Here you go fellow travelers, the books I read in November. It’s a lighter list than is typical for me, but Thanksgiving with the family is a more about food and fun than reading, right? This month I discovered many new authors—Karin Slaughter, Sunjeev Sahota, Erin Bartels, Alison Gaylin, Steve Pope, Emma Brodie, David R. Boyd, and Adele Myers—the advantage of receiving advance reader copies. Some of them I will definitely read again, but there were a couple clunkers. Read on to find out which ones.
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection.
But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white—her complexion is dark because she is African American.
The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths to which she must go—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives
I’d been looking forward to reading this novel for months. Although I received an advance reader copy some time ago, I’d been waiting for the audiobook as I enjoy alternating between the two. This is my third Marie Benedict book and thus far my favorite. Partially because of the subject, but also because her partnership with Victoria Christopher Murray lent a depth to the writing I haven’t seen in her solo work.
This novel is fascinating. I love historical fiction because I am transported to an unfamiliar place and time, and I always learn something (I’m great at a cocktail party). The authors clearly did extensive research to present the story, but also to delve into the world of rare books and art. It is a wonderful retrospective of many famous people, sung and unsung, and I especially enjoyed learning about the main character, Belle da Costa Greene, who possessed qualities I so admire in women operating in a man’s world. She had pluck, courage, intelligence, flair, cunning, and guttural instincts, and she found success despite having to hide her identity—she fooled her employer, competitors, business associates, even intimate partners for decades. That level of secrecy must have been terribly stressful. Not only did she sacrifice her ethnicity for career success, her fear of discovery also affected her romantic life. She couldn’t be herself with anyone other than her family. (I do wish, however, that her “passing” wasn’t mentioned so many times. It was redundant, and readers clearly understood the premise.)
It is also an interesting character study of financier J.P. Morgan, a man who was bigoted and ruthless, yet trusted Belle implicitly to negotiate in his stead. A woman with that level of influence in the early 1900s was unheard of!
As an aside, I’m one of those book nerds who enjoys reading the author’s note as much as the narrative. In this case there were two, so it was double the fun. I thought they were over the top, though; too long, and too focused on racial issues rather than of the broader context of the novel. There was more to Belle da Costa Greene than the color of her skin.
The Personal Librarian is an absorbing read by talented storytellers, and it lives up to the hype. Oh, and the audiobook’s narrator is excellent. 4.5 stars.
False Witness by Karin Slaughter
Leigh Coulton has worked hard to build what looks like a normal life. She has a good job as a defense attorney, a daughter doing well in school, and even her divorce is relatively civilized – her life is just as unremarkable as she’d always hoped it would be.
Then a case lands on her desk defending a wealthy man accused of rape. It’s the highest profile case she’s ever received, a case that could transform her career if she wins. But when she meets the accused, she realizes it’s no coincidence that he’s chosen her as his attorney. She knows him. And he knows her. More to the point, he knows what happened twenty years ago, and why Leigh has spent two decades running.
Whew, what a ride! Karin Slaughter can certainly write a crime thriller. With a last name like hers, what else would she write? False Witness is fast-paced and intricately plotted, and her characters are flawed and authentic. If you’re a fan of legal thrillers and psychological suspense and don’t mind gruesome murder scenes, (think Scott Turow, John Grisham, Nancy Grace, Mary Higgins Clark, Lee Child, John Sanford) you’re going to love this one. How do writers come up with this stuff? 4.5 stars
The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel
After being stolen from her wealthy German parents and raised in the unforgiving wilderness of eastern Europe, Yona finds herself alone in 1941 after her kidnapper dies. Her solitary existence is interrupted; however, she encounters a group of Jewish refugees in the forest and shows them how to evade the Nazis and survive the harsh winters. But when she is betrayed and escapes into a German-occupied village, her past and present come collide, putting her and the group in danger.
Author Kristin Harmel instantly captured my attention and held it until the last syllable of her latest novel. Her research is impressive: not only did she dig into how Jews evaded the Nazis by hiding in the wilderness, but she also took a deep dive into how to live off the land—what foods to eat, how to make and use holistic medications, how to build camouflaging shelters, and how to forage and hunt—while running for your life. It is evocative, haunting, and heart-wrenching, but ultimately triumphant. Highly recommended. 4.5 stars. Not perfect, but pretty darn close.
