January 2022 Book Reviews

What a great month of reading! I gobbled up thrillers and suspense, historical fiction, a children’s book, and Christian fiction. I laughed, I cried, I was inspired, and I learned. Who could ask for more? Here are my reviews from my favorite to my least favorite.

 

Whose Waves These Are
By Amanda Dykes

“He would never forget the impression of that voice on his heart. It was the voice of the man, who, king of the universe, stooped to wash his own disciples’ earth crusted feet. Who rubbed spit into dirt and used the mud to make a blind man see. Whose royal day of birth was enrobed in dust, right there with the animals in a barn. That man was accustomed to doing great things in humble places, and it usually involved dirt. or rocks, as it were. The same God who told a solitary man to build a boat to prepare for a flood when no one had so much as seen a drop of water fall from the sky in all their lives.”  ― Amanda Dykes, Whose Waves These Are

In the wake of WWII, a grieving fisherman submits a poem to a local newspaper asking readers to send rocks in honor of loved ones to create something life-giving—but the building halts when tragedy strikes. Decades later, Annie returns to the coastal Maine town when she learns her great-uncle Robert, the man who became her refuge during the hardest summer of her youth, is now the one in need of help. What she didn’t expect was finding a wall of heavy boxes hiding in his home. Long-ago memories of stone ruins on a nearby island trigger her curiosity, igniting a fire in her anthropologist soul to uncover answers.

Amanda Dykes knocked it out of the park with Whose Waves These Are. The story is so beautiful it changed me. It inspired me. It made me weep. Her book made me feel warm inside and her words were medicine for my weary soul. I could feel God in them. And her writing is gorgeous; lyrical and sweeping. I like to highlight passages when I read for later reflection, but if I did that with this book, my eBook would have been more yellow than not. Don’t even get me started on her characterization. I fell in love with the people and their way of life. I envied their sense of quiet contentment. Her writing was a little heavy on the passive voice, but it was otherwise so beautiful I hardly noticed. I met Amanda years ago at a writer’s retreat. She is a real sweetheart and I’m thrilled she has found her literary voice. Her debut novel, Whose Waves These Are, was the winner of the prestigious 2020 Christy Award Book of the Year, a Booklist 2019 Top Ten Romance debut, and the winner of an INSPY award. Read this one! An enthusiastic 5 stars.

Publication Date: April 2019
Genre: Christian historical fiction
Read-alikes: Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer, The Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron, The Sea Before Us by Sarah Sundin

 

The Wonder of Creation: 100 More Devotions About God and Science
By Louie Giglio, Tama Fortner (With), Nicola Anderson (Illustrations)

In The Wonder of Creation, children will find new delight in God’s creativity with 100 devotions that explore animals, space, people, and Earth. With engaging illustrations and striking photography, each devotion features a scientific fact or a simple activity for exploring faith, a short Bible verse, and a closing prayer. The Wonder of Creation is ideal for science-loving kids, Bible-loving kids, and any child ready to go deeper in faith. As kids explore this awe-inspiring devotional, they’ll be amazed at the many wonders God has made.

I highly recommend this book for families to use as a devotional at the start of the day, or as a powerful wrap up the day before little ones drift off to sleep. Just imagine what they will dream about. It’s attention-grabbing, entertaining, colorful, fascinating, and worshipful as each short devotional points clearly back to our creative God. He didn’t have to make our world so cool, but He sure did! I enjoyed it so much, I bought a copy for my seven-year-old granddaughter. Shoot, this book isn’t just for kids, it is for all of us!  5 stars.

Publication Date: November 2021
Genre: Picture book, children’s nonfiction, Christian devotionalRead-Alikes: How Great Is Our God: 100 Indescribable Devotions About God and Science by Louie Giglio, Our Daily Bread for Kids by Crystal Bowman, Indescribable: 100 Devotions for Kids About God and Science by Louie Giglio

 

The Man Who Died Twice
By Richard Osman

“More women are murdering people these days,” says Joyce. “If you ignore the context, it is a real sign of progress.” Richard Osman, The Man Who Died Twice.

In this second installment, the Thursday Murder Club takes on the Mafia, hunts for stolen diamonds, investigates a murder or two, and avenges the brutal mugging of one of their own. Former MI5 spy Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake and his life is in danger. As bodies start piling up, she enlists fellow Club members: retired nurse Joyce Meadowcroft, psychiatrist Ibrahim Arif, political activist Ron Ritchie, and three honorary members, fixer Bogdan Jankowski, Detective Chief Inspector Chris Hudson, and Police Constable Donna De Freitas. But this time, they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four senior citizens. Can Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

The Man Who Died Twice is an intricately woven whodunit with delightful characters and witty dialogue, a laugh-out-loud, quirky gem I couldn’t put down. There were so many twists and turns that I was guessing until the very last pages. The friendships between the septuagenarian sleuths are poignant and added depth to the eccentric novels. Of course, I loved that the primary character was a woman of a certain age. Book #2 was even better than the first — great entertainment during trying times. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.

