Amy’s Reads: June 2022

Uff, another delayed book post. This has been an eventful summer with vacations, family visits, writing and pitching a book proposal for one client and pitching a historical novel of my own. I still read, though, just not as much! In June, I enjoyed thrillers, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, Christian fiction, self-help, memoir, relationship fiction, and mystery. So here they are, my June 2022 reads and reviews. There’s something here for everyone!

Lights Out
by Natalie Walters

“Choose fear or choose faith, but only one choice will bring peace.” — Natalie Walter, Lights Out

As a CIA analyst, Brynn Taylor developed a new program to combat terrorism, and invited members of foreign intelligence agencies to America to foster cooperation between countries. Now one of them, Egyptian spy Remon Riad, is missing.

Jack Hudson has been working for the Strategic Neutralization and Protection Agency (SNAP) for almost nine years and takes the lead in hunting down the missing spy. But he isn’t at all pleased to find out Brynn is involved. It’s hard to trust a woman who’s already betrayed you.

Every lead they follow draws them dangerously deeper into an international plot and the terrorists will do anything to accomplish their goal of causing a digital blackout that will blind a strategic US military communications center and throw the world into chaos.

This hits home, doesn’t it? I’m less afraid of a terrorist attack via explosives or missiles; it’s the chaos of a cyberattack that keeps me up at night. Lights Out by Natalie Walters had me hooked from the get-go. The plot is gripping and suspenseful with a modicum of romantic tension. I was on the edge or my proverbial seat! The author did a marvelous job with characterization, too; I appreciated their points of view, personalities, and emotional tells… The Hawaiian techie, Kekoa, is a hoot!

The faith elements are minimal, so this is a splendid choice for someone looking for a fast-paced thriller without gratuitous sex and violence. The tagline on her website perfectly describes what you can expect in this book: “The fight against evil and the promise of hope.” This is my first book by Natalie Walters, and she has definitely gained a new fan. Book two in The SNAP Agency series was released in May, so check out Lights Out now. 5 stars.

Published Date: November 2021
Genres: Christian fiction, Christian suspense

Read-alikes: Life Flight by Lynette Eason, End Game by Rachel Dylan, Against All Odds by Irene Hamilton

** Thanks to NetGalley and publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not required to write a positive review.

 

Man’s Search for Meaning
by Viktor E. Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is widely recognized as one of the most influential books of our time. Originally published in 1946, it chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most traumatic ones.

Frankl was so precocious and intuitive that he first spoke publicly about the meaning of life when he was only 15 years old and began corresponding with the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Upon earning his doctorate in medicine in 1930, Frankl began his medical career at the Maria Theresien Schloessl, a Neurological Hospital in Vienna founded by the Nathaniel Rothschild Foundation. In 1933 he joined the staff of the Steinhof psychiatric hospital in Vienna, where he headed the female suicide prevention program.

Then the Nazis came to power. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, they forced him to close his private practice because he was Jewish. He had to adopt the middle name “Israel” and call himself “Fachbehandler” (Specialist) instead of physician. In 1940, he was named the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, which served the Jewish population. Despite personal risk, he sabotaged Nazi attempts to euthanatize mentally ill patients. Frankl married Tilly Grosser, a nurse with whom he worked. A short time later, the Nazis force the young couple to have their child aborted.

In September 1942, the occupying forces deported Frankl and his family to Terezin Ghetto, north of Prague (also known as the Theresienstadt concentration camp), where his father died. In 1944, the surviving Frankls were taken to Auschwitz, where his 65-year-old mother was immediately sent to the gas chamber. After a few days, they transferred Frankl to a labor camp. They brought him to Kaufering and, later, Tuerkheim, subsidiary camps of Dachau in Bavaria.

On April 27, 1945, US troops liberated Tuerkheim. Viktor Frankl was devastated when he learned the Nazis had murdered his wife, father, mother, and brother. The following year, he wrote his classic book, Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager (A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp), which was published in English in 1959 as Man’s Search for Meaning. The book had sold over 16 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 24 languages.