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Black Swan of Paris (Karen Robards), The Last Train to London (Meg Waite Clayton), Dragonfly (Leila Meacham), The World That We Once Knew (Alice Hoffman), A Boy in Winter (Rachel Seiffert), We Were the Lucky Ones (Georgia Hunter), The Girl from the Channel Islands (Jenny Lecoat)
All That We Carried by Erin Bartels
Always being on guard against what might happen to you seems like kind of an exhausting way to live. When you block out the possibility of bad surprises, don’t you lose the possibility of good surprises too? Erin Bartels, All That We Carried
Ten years ago, sisters Olivia and Melanie Greene were on a backcountry hiking trip when their parents were killed in a car accident. Over the years, they grew apart, each coping with the loss in her own way. Olivia plunged herself into law school, work, and an atomistic view of the world—what you see is what you get, and that’s all you get. Melanie dropped out of college and developed an online life-coaching business around her cafeteria-style spirituality—a little of this, a little of that, whatever makes you happy.
Now, at Melanie’s insistence (and against Olivia’s better judgment), they are embarking on a hike in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In this remote wilderness they’ll face their deepest fears, question their most dearly held beliefs, and begin to see that perhaps the best way to move forward is the one way they had never considered.
It would be fun to go on a hiking trip with my sister, what with the bonding and all, except…
- We would starve to death–beef jerky and dried berries is no way to live.
- Neither of us would poop in the woods–you’re supposed to carry your shovel and bury your s**t.
- A wild animal would eat us, or at least maul us–and we’ve spent some serious money on these complexions.
- We’d whine incessantly–and try to top each other’s problems.
- We’d get lost–map reading is not our spiritual gift and Siri doesn’t answer questions in the wilderness.
- Sleeping in a tent is a big downer–my back hurts just thinking about it.
- We’re sissies–actually, that is a reason all on its own.
In other words, camping is not our jam. It didn’t work out too well for Olivia and Melanie Green, the protagonists in All That We Carried, either. Bartels’ book is a wonderful treatise on the power of forgiveness, the true beauty in our differences, and the complexities of grief, faith, and sisterhood. Since I probably won’t be hiking in the UP anytime soon, I appreciated the author’s vivid portrait of the Porcupine Mountain in the autumn. “Beech and birch trees shone bright yellow against the pines and firs, and shocks of red sumac rose like waves along the roadside.” Or this: “White foam tinged with brown from the tannins that leeched from the cedar trees, like a river of root beer.” I could visualize the landscape, hear the river rapids, smell the leaves crushing beneath my feet, and hear the buzz of the insects swarming around my head.
One of my favorite parts of her book is in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements. Here’s how she gives credit to God: “May you be my compass when I stray, my helper when I stumble, and ever the object of my deepest devotion.” Amen sister, Amen. This was my first book by Erin Bartels and won’t be my last. 4 stars.
Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
The year is 1969, and the Bayleen Island Folk Fest is abuzz with one name: Jesse Reid. He is poised to tip from fame to legend with this one headlining performance until his motorcycle crashes on the way to the show. Jane Quinn is a Bayleen Island local whose music flows as naturally as her long blond hair. When she and her bandmates are asked to play in Jesse Reid’s place at the festival, it almost doesn’t seem real. But she plants her bare feet on the Main Stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime. A star is born.
Jesse stays on the island to recover from his near-fatal accident, and he strikes up a friendship with Jane, coaching her through the production of her first record. As Jane contends with the music industry’s sexism, Jesse becomes her advocate, and what begins as a shared calling soon becomes a passionate love affair. On tour with Jesse, Jane is so captivated by the giant stadiums, the late nights, the wild parties, and the media attention that she is blind-sided when she stumbles on the dark secret beneath Jesse’s music. With nowhere to turn, Jane must reckon with the shadows of her own past; what follows is the birth of one of most iconic albums of all time.
I didn’t know what to expect based on the inventive title, but Songs in Ursa Major is a richly crafted debut novel, and it was a pleasure to read a novel so well written and edited. After checking out the author’s bio, I understood why it was so well done. Emma Brodie is a pro. An executive editor at Little Brown’s Voracious imprint, she has been in the publishing business for ten years.
Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?
It is bittersweet and unconventional, both qualities I admire in a book. I also appreciate learning something as I read. Here, I developed a limited understanding of the inner workings of the music business and the power agents and labels wield over their artists. Being a recording artist—or any kind of artist—isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s hard work that may never pay dividends. I should say, however, that there is too much detail on music, how to write a song, for example, and while citing fictional song lyrics illustrates the author’s creativity, they became tedious, and I eventually skipped past them.
There is also a romantic element to the novel, a complicated, messy one that is more akin to real life that most “romance novels.” (Incidentally, the chatter out there is that the relationship between Jane and Jesse is based on that between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.) Oh, I almost forgot, there is even something for mystery buffs out there. I anticipate more great books by Emma Brodie down the line. 4 stars.
