle.” — Brother Andrew, God’s Smuggler.

Would I have the faith to trust God to provide for ALL my needs? If I’m being honest, I doubt I could do it. Yet in God’s Smuggler, God repeatedly answered Brother Andrew’s faithful prayers as the missionary smuggled Bibles to believers behind the Iron Curtain and throughout the Middle East God’s, China, and Korea guidance was miraculous.

Millions around the world have been awed by this riveting true-life spy story of a Dutch factory worker going undercover to take Bibles behind closed communist borders. Now, sixty years after Andrew van der Bijl’s first mission trip, his classic, thrilling account inspiring new readers.

As a boy, Andrew dreamed of being a spy undercover behind enemy lines. As a soldier, he committed atrocities during the Indonesian National Revolution, a battle wound eventually sending him home. Andrew started attending church and sensed God was calling him to the mission field. In 1953, he enrolled in the Worldwide Evangelism Crusade in Glasgow with no financial support. God provided.

Brother Andrew was one of the all-time heroes of the faith. His narrow escapes from danger to share the love of Jesus will encourage and embolden you in your own Christian walk. I supplemented my reading with audio, narrated by the incomparable Simon Vance. 5 stars.

Originally published in January 1967. Re-released in 2015.
Genre: Christian nonfiction, autobiography
Read-Alikes: The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun by Paul Hattaway, Brother Yun; God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance by Andrew Brunson.

 

The Saints of Swallow Hill
By Donna Everhart

So here’s the thing about historical fiction… you learn stuff! How else would a woman from Minnesota find out about the turpentine camps of the American South during the Great Depression? Before I read The Saints of Swallow Hill, I didn’t know how turpentine was made or why North Carolina is called the Tar Heel State. Now I do, and I had the pleasure of following some fascinating characters along the way.

Rae Lynn Cobb and her husband, Warren, run a small turpentine farm together during the Great Depression. Though the work is hard and often dangerous, Rae Lynn, who spent her childhood in an orphanage, is thankful for it. When Warren is seriously injured, Rae Lynn undertakes a desperate act of mercy. To keep herself from jail and support herself, she disguises herself as a man and heads to the only place she can think of that might offer anonymity—a turpentine camp in Georgia named Swallow Hill.

Swallow Hill is isolated and squalid, and although Rae Lynn works tirelessly, she becomes a target for Crow, the ever-watchful woods rider who checks each laborer’s tally and inflicts horrific punishments when they aren’t met. Delwood Reese, who’s come to Swallow Hill hoping for his own redemption, offers “Ray” a small measure of protection. As Rae Lynn forges a deeper friendship with both Del and the woman who operates the commissary, she envisions a path out of the camp.

Author Donna Everhart does a wonderful job showing man’s inhumanity to man, and the innate pull we possess to overcome adversity through pluck and determination. Her characterization is especially good. Whether villain or hero, they are all complex and interesting. Sometimes dual storylines falter, but in this case, they were well written and easy to follow. I also loved her well-honed dialogue and use of dialect, not so over the top that it was irritating. The Saints of Swallow Hill was a powerful story of courage, survival, and friendship. From the opening sentence to the last, this beautiful novel kept my attention, although the ending was anticlimactic. A great read. 4.5 stars.

Published Date: January 2022
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger.

* I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

The Magnolia Palace
by Fiona Davis

“The rich think they’re protected, that they have magical powers, when in fact they’re only mortals, like the rest of us. Bodies break down, betray you. People you love die. Children die.” — Fiona Davis, The Magnolia Palace

Lillian “Angelica” Carter was one of the most sought-after artists’ models in New York City, with hundreds of statues based on her figure gracing landmarks all over the city. But when her mother dies in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1919, Lillian is rudderless and desperate—the work has dried up and she is suspected of murder. So when she is hired to be the personal secretary to Helen Frick, the imperious and demanding daughter of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, the more deeply her life gets intertwined with that of the family.

Nearly fifty years later, English model Veronica Weber has her own chance to make her career—and with it, earn the money she needs to support her family back home. After a Vogue photoshoot within the walls of the former Frick residence, now converted into one of New York City’s most impressive museums, she finds several hidden messages that could finally reveal the truth behind a decades-old murder.