Based on Frankl’s own experience and the stories of his patients, Man’s Search for Meaning argues that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward. He penned one profound statement after another, citing anecdotes from his life and the lives of others he met in the camps. One of his key strategies was to focus on the love he had for his wife, not knowing if she was dead or alive. “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

Overall, I had some issues with composition, but it isn’t the writing that has drawn to people to this book for decades—it is the message. “… there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” 5 stars.

Published Date: January 1946
Genres: Memoir, self-help, spirituality
Read-alikes: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand; The Happiest Man on Earth, by Eddie Jaku; The Choice by Edith Eva Eger.

 

Malibu Rising
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

How were you supposed to change—in ways both big and small—when your family was always there to remind you of exactly the person you apparently signed an ironclad contract to be?”—Taylor Jenkins Reid, Malibu Rising

 The Rivas siblings are tightly knit. Nina, the eldest, is a supermodel; Jay is a championship surfer, Hud a renowned photographer, and Kit is their adored teenaged sister. They’re a source of fascination in Malibu and the world over, especially as the offspring of the legendary singer, Mick Riva.

It’s August 1983, the day of Nina’s annual end-of-summer party. Everyone wants to be around the famous Rivas, movie stars, recording artists, authors, business tycoons, models; anyone who is anyone will be there rubbing shoulders. The only person not looking forward to the party of the year is Nina herself, who never wanted to be the center of attention, and who has just been publicly abandoned by her pro tennis player husband. Kit and Hud are also anxious about the party; they have secrets to confess. By midnight, the party is out of control. By morning, the Riva mansion has gone up in flames and the lives of the siblings are irrevocably changed.

Malibu Rising is the winner of the 2021 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction and is another bestseller for Reid. She always has fascinating plots, and this book is no exception. It describes what life is like for the rich and famous—I’ve never been either, so I assume it is accurate. She drops many famous names throughout the novel, particularly in the scenes of the party. Other than her epic plots, I am especially impressed by Reid’s characters. They are always complex and splendidly flawed, albeit not all of them are likeable. The relationships between the siblings are beautiful because of the hardship they’ve experienced together. In Malibu, there are a lot of characters, yet I could easily keep them straight. That is true writing talent.

The author uses multiple perspectives to tell the story, and alternates between the siblings’ current day lives and the story of their past: how their parents, Mick and June, met in the 1950s, fell in love, and had a tumultuous relationship. That drew me in—I truly wanted the best for them (well, except for their deadbeat dad). However, not all the scenes are realistic, one toward the end in particular, but overall, I could imagine the storyline happening in real life. But the ending… read it for the ending! 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.

Oh, I almost forgot. Fans of Daisy Jones and the Six (me, me, ME) will be pleased to hear the novel is being adapted into a limited series for Amazon. YAY!

Published Date: June 2021
Genres: Historical fiction, parallel narratives
Read-alikes: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; After Dark by Huraki Murakami; L.A. Weather by Maria Amparo Escandon; The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett; The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo.

 

The Lincoln Highway
by Amor Towles

“… in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that others have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.”―Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway is my favorite Amor Towles novel. Rules of Civility only earned three stars, and A Gentleman from Moscow was dull. I picked it up and read a few chapters, then set it down for a couple of months. Repeat. I finally finished it because so many people raved about it. Snooze. Both were stylistically complex, but just not my jam.

With The Lincoln Highway, the third time was the charm. Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles’s third novel has an array of new and rich descriptive settings, and characters about whom I cared deeply. This thought-provoking coming-of-age story is inventive, dramatic, and bittersweet, and I read it with great enthusiasm. Here’s what it’s about:

In June 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the work farm, where he has just served a year for involuntary manslaughter. His mother had abandoned the family years before, his father had just died, and the bank will foreclose the family farm upon. Emmett’s plan is to and head west with his eight-year-old brother, Billy, to California on the Lincoln Highway to search for their mother. But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two inmates have hidden themselves in the warden’s trunk. They have a plan that will change Emmett’s future. What follows is a journey nobody expects. It is an exhilarating trip through 1950s Americana.