Published Date: September 2021
Genre: Mystery
Read-alikes: Celine by Peter Heller, Before She was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney, The Man with the Silver Saab by Alexander Smith McCall, Bryant & May by Christopher Fowler

 

Game On: Tempting Twenty-Eight
By Janet Evanovich

“You’re carrying concealed without a permit.” “It’s okay,” Lula said. “It’s like common-law marriage. After a certain amount of time, it gets to be legal, and you don’t need the paper.” Janet Evanovich, Game On.

When Stephanie Plum is woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of footsteps in her apartment, she wishes she didn’t keep her gun in the cookie jar in her kitchen. And when she finds out the intruder is fellow apprehension agent Diesel, six feet of hard muscle and bad attitude who she hasn’t seen in over two years, she still thinks the gun might come in handy.

Turns out Diesel and Stephanie are on the trail of the same fugitive: Oswald Wednesday, an international computer hacker as brilliant as he is ruthless. Stephanie may not be the most technologically savvy sleuth, but she more than makes up for that with her dogged determination, her understanding of human nature, and her willingness to do just about anything to bring a fugitive to justice. Unsure if Diesel is her partner or her competition in this case, she’ll need to watch her back every step of the way as she sets the stage to draw Wednesday out from behind his computer and into the real world.

If you’ve never read a Stephanie Plum novel, you should! They are funny, upbeat, and irreverent, and will keep you entertained from the very first sentence. Who is Stephanie Plum, you ask? Well, she is a sassy bond enforcement agent for her sleazy cousin Vinnie’s bail bond business in Trenton, New Jersey. She is in one scape after or another, but is always rescued by her police detective boyfriend, Joe Morelli, or hunky fellow bondsman and security expert, Ranger. She gets help from a hooker named Lula, and her Grandma Mazur, who is always on top of the latest Burg gossip in this wildly successful series. Author Janet Evanovich’s books are so popular, in fact, that the initial print run on #28 was 1 million copies. Evanovich is in top form on this one. It’s madcap, twisty, and just plain fun. You can easily read one of her fast-paced novels in a day or two. 4.5 stars.

Published Date: November 2021
Genre: Mysteries, Chic Lit
Read-alikes: Finlay Donovan novels by Elle Cosimano, A bad day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones, Kate Hollow mysteries by Charlotte Hughes

 

The Christie Affair
By Nina de Gramont

I know a book is going to be good when it begins like this:

“A long time ago, in another country, I nearly killed a woman. It’s a particular feeling, the urge to murder. It takes over your body so completely, it’s like a divine force, grabbing hold of your will, your limbs, your psyche. There’s a joy to it. In retrospect, it’s frightening, but I daresay in the moment it feels sweet. The way justice feels sweet.” Nina de Gramont, The Christie Affair. 

The Christie Affair is a reimagining of one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century. At 9:30 pm on December 3, 1926, English crime novelist Agatha Christie kissed her sleeping seven-year-old daughter, Rosalind, goodnight and then she climbed into her car and drove off into the night. No one would see her for 11 days. More than a thousand police officers, hundreds of civilians, and even airplanes searched for her. Rumors circulated she had either committed suicide, been murdered by her philandering husband, or disappeared as a publicity stunt to promote her new book. Christie never spoke about the missing eleven days of her life.

Part mystery, part biographical fiction, The Christie Affair is a clever, mesmerizing read written by a talented novelist. Here’s an example of her great writing: “Bad luck clung to the ceilings like billows of smoke.” Nina de Gramont brilliantly weaves together two storylines, that of Agatha Christie, and the backstory of her husband’s mistress, Nan O’Dea. I read the book and listened to the audiobook. Both were splendid. 4.5 stars.

Published Date: February 1, 2022
Genre: Biographical fiction, historical fiction, historical mystery
Read-alikes: The Seven Husbands or Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline, Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict.

 

Becoming Mrs. Lewis
By Patti Callahan

“Maybe you aren’t doubting that God will do the best for you, but wondering how painful the best might be.” ― Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis

When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis, she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford legend and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy.

My daughter suggested I read Becoming Mrs. Lewis, so I added it to my ridiculously long TBR pile. I’m glad I did. I’ve long been a fan of C. S. Lewis. He was such a wise, faithful man, and he had a tremendous gift for breaking down the gospel in profound ways. After reading this book, I figure it’s about time I read more of his work. Equally profound was the friendship he shared with Joy Davidman. I think we all wish for a friend with whom we can share everything and have intellectual discussions about God and humankind. I’d like to read more material about the relationship these two shared; Joy wasn’t a very likeable person in the novel, and I wonder if that depiction is accurate. Patti Callahan did a fine job on this book, although it was a slow burn that dragged on longer than necessary. Overall, I’d give it 4 stars.