Genre: Historical fiction, Romance
Read-alikes: Daisy Jones & the Six (Taylor Jenkins, Reid), The Story of John Nightly (Tot Taylor), and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Dawnie Walton)
The Collective by Alison Gaylin
“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I’ll stay there forever.” Alison Gaylin, The Collective
Camille Gardner is a grieving—and angry—mother who, five years after her daughter’s death, is still obsessed with the privileged young man she believes to be responsible. When her rash actions attract the attention of a secret group of women—the collective—Camille is drawn into a dark web where these mothers share their desire for justice in a world where privilege denies accountability and perpetrators emerge unscathed. Fueled by mutual rage, these women orchestrate their own brand of justice through precise, anonymous, complexly plotted and perfectly executed revenge killings, with individual members completing a specific and integral task in each plan. Becoming more deeply enmeshed in the group, Camille learns truths about the collective—and about herself—that she may not be able to survive.
The Collective is a propulsive read that is at once dark and disturbing, while at the same time thought-provoking. Could I ever kill someone if he or she had intentionally caused my child’s death? Could I play a role in the murder of a person who had caused the death of another mother’s son or daughter? Heck no, I can barely step on a spider. But reading about women who plot to do it was morbidly fascinating. Gaylin has written an intense, first-class novel that will have you wringing your hands to find out what happens next. Yeah, I liked it. 4 stars.
The Judge’s List by John Grisham
Lacy Stoltz is tired of her work for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct and ready for a change. Then she meets a mysterious woman who is so frightened she uses several aliases. Jeri Crosby’s father was murdered twenty years earlier in a case that remains unsolved and that has grown stone cold. But Jeri has a suspect whom she has become obsessed with and has stalked for two decades. Along the way, she has discovered other victims. He is a sitting judge, which puts him in Lacy’s jurisdiction. He has a list, with the names of his victims and targets, all unsuspecting people unlucky enough to have crossed his path and wronged him in some way.
Grisham fans champ at the bit every time he releases a new book. It’s obvious why; he has written more than thirty novels, all of which have been international bestsellers. This one is a little grislier than others I’ve read… it is about a serial killer, after all, but it has the key hallmark of a great Grisham novel: corruption. It is dramatic, suspenseful, and fast-paced, with likeable characters (except for the murderer, of course) and I tore through it. 4 stars.
Genre: Legal Thriller
For fans of: James Patterson, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline, Michael Connelly, and Phillip Margolin
The Tobacco Wives by Adele Myers
This historical debut set in 1946 North Carolina follows a young female seamstress who uncovers dangerous truths about the Big Tobacco empire ruling the American South. Maddie Sykes has just arrived in Bright Leaf, North Carolina—the tobacco capital of the South—where her aunt has a thriving sewing business. She is dazzled by the bustle of the crisply uniformed female factory workers, the palatial homes, and, most of all, her aunt’s clientele: the wives of the powerful tobacco executives. But she soon learns the town isn’t quite the carefree paradise; it seems a trail of misfortune follows many of the women, including substantial health problems. Maddie wants to report what she knows, but in a town where everyone depends on Big Tobacco to survive, she doesn’t know who she can trust.
Tobacco Wives is a fascinating look at the power behind Big Tobacco after World War II that has frightening similarities to the role Big Pharma plays today. It’s about the opulence of a bygone era, the influence of the social elite, the dominion of the region’s largest employer, and the gutsy young woman who stands up to them both. The book didn’t have the depth I was hoping for, and the first half was sluggish, but I learned a great deal about the tobacco industry’s fall from grace and the postwar culture of the American South. 4 stars.
Genre: Historical Fiction
For Fans of: Fiona Davis and Lisa Wingate
Thirst for Justice by David R. Boyd
Michael MacDougall is a talented trauma surgeon whose life in Seattle is slowly unraveling. Frustrated as an ER doctor and with his marriage in trouble, he volunteers with a medical aid charity in the Congo. Once back home in Seattle, he is haunted by his experiences in Africa and what he sees as society’s failure to provide humanitarian aid to those who most desperately need it. Locked in a downward spiral, he becomes obsessed with making his government listen to him and dreams up an act of terrorism to shock everyone into listening.
I love a good legal thriller. The plot of Thirst for Justice is unique and intriguing, fast-paced and thought-provoking, like something ripped out of today’s headlines. For me, one of the biggest benefits of being a bookie is learning something new, and boy-oh-boy, do I feel enlightened about the humanitarian crisis in Africa, environmental law, and bioterrorism. The problem with David Boyd’s novel is that it’s an obvious debut full of rookie writing missteps. What bothered me most was how much time he spent describing minutia throughout the book. I wanted to don my editor’s hat and take out my electronic red pencil to fix it. All-in-all, though, it is a pretty good first novel. I bet his next one will be even better. 3.5 stars.