The book wasn’t perfect, though. The author repeated the same stories from different points of view, which I found to be an irritating writing convention. Thus, my rate went from a perfect 5 to 4.5 stars. The book has inspired me to take a road trip someday along the Lincoln Highway, a 3,389-mile coast-to-coast journey from New York City to San Francisco, California. I’ll also read Towles’s next book.

Published Date: October 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Read-alikes: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips; West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge, This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

 

The Hotel Nantucket
by Elin Hilderbrand

“I’ve always thought of mosaic as this big metaphor for my life,” she says. “All these jagged, incongruous pieces…” She holds up a small shard of milky jade-green glass. “These are like the things that happen to you. But if it’s laid out a certain way and if you take a step back from it, it makes sense.”―Elin Hilderbrand, The Hotel Nantucket.

There’s nothing quite like lying on the beach soaking up some vitamin D with a great summer read. It may be the third week of August, but summer isn’t over yet—why not grab a fun beach read before daylight hours shrink too much? Elin Hilderbrand’s books are a perfect distraction. New York Magazine dubbed her the “queen of beach reads” for good reason. They are just fun… period. The Hotel Nantucket is a 2022 LibraryReads Favorite, which means librarians voted it as one of the year’s best books. I concur.

Synopsis:

After a tragic fire in 1922 that killed 19-year-old chambermaid, Grace Hadley, The Hotel Nantucket went from a gilded age gem to an abandoned eyesore. Then it was purchased and renovated by a London billionaire named Xavier Darling. He hires Nantucket native Lizbet Keaton as general manager who pulls together a dedicated staff who shares her vision of turning the fate of the hotel around: local sweethearts, a college dropout with a secret, a celebrity chef, and a renowned workout guru. Using multiple points of view, readers experience their relationship woes, the challenges of overcoming a sordid reputation, and keeping the place afloat. And then there is the loveable ghost of Grace Hadley who won’t stop haunting the hotel until people acknowledge her murder. It is going to take a 5-Keys review from undercover travel blogger, Shelly Carpenter, to put them back on the map.

The Hotel Nantucket is a breezy, fast-paced delight with just enough mystery to keep readers guessing. I just couldn’t help but root for Lizbet and her charming staff. One character even has Minnesota roots, and Hilderbrand’s references to my great state were perfect. She said, “holy buckets” just like I do… gotta love it. Incidentally, the appendix provides the scoop on where to hang out on Nantucket. After twenty-eight novels, Elin Hilderbrand plans to retire after her 2024 book, so I, for one, will check it out. The Hotel Nantucket did not disappoint. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.

Published Date: June 2022
Genre: Relationship fiction
Read-alikes: The Café by the Sea by Jenny Colgan; Hotel Portofino by J. P. O’Connell; Last Summer at the Golden Hotel by Elyssa Friedland.

** Thanks to Netflix and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions are entirely my own.

 

Sanctuary: The True Story of an Irish Village, a Man Who Lost His Way, and the Rescue Donkeys That Led Him Home
by Patrick Barrett, Susy Flory

Sanctuary is the remarkable true story of how faith turned one lost man’s life around with the help of the rescue animals who loved him.

In the small Irish village of Liscarroll, Patrick Barrett helped his family run a sanctuary for abandoned and abused donkeys. He did poorly in school and his headmaster beat him. Patrick only felt truly accepted in the presence of the donkeys and he could read their body language and communicate in ways they could understand.

Falling prey to the cultural norms of life in an Irish village, Barrett had his first drink at age seven and came to depend on alcohol to numb his anxiety. At age 19, he was involved in a drunk driving accident and enlisted in the Irish Army to avoid serving jail time. For five years, he experienced wartime horrors in Lebanon and Kosovo and returned home a broken man with PTSD. He used alcohol to medicate his pain. He turned his life around when he became a Christian while working at the donkey sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a sweet story about the love between a man and his donkeys and the intersection between faith and healing. I didn’t know people abused donkeys in Ireland and in other places around the world; some details were hard for me to read. I’m so glad Patrick’s family created a sanctuary to protect and heal them—their love for the animals shined through and pulled on my heartstrings. The Irish lilt of the audio version’s narrator was charming. I’ve written many pieces about people’s struggles with addiction and how God rescued them. In this instance, donkeys saved the author. God is so creative!