If you enjoy historical fiction and mystery, and have a penchant for art, this book is for you. Fiona Davis juices up the real lives of the legendary Frick family, and Audrey Munson, who was the inspiration for Lillian Carter’s character. One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading this book was going online to research the lives of these characters. Don’t worry, though, I’m not a spoiler. You’ll have to find out for yourself. Dual narratives are tricky, but Fiona Davis does a fine job jumping between the Twenties and the Sixties, both fascinating decades. I have several of her other books on my TBR list, so I’m glad I enjoyed this one. 4 stars.

Publication Date: January 2022
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen, Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray

* I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

Made in China
By Amelia Pang

“During our endless search for the newest trends for the lowest prices, we become complicit in the forced-labor industry. Chinese manufacturers often believe they have no choice but to secretly outsource to gulags, because they cannot meet the global consumer demand for budget prices and the latest trends. Studies have shown it is precisely brands’ demands for lower prices, faster production, and fulfillment of unanticipated orders that compel factories to illegally subcontract work to places like labor camps.” — Amelia Pang, Made in China

Like many of you, the last few years I’ve tried extra hard to avoid buying products made in China. It’s quite a challenge. Most websites hide the country of origin and the only way to get that information is to dig through consumer questions or call the company. After reading Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods, I’ve become even more zealous in doing my due diligence before handing over my greenbacks.

 In 2012, a woman in Oregon purchased a package of cheap foam headstones at Kmart. When she opened the box, an SOS note written in broken English fell out:

“Sir: If you occassionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicuton of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

The note’s author, an engineer named Sun Yi, was a Chinese political prisoner, sentenced without trial to work grueling hours at a “reeducation camp.” In Made in China, investigative journalist Amelia Pang pulls back the curtain on Sun’s story and the stories of others like him—followers of banned religions and spiritual movements, political prisoners; ethnic minorities; migrant workers; and juvenile and adult offenders who are imprisoned, tortured, and subjugated. Through extensive interviews and firsthand reporting, Pang shows us the true cost of America’s addiction to cheap goods.

Made in China is a well-researched and sobering exposé on the laogai system of forced-labor camps. Here are some disturbing things I learned:

  • The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothing arrives at a landfill every second.
  • There is mounting evidence that laogai camps not only supply free manufacturing labor but also human organs for the nation’s booming transplant industry, which is estimated to be worth a billion dollars.
  • According to the author, many large US retailers—including Amazon, Nordstrom, Kmart, Walmart, and Target—sell products manufactured in forced-labor camps.
  • Concentration-like camps in the Xinjiang region detain approximately three million Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims.
  • Global brands use the labor of workers held against their will. The author mentioned Nike, Apple, BMW, H&M, and American Girl.

The scale of the forced labor in China is massive and deeply disturbing. What is happening there is pure evil. Made in China wasn’t an easy read, but it was an important one. Like me, you may change your shopping habits. We need to ask more questions and demand more answers from the companies we patronize. 5 stars.

Publication Date: February 2021
Genre: Nonfiction, politics and global affairs.
Read-alikes: China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Breakneck Rise and Troubled Future and the Challenge for America by James Kynge; The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership by Clyde V. Prestowitz; The Myth of Chinese Capitalism by Dexter Roberts; Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers by Jenny Chan; Invisible Hands by Corinne Goria.

 

Hostage
by Clare Mackintosh

“Truth slid into my mind like the answer to a crossword clue long after the paper’s been thrown away, and my mouth formed the words I didn’t want to say.” – Clare Mackintosh, Hostage

First off, let’s be clear about one thing. I’m no fan of flying–-the smell, the noise, the claustrophobia of being locked in a sardine can with strangers. I do, however, love the Biscoff cookies Delta Airlines hands out by the millions on their flights. Since I can buy those, it’s not much of a draw.

But I digress… As someone who suffers from aerophobia, I was a wee bit concerned about reading a novel set over twenty hours on an airplane. Here’s what Hostage is about.