 

The Guide
By Peter Heller

“And a spiderweb’s gleamings in the exposed roots of a cut bank. And in a tailwater pool: the spreading rings of rising trout, dapping silently like slow rain.” Peter Heller, The Guide.

Guess what I know about fly-fishing? Zip. Nada. Diddly squat. But it didn’t matter because Peter Heller told me all about it. Have I been to a fancy resort for the uber-wealthy in the Colorado wilderness? Nope, but Peter Heller told me all about it. Kingfisher Lodge, boutique fishing at its finest, is nestled in a canyon along the most pristine river water on the planet and locked behind a heavy gate. Sandwiched between barbed wire and a meadow with a sign that reads Don’t Get Shot! Kingfisher offers a respite from Covid for wealthy clients and for newly arrived fishing guide, Jack, a return to normalcy. Jack has lost both his mother and his best friend and blames himself for both deaths, heavy emotional baggage for a young man to carry. When he is assigned to guide a well-known singer, his only job is to rig her line, carry her gear, and steer her to the best trout he can find. Then a scream pierces the night.

The Guide is intricately plotted, with a lush, lyrical, poetic style. Heller’s vivid descriptions of the gorgeous setting made me feel as if I was there, not reading about it here on the flat plains of Minnesota. It’s an unconventional, fast-paced thriller without the gore factor, which is always a plus. Another bonus? It is about Covid three years in the future, but the virus is not a major plot point. Other novels I’ve recently read dwell on it, as if we don’t hear enough about it in our everyday lives. By the way, although The Guide is a follow-up to The River, it works as a standalone. I didn’t think I’d like the novel at first because it was about a fly-fishing—sheesh, I don’t even like trout—but by the time I finished the book, I thought standing in a cold river flicking a fly rod sounded like a great idea. This was my first book by Peter Heller, and it won’t be my last. 4 stars.

Publication Date: August 2021
Genre: Thriller and Suspense
Read-alikes: A Solitude of Wolverines by Alice Henderson, Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin, Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

 

Painting the Light
By Sally Cabot Gunning 

Martha’s Vineyard, 1898. In her first life, Ida Russell was a painter, who confidently walked the halls of Boston’s renowned Museum School, enrolling in art courses that were once deemed “unthinkable” for women to take, and showing a budding talent for watercolors. Now she is Ida Pease, resident of a seaside sheep farm and wife to Ezra. Cold and distant, Ezra often leaves her to run the farm while he and his business partner, Mose, operate their salvage vessel. Then Ezra and Mose’s ship goes down, with all passengers presumed dead, and Ida feels relief rather than loss. What follows is her new story, the one she was meant to live.

Painting the Light is beautifully rendered and atmospheric. Ida is no shrinking violet; she is strong, capable, and spirited with a powerful talent. She doesn’t buckle under the criticism of the townspeople when she wears trousers, rides a bike, makes her own decisions about the farm… and falls in love. In short, she is captivating. It is an absorbing read in a bucolic setting with interesting twists. One thing I know for sure—sheep farming is not for me. 4 stars.

Publication Date: June 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: Emily’s House by Amy Belding, You Were There Too by Colleen Oakley, Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict, The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

 

The Woman with the Blue Star
By Pam Jenoff

“Freedom is where you find it,” my father often said when I complained. Papa had a way of seeing the world exactly as he wanted. “The greatest prison is in our mind.” — Pam Jenoff, The Woman with the Blue Stars

Sadie Gault is eighteen and living with her parents amid the horrors of the Kraków Ghetto during World War II. When the Nazis liquidate the ghetto, Sadie and her parents are forced to seek refuge in the perilous sewers beneath the city. Ella Stepanek is an affluent Polish girl living with her stepmother, who has developed close alliances with the occupying Germans. Longing for her fiancé, who has gone off to war, Ella wanders Kraków restlessly. While on an errand in the market, she glimpses something moving beneath a grate in the street. Upon closer inspection, she realizes it’s a girl.

To be a Jew hiding from the Nazis during World War II Poland would have been terrifying, but to be forced to hide in the sewers beneath a bustling city of 250,000 people would have been beyond revolting. Can you imagine the stench of a roiling river of excrement? What little food you had and the clothing you wore would be tainted. There would be no fresh air, no hope, no joy. It would be claustrophobic and cold. You would have no idea what was occurring on the streets above you. The sense of despair must have been unimaginable. Yet, some survived despite their circumstances.