Although the book was written for an adult audience, it is appropriate for older teens and young adults. My only constructive criticism is that stories/anecdotes were used more than once. Also, on audio, the bouncing back and forth between narratives didn’t always work. Don’t let those comments stop you from reading it, though, just keeping it real. Sanctuary will make you smile. 4 stars.

Published Date: March 2022
Genre: Memoir
Read-alikes: Joey: How a Blind Rescue Horse Helped Others Learn to See by Jennifer Marshall Bleakly; Rescuing Riley, Saving Myself: A Man and His Dog’s Struggle to Find Salvation by Zak Anderegg; Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life by Shannon Kopp.

 

The Woman in the Library
by Sulari Gentill

The ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library is quiet until the tranquility is shattered by a woman’s terrified scream. Security guards take charge, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who are sitting at the same table, pass the time in conversation. Australian author Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, writer, Cain, psych graduate student Marigold, and failing law student, Whit, all have a reason for being in the reading room that morning. When they find out a body has been found, they work together to solve the crime. Freddie uses the incident as the start of her work-in-progress. Each chapter of Freddie’s book includes a letter written to famous Australian author Hannah Tigone by a dedicated fan, Leo Johnson, a fellow writer who offers to be her beta reader. So… Hannah is writing the story of Freddie Kincaid, who’s writing the story of the murder in the library. Confused? I guess you’ll have to read it!

The Woman in the Library is just the type of book I used to stay up all night reading, but now I am too old to manage it! Cleverly written, it is metafiction at its finest. What is metafiction? Basically, it is an innovative literary technique wherein an author writes about another author. It’s a book within a book, a mystery within a mystery. Gentill’s novel combines two of my favorite things: a library and a mystery. It’s an off-beat, tense whodunit with epic twists and turns that kept me guessing until the very end. The friendships between the characters are complicated and messy—part of what I enjoyed most about this book. At one point, I suspected each one of them of being the murderer. Although I had a hard time getting into the groove at first, especially when listening to the audio version, the author rewarded my patience with a surprising ending. 4 stars.

Publication Date: June 2022
Genre: Mystery, Metafiction
Read-alikes: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji; The Verifiers by Jane Pek; Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz; The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk; The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley.

 

Bloomsbury Girls
by Natalie Jenner

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare bookstore that has resisted change for a hundred years. It is run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules, but in post-war 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing. At Bloomsbury Books, the women who work in the shop have plans.

Vivien Lowry: Brilliant and stylist, Vivien has been single since her aristocratic fiancé died fighting during World War II. A budding writer, she works in the shop’s fiction department. Grace Perkins: Married with two young sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s mental breakdown in the war’s aftermath. Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, they denied Evie a position as a research assistant in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she catalogues books.

Although the business is struggling, the owner is reluctant to sell because it is a London fixture. In post-war London, these three women are determined to battle misogyny and find their own way. If they work together, their dreams just might come true. The characters all have secrets, secrets that could change their lives if exposed.

Remember on Seinfeld when Jerry and George pitched a sitcom about nothing to network executives? Well, that’s how I felt about the first half of this novel. It focused on plodding character sketches with little plot and I had a hard time keeping my mind off my grocery list. When the pace picked up, I enjoyed it. I particularly liked the literary and cultural references to Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), and Peggy Guggenheim.

The author used some clever writing conventions. For example, each chapter begins with one of the 51 rules that are posted in the bookshop and then the storyline deals with that rule. The book is richly detailed with a strong sense of place and has well-drawn characters, some delightfully unlikeable. I adored the ending. Bloomsbury Girls is a light summer read fans of The Jane Austen Society, also by Jenner, will find charming. Other reviewers liked it better; I give it 3.5 stars.

Published Date: May 2022
Genres: Canadian fiction, historical fiction
Read-alikes: Freya by Anthony Quinn; The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin; The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for review copies of the eBook and audiobook. The opinions expressed are my own.