Genres: Legal thriller, political thriller
Read-alike Authors: Robin Cook, John Grisham, Scott Turow, William Deverell Daniel Palmer
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
“What remained was a feeling of quiet rapture, of dawn colours slowly involving themselves with the day, a champagne brightness starting to warm my skin and the waving acres of corn and wheat, the soft green hills that followed no pattern, a distant stone hut that held the horizon and a long tapered track driving on until I couldn’t even imagine that I could see it. The orange sun broke upwards and placed, and they did seem placed, great beams of light across all that waiting land. For the first time in my life I had a sense of the world turning. All these years later and I can still see myself standing there, spellbound, marveling, my breath taken.” Sunjeev Sahota, China Room
Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. Married to three brothers in a single ceremony, she and her now-sisters spend their days hard at work sequestered from contact with the men—except when their domineering mother-in-law, Mai, summons them to a darkened chamber at night. Curious and strong willed, Mehar tries to piece together what Mai doesn’t want her to know. From beneath her veil, she studies the sounds of the men’s voices, the calluses on their fingers as she serves them tea. Soon she glimpses something that seems to confirm which of the brothers is her husband, and a series of events is set in motion that will put more than one life at risk. As the early stirrings of the Indian independence movement rise around her, Mehar must weigh her own desires against the reality—and danger—of her situation.
Spiraling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who arrives at his uncle’s house in Punjab in the summer of 1999, hoping to shake an addiction that has held him in its grip for more than two years. Growing up in small-town England as the son of an immigrant shopkeeper, his experiences of racism, violence, and estrangement from the culture of his birth led him to seek a dangerous form of escape. As he rides out his withdrawal at his family’s ancestral home—an abandoned farmstead, its china room mysteriously locked and barred—he begins to knit himself back together, gathering strength for the journey home.
China Room reminded me of the lack of control women have had over their own lives throughout history and that continues to this day in many cultures. It’s hard to fathom that Mehar and her sisters-in-law didn’t even know who their husbands were. Their primary roles were to submit to their husbands and produce male heirs. This subjugation came from another woman, which was even more disturbing. The book also opened my eyes to the racism people of Indian descent experienced as recently as twenty years ago and the horror of self-detoxing from heroin without the help of withdrawal medication. 3 stars.
Creatures of Habit: Breaking the Habits Holding You Back from God’s Best by Steve Poe
“So how do you know if you are self-centered? Ask yourself if these things are true in your life: Do you often become defensive? Do you blame everyone else for your problems? Do you have a hard time cooperating with others at work? Are your conversations usually about yourself?” ~ Steve Poe, Creatures of Habit.
In Creatures of Habit, Pastor Steve Poe helps Christians identify and break free from the destructive patterns that are keeping them from the joy-filled, flourishing life Jesus promised. True transformation is God’s work—our job is to listen, obey, and put into practice what he’s already directing us to do.
Steve Poe has been a pastor for over thirty-four years, and during that time, he has counseled hundreds of people. He’s seen that poor choices often become bad habits that, in turn, cause people a lot of problems. Hundreds of things can become a bad habit in our lives, but Poe focuses on the most common, among them: anger, lust, worry, cynicism, pride, self-centeredness, and greed.
So, before I started writing this review, I took a deep breath. It’s hard for me to write a negative review, especially when it is a book about Jesus penned by a man of God. I hope my constructive comments are helpful, not hurtful. My intention was to read a chapter at night as my devotions. But I just couldn’t do it. It would be days between chapters.
First off, let me say that there were some real nuggets of wisdom in this book, and I often felt convicted. I filled my copy with yellow highlighting. The problem I had was with the writing. Some chapters would make wonderful sermons addressed to seekers, but I found the content too simplistic and longed for more meat. There were many grammatical errors, too many quotes from other people, too many lists separated by too many commas, too much hyperbole, and too many platitudes.
One of the author’s biggest faux pas was that most of his illustrations were about or for men, rather than for a broader audience. A few other things made me angry (I know, that’s a bad habit). In the chapter about anger, Poe wrote, “Some have said depression is actually anger turned inwards.” Who in the world said that? According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in fifteen adults suffer from depression in any given year, including me. I imagine most of them, including me, would reject your hypothesis. The scientific community agrees there are many possible causes of depression, most of which involve brain chemistry.
I have a recommendation for this, and other authors and speakers. It is disingenuous to use the phrase “my friends.” Since I don’t know you, I’m not your friend, nor is your target audience. That phraseology is perfect during a sermon, but in a book? Not so much.
Whew, sorry for the negativity on this review. I suspect Steve Poe is a phenomenal preacher, or his churches wouldn’t be experiencing explosive growth, and there’s no doubt he has led many to Christ. The concepts in Creatures of Habit were well conceived, but I’m just not sure writing is his gifting. 3 stars.