Such is the backdrop of The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff, to date, her most highly rated novel on Goodreads. With each WWII book I read, I learn something new. For example, I didn’t know that different countries/regions used different versions of a “Jewish Star.” I didn’t know people were so desperate they hid in sewers for years at a time. Her characterization was splendid, as was the revulsion of those who lived underground. The heroic actions of the Poles who rescued them reminded me of the good in humanity. Although the plot was appropriately intense, it was just too much. Too tragic, too melodramatic, and too redundant. 4 stars.

Publication Date: May 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer, The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford, We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

 

The Vanished Days
By Susanna Kearsley

“It’s a shame that we cannot reclaim those vanished days, and try to live them better”
― Susanna Kearsley, The Vanished Days

Scotland, 1707. Queen Anne’s commissioners have paid out money sent up from London to settle the losses and wages owed to Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier, an ill-fated venture that left Scotland all but bankrupt. When the young widow of a Darien sailor comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, they challenge her claim. The man assigned to investigate has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are blinding him to the truth.

First off, a disclaimer. I am a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which has likely influenced my review of The Vanished Days, another sweeping historical saga set in Scotland. If only one of the main characters wasn’t named Jamie and there wasn’t a Jacobite tie-in.

The Vanished Days has a completely different voice. I enjoyed the first-person narrative, and the author handily balanced dual timelines, but my mind often wandered. Then wham! A delightful twisty ending. As with most reads, I alternated between the eBook and the audio version. Narrator Robert Ian Mackenzie is extraordinarily talented (his Scottish brogue… be still my heart), but in this case, I recommend reading the book to better follow the intricate plot. 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars.

Publication Date: October 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg, The Pretender’s Lady by Alan Gold, The Rebel Wears Plaid by Eliza Knight

 

The Last Thing He Told me
by Laura Dave

Owen Michaels, a coder for a prominent tech company, vanishes just before his boss is arrested for corruption. He leaves two things behind: A duffle bag full of cash for his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, and a cryptic note to Hannah, his beloved wife of one year: Protect her. Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. Despite their complicated relationship, Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth and find some surprises along the way.

The author deftly handled Hannah’s dual timelines, which alternate between Hannah’s early days with Owen and her current hunt for him. I loved some parts of the book, but some made me roll my eyes. I wasn’t keen on the quick timeline shifts: two days before, six months before, etc. it was hard to keep the narrative straight. Some scenes were convoluted and awkwardly written, but all-in-all, it was a fast-paced read with a touch of danger. Fans clearly loved The Last Thing He Told Me—it won the Goodreads Choice Award for Mystery & Thriller in 2021. 4 stars for plot, 3 stars for writing.

Publication Date: May 2021
Genre: Suspense, thriller
Read-alikes: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown, No One Knows by J. T. Ellison, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

 

Sousanna: The Lost Daughter
By Sousanna Stratmann

“I came to understand that people must often make desperate decisions in desperate times; that we cannot scorn someone without understanding what brought that person to that place; that good people sometimes make bad decisions; that words spoken over children have lasting effects on their destiny; and most of all, that war, love, greed, desperation, and determination each have effects that last for generations.”—Sousanna Stratmann, Sousanna: The Lost Daughter.

Five-year-old Sousanna is often cold and always hungry, but she’s happy living in post-WWII Greece with her loving family. Then one day a stranger approaches Sousanna’s father with a startling proposition, made bearable only by the assurance that the situation is temporary. She is taken from her home and adopted by an American couple. How will she endure being alone in this strange place, where her culture, her language, and even her name are taken from her? How will her parents ever find her?

We read Sousanna in my book club, and the author joined us via Zoom. I was especially interested in learning why she wrote her story as a novel, but over ninety percent of it is about her life. Like many memoirists, she was concerned that her memories might be flawed. Since most of the books I collaborate on are narrative nonfiction or memoir, I was eager to read it. Sousanna Stratmann is a lovely Christian woman whose childhood was heart-wrenching in so many ways, yet she is happy and content despite her tragic beginning. She quotes Apostle Paul: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

The book is fast-paced and gripping, and while I was reading it, I thought about my five grandchildren who range in age between 1 and 7 and I wept for the “what ifs.” The terror little Sousanna experienced is beyond my imagination. The average rating my fellow bookies gave Sousanna was 4. I was the odd woman out. I’m a professional writer and editor, and although the story was excellent, the writing was not. It was simplistic and choppy, and there were typos and errors an editor should have caught. The multiple narratives would have been more effective had the author written them in first-person. 4 stars for content, 2.5 stars for execution for an overall rating of 3 stars.

Publication Date: October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction

 

 

 

 

 

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