 

The Recovery Agent
by Janet Evanovich

In this fast-paced series debut by the author of the wildly successful Stephanie Plum series, recovery agent Gabriela Rose must come up with a large sum of money to keep her family’s home from being wiped off the map after a powerful hurricane. As a recovery agent, she’s hired by individuals and companies seeking lost treasures, stolen heirlooms, or missing assets, and she’s hoping her new job will save them.

Inspired by an old family legend, Gabriela sets off for the jungles of Peru in pursuit of the Ring of Solomon and the lost treasure of Cortez, long-lost treasure of her ancestor Blackbeard the Pirate. The problem is her ex-husband, Rafer, has the map that may point to the treasure and he’s not about to let Gabriela find it without him. Even though he gets under her skin, Gabriela knows it’s going to take a team to defeat the vicious drug lord who has also been searching for the fabled ring. The duo races around the Caribbean, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, New York City, and California wine country after the ring that has purported magical powers.

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” books (I’ve read twenty-three of them). They are light, funny, and short, just what I need after a heavy book. The first installment of her new “Gabriela Rose” series is fun, too, just not AS fun. It reminded me of the Romancing the Stone starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner and the epic Indiana Jones films in book form. It has bad guys at every turn, most principally El Dragón, the spokesperson for Supay, the Incan god of death, who guards the cache of treasure. The book has loads of adventure, an on-again-off-again romance, and a ghost story all rolled into 320 pages.

With a plot like that, why didn’t I rate The Recovery Agent higher? There are a few reasons. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, which I adore. The characters aren’t as endearing or have the same chemistry; it isn’t as humorous; and there is too much plot regurgitation. What in the world does that mean? In other words, there are too many formulaic similarities: frustrated lovers who foible their relationships but rekindle the flame and the protagonists have parents and grandmothers who are involved in the adventure. One other thing—I supplemented the eBook with audio, and the talented Lorelei King narrated most of the Stephanie Plum series and The Recovery Agent, which was confusing. Is The Recovery Agent entertaining? You bet. Will I read the next installment of the “Gabriela Rose” series? Yep. But I’m a reviewer and this one only gets 3.5 stars.

Published Date: March 2022
Genre: Mystery
Read-alikes: Something Wilder by Christina Lauren; Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb by Jay Stringer, The Antiquities Hunter by Maya Kaathrine Bohnhoff.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of the book.

 

Little Souls
by Sandra Dallas

“… It means the poor, the hopeless, the common people nobody ever notices. In truth, it applies to all of us. We are all lost little souls in our own way.”—Sandra Dallas, Little Souls

Sisters Helen and Lutie move to Denver from Iowa after their parents’ deaths. Helen, a nurse, and Lutie, a carefree advertising illustrator at a fashionable women’s store, share a small home and rent out the basement apartment. But the epidemic hits hard. Schools are converted into hospitals, churches and funeral homes are closed, and horse-drawn wagons collect corpses left in the street. When their tenant dies from the flu, the sisters care for the woman’s young daughter, Dorothy. Soon after, Lutie comes home from work and discovers a dead man on their kitchen floor and Helen standing above the body, an icepick in hand. What the sisters discover is heart wrenching and disturbing on many levels. While Little Souls is peppered with tragedy, the message of hope permeates the sorrow.

First off, I adored the historical perspective Sandra Dallas provided about World War I and the Spanish Flu outbreak in Denver, details I’d not read elsewhere. In one scene, she used the term “blue devil” for those experiencing grief and/or depression. Isn’t that descriptive? The relationship between the sisters was a thing of beauty; they would have done anything for each other.

I sure wanted to like this book more. Unfortunately, I found it to be predictable and lacking in depth. I was shocked Dallas overused “that,” which is a rookie writing mistake. She’s far from a rookie: she is the New York Times best-selling author of fifteen adult novels, two young reader novels, and two non-fiction books. The writing was so saccharine I literally rolled my eyes a time or two, but the storyline itself was a winner. 3.5 stars.

Published Date: April 2022
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner; The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue; The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for review copies of the eBook and audiobook. The opinions expressed here are my own.

 

Happy reading!

Amy

 

 

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