I love it when literary luck has me reading several genres in any given month. In February, I enjoyed historical fiction, contemporary fiction, memoir. My absolute favorite was The World Played Chess. Read on to see my reviews:
The World Played Chess
By Robert Dugoni
In 1979, Vincent Bianco has just graduated from high school. His only desire: collect a little beer money and enjoy his last summer before college. So he lands a job as a laborer on a construction crew. Working alongside two Vietnam vets, one suffering from PTSD, Vincent gets the education of a lifetime. Now forty years later, with his own son leaving for college, the lessons of that summer—Vincent’s last taste of innocence and first taste of real life—dramatically unfold in a novel about breaking away, shaping a life, and seeking one’s own destiny.
Robert Dugoni has always been a superb storyteller, but this coming-of-age story was exceptional. The World Played Chess is a brilliant, poignantly written masterpiece rich with historical detail and one of the best books I have read in a long time. The novel is three coming-of-age stories in one: a young man fighting in Vietnam, Vincent, a recent high school graduate he befriends on a job site, and Vincent’s son, Beau, who experiences a life-changing tragedy. Dugoni earns top marks for character development and emotive writing. The World Played Chess was heart wrenching and I’ll admit I shed a few tears, but it wasn’t overly emotional either. It was a powerful depiction of the consequences of war, and how sorrow affects us in different ways. I’m a better person for reading it. Don’t just take my word for it, buy a copy, and decide for yourself. Although Dugoni’s crime novels, legal, and espionage thrillers are great, I’d like to see him write more books like The World Played Chess and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, both of which received 5 stars from me.
Published Date: September 2021
Read-alikes: The Extraordinary Life of Same Hell, by Robert Dugoni, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
by Martha Hall Kelly
“… knowledge has no enemy but the ignorant.”—Martha Hall Kelly, Sunflower Sisters
Martha Hall Kelly’s million-copy bestseller Lilac Girls introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who helped young girls released from Ravensbrück concentration camp. Now, in Sunflower Sisters, Kelly tells the story of her ancestor Georgeanna “Georgey” Woolsey, a Union nurse who joins the war effort with her sister, Eliza, and crosses paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl who is sold off and conscripted into the army, and Ann-May Wilson, her cruel plantation mistress.
Inspired by true accounts, the novel provides a vivid, detailed look at the Civil War experience, from the inhumane plantations, to a war-torn New York City, to the horrors of the battlefield. Once again, she highlights the impactful role of women throughout history.
At 544 pages, Sunflower Girls is a trifle daunting, but it is well worth the time investment. If you enjoyed Lilac Girls, you are going to love the conclusion of the trilogy. (I somehow missed the middle book in the trilogy, Lost Sisters, and I’ll be going back to catch up.) I particularly loved the author’s note, in which Kelly writes about the true historical figures who filled the pages of this spectacular novel. It is an impeccably researched, sweeping saga about slavery, friendship, and family loyalty during the civil war. Oh, I almost forgot about the espionage! I loved the characters and wish I could have known them personally. It is a satisfying, vibrant and page-turning read. 4 stars.
Published Date: March 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: Varina by Charles Frazier, Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy Hepinstall, March by Geraldine Brooks, How I Fought the Strong by Margaret McMullan
The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family
By Ron and Clint Howard
When I was a little girl, I loved watching the Andy Griffith Show. The loveable cast of characters delivered a weekly dose of homespun humor and insight to audiences for eight years. Andy always offered sage advice, Barney’s antics made me giggle, Aunt Bee’s home cooking and lovingkindness reminded me of my grandma, and Opie was just plain cute with his red hair and freckles. Then there was Gentle Ben about the Florida Everglades adventures of game warden, Tom Wedloe, his wife Ellen, their son Mark, and Mark’s tame bear, Ben. I can still hear Mark’s little voice calling out to his big buddy.
In The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family, I delighted in the behind-the-scenes lives of Ron and Clint Howard. The two share their unusual family story of navigating and surviving life in Hollywood as sibling child actors. It’s candid, heartwarming, witty, sometimes painful, and altogether nostalgic.
Born in the 1950s to actors Rance Howard and Jean Speegle, the two were groomed for big and small screens as soon as they could walk. Although they were friendly competitors, they were always brothers first. As the years went by, their paths forked, Ron’s along the straight and narrow, while Clint’s was much bumpier and fraught with poor choices and substance abuse.
I supplemented the book with the audio version and listening to them alternately share their stories was better. Some transitions between their narratives were awkward and many of the anecdotes were repetitive, but the writing was solid, and the narration was superb.
Although Ron’s star has risen a higher, he garnered far more than his share of attention in the book. He came across as arrogant and less likeable than his brother, who candidly shared his heartbreaking struggles with drugs and alcohol. All-in-all, The Boys is wholesome and entertaining. I received a complimentary review copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher. The opinions are my own. 4 stars.
Publication Date: October 2021
Read-Alikes: My Days by Marion Ross, Forever Young by Hayley Mills, Andy and Don by Daniel De Vise
by Kristin Hannah
“Every choice changed the road you were on and it was too easy to end up going in the wrong direction.”—Kristin Hannah, Winter Garden.
Estranged middle-aged sisters Meredith and Nina Whitson have always felt distanced from their cold, forbidding mother, Anya. The girls don’t know their mother’s true age, nor the mysteries behind her color-blindness, her habit of hoarding food despite the family’s prosperity, or her “winter garden” with its odd Cyrillic-inscribed columns. When their beloved father dies, he extracts a promise from them—to become closer to their mother and for Anya to reveal the truth about her past. Thus begins an unexpected journey into the truth of Anya’s life during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, during which more than half a million civilians perished from hunger and cold.
This is the Kristin Hannah of old, a cross between relationship fiction and historical fiction. And like most novels in her repertoire, it is a depressingly good tearjerker. Her novels deal with uplifting topics such as terminal cancer, family estrangement, world war, mental illness, and The Great Depression. Most of them have either “heartbreaking” or “heart wrenching” in the synopsis. One of her greatest talents is finding and imparting historical details. For example, I did not know that St. Petersburg (the original name of Leningrad) was known as the city of bones because tens of thousands of slave laborers died while building it.
Despite the contrived ending, Winter Garden was well done, although not on par with Hannah’s more recent works. 4 stars.
Published Date: February 2010
Genre: Relationship fiction, historical fiction
For fans of Nicholas Sparks, Luanne Rice, and Danielle Steel.
The Woman at the Front
by Lecia Cornwall
When Eleanor Atherton graduates from medical school at the University of Edinburgh near the top of her class in 1917, she dreams of going overseas to help the wounded, but her parents thwart her ambition at every turn. Women are supposed to find husbands and support the war effort by knitting for the troops, not sewing them back together.
When an unexpected twist of fate sends Eleanor to the battlefields of France as a private doctor, she seizes the opportunity. At the casualty clearing station near the front lines, the skeptical commander forbids her from treating the wounded, but when the station is overrun, she breaks protocol and helps the most grievously injured soldiers.
I always love a novel with a strong female protagonist who bucks tradition to do what she is called to do. Dr. Atherton is courageous and likeable, and enjoyed getting to know her and the situation female surgeons faced during World War I. As if the war weren’t bad enough, the Spanish flu ran rampant through the wards, too. The Woman at the Front is a dramatic, frightening, and truly moving historical novel with a touch of romance and some interesting twists. It has a little something for every reader. I deducted a bit for its predictable ending, but it earned a solid 4 stars.
Published Date: September 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd, High as the Heavens by Kate Breslin
Apples Never Fall
by Liane Moriarty
“That was the secret of a happy marriage: step away from the rage.”—Liane Moriarty, Apples Never Fall
The Delaneys are fixtures in their Australian community. The parents, Stan and Joy, are killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable. But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be the golden years of their lives. If only they had grandchildren.
One night, a stranger named Savannah knocks on Stan and Joy’s door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. The Delaneys are more than happy to welcome them into their home, and she becomes a permanent guest. When Joy goes missing on Valentine’s Day and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the four Delaney children—Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke—debate whether to report their mother’s disappearance to police, because it would implicate their father. For someone who claims to be innocent, Stan seems to have a lot to hide.
Liane Moriarty’s novels are hit or miss with me, What Alice Forgot (3 stars), The Husband’s Secret (4 stars), Big Little Lies (5 stars), and this one was a miss. Apples Never Fall neither captured nor kept my attention. It was far too long—historical fiction kind of long—and too much of the plot went down rabbit trails that seemed to go nowhere. The characters were well developed, but all were unlikeable. The book was a slow burn, but not in a good way. It was a slog; tedious and boring, and the constant tennis references were tiresome. I finished the book, but I can’t recommend it. I was so disengaged in the story, I can’t even remember the ending. Many other reviewers enjoyed this book, but it only earned 3 stars from this one. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of the book.
Published Date: September 2021
Genre: Psychological suspense
Read-alikes: Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent, Under the Water by Paul Pen, Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger, Shelter by Catherine Jinks
by YZ Chin
“It wasn’t the first time I’d hoped for psychic transformation and ended with diarrhea…”—YZ Chin, Edge Case
After another taxing day as the sole female employee at her New York City tech startup, where she works on joke-telling robots. Edwina comes home to find that her husband, Marlin, has packed up a suitcase and left. The only question now is why. Did he give up on their increasingly hopeless quest to secure their green cards and decide to return to Malaysia? Was it the death of his father that sent him into a tailspin? Or has his strange, sudden change in personality finally made Marlin and Edwina strangers to each other? For the next eighteen days, Edwina searches for her husband and when tracks him down, he refuses to even look at her. Soon Edwina will have to decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice to stay in her marriage and in America.
I like to read a variety of genres from a variety of voices to mix things up a bit. This contemporary novel was disappointing. The writing was whimsical and darkly humorous and the odd storyline did not scare me off, but the plot was clumsy and all over the place, here and there, without a semblance of organization. The characters were unengaging, and I was glad to make it to the anticlimactic ending. I wish I could get back the hours I spent reading it. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of the book. 3 stars.
Published Date: August 2021
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Read-alikes: Afterlife by Julia Alvarez, Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han
Stay tuned for my March reviews!