Flight attendant Mina Holbrook trades shifts to join the crew of World Airways inaugural 20-hour flight from London to Sydney to escape the tension of her home life. She’s sure her husband has been sleeping with their au pair, who suddenly quits. The plane has barely taken off when Mina receives a chilling note from an anonymous passenger. If she doesn’t divert the flight, her five-year-old daughter will die. A lot happens in twenty hours. A LOT.

Clare Mackintosh wrote a pulse-pounding, propulsive thriller ripe with surprises. She executed multiple narratives with ease and finished up with a twisty climax I didn’t see coming! Although I was annoyed with the tidy resolutions of all the narratives, it wasn’t enough to affect my rating too much. 4 stars.

P.S. This probably isn’t the best book to read while on your way to Australia.

Publication Date: June 2021
Genre: Thriller
Read-alikes: Falling by T. J. Newman, Say Nothing Bad by Brad Parks, The Chain by Adrian McKinty

* I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

The Caretakers
by Amanda Bestor-Siegal

 When our kids were small, I had a demanding corporate career, and my husband worked all hours starting his own company. Getting them to and from daycare was stressful, and we couldn’t stay home with them when they were sick. Like most young parents, we couldn’t afford a nanny, so we got the next best thing, an au pair. We had five different au pairs from five different countries: Denmark, Norway, England, Germany, and Slovakia. The experiences were overwhelming positive, although our first one should have been sent packing after wrecking our car twice and several of her friends expelled licorice-flavored liqueur on our family room rug. Such was my perspective while reading The Caretakers.

Paris, 2015. A crowd gathers outside the Chauvet home in the affluent suburban community of Maisons-Larue, watching as the family’s American au pair is led away in handcuffs after the sudden death of her eight-year-old charge, Julien. The grieving mother believes the caretaker is to blame, and the neighborhood is thrown into chaos, unsure who is at fault—the enigmatic, young foreigner or the mother herself, who has never seemed an active participant in the lives of her children.

The novel explores the complex perspectives of several women: Charlotte, Julien’s chilly socialite mother; Lou, an incompetent au pair fired by the family next door; Holly, an anxious au pair who is desperate for friends in France; Charlotte’s sullen teenage daughter, Nathalie, who is desperate for her mother’s attention; Alena, the young woman accused of the child’s death, and Madame Geraldine, the French teacher who knows all the girls intimately.

Set during the weeks leading up to the event, The Caretakers is a poignant and suspenseful drama featuring complicated women. Contemplatively written with exquisite characterization, the author pulls in her readers and never lets them go.

Amanda Bestor-Siegal’s debut was brilliant. The plot was unique, intricate and salacious, and the author’s gift for character development was obvious. Each of the au pairs had very different experiences—some were treated like family, while others were mere servants to demanding host parents. The Caretakers was a fast-moving thriller unlike anything I’ve ever read. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

Published Date: April 2022
Genre: Mainstream fiction
Read-alikes: Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner, Monogamy by Sue Miller, All We Ever Wanted by Emily Griffin

* I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

The Maid
by Nita Prose

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by. Then Gran dies, and twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. She throws herself into her gratifying work as a maid at a posh hotel. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms to a state of perfection. But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the Black suite and finds Charles Black dead. Before long, she is the prime suspect. Who really killed him?

A quirky whodunit about a quirky young woman. On many levels, it reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. The plot was delightful and offbeat, as was the main character, Molly Gray, but her OCD made me anxious, and believe me, I don’t need any help in that department. I just wasn’t crazy about the writing. The pacing was slow, and the author repeated phrases too often. Every time she wrote about a smile that reaches the eyes, I cringed. One last observation and I’ll quit picking. Remember how The Lord of the Rings movie had a couple fake endings before Frodo finally left Middle Earth? It’s bugged me for years. Well, I felt the same way with The Maid. I liked it; I just didn’t love it. 3.5 stars.

Published Date: January 2022
Genre: Canadian fiction, mystery
Read-alikes: Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little, The Lazarus Hotel by Jo Bannister, The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris.

* I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Literature, Newsletter, Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .