Amy’s July Reads

We’re practically in the middle of August and I am just now posting by book reviews for July. Yikes! I spent a lot of time hanging with my grandies, and that is far more important than writing a blog, right? I know some of you wonder why I post reviews of books I didn’t care for instead of just those I loved. It’s simple. Who wants to invest precious time in books that aren’t awesome? Of course, you might totally disagree with my ratings, but hey, that’s what makes this fun! Please let me know on social media what you’ve been reading!

by Maggie O’Farrell

You enjoy historical fiction. You’re fascinated by William Shakespeare. You appreciate great writing. This is a must-read! An enthusiastic 5 stars.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596 at the age of eleven. A few years later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet. Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

I haven’t read a book so quickly in a long time. Maggie O’Farrell did an incredible job of pulling readers into Elizabethan England. Her research was impeccable, and her characters were believable and well developed. Hamnet was highly readable and filled with gorgeous, lyrical sentences such as this one: “The whiteness of the paper seems to pulse, stark and glaring, one moment, then recede behind the black strokes of the letters.” I was especially impressed with her authentic use of language. In one scene the author writes about a woman who is allergic to cats: “…they steal her breath…” A perfect description of asthma, a term not used during that era. 5 stars.

The Warsaw Orphan
by Kelly Rimmer

I read a great deal of WWII historical fiction, but I never fully grasped the horror of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. At one time, over 450,000 Jews were imprisoned in a 1.3 square mile region of the city. Eight to ten people lived in each room and subsisted on meager rations. Between October 1940 and July 1942, nearly 92,000 of the residents died of starvation, disease, and cold. The Warsaw Orphan explores that life from the perspective of a young man living within the ghetto’s walls and a Catholic teenager living outside them. From Nazi occupation to the threat of a communist regime, it is the story of star-crossed lovers Elzbieta Rabinek and Roman Gorka, who fight to reclaim the life they once knew.

There were so many things to love about this book. It was a perfect blend of narrative and dialogue and the pacing had me turning the pages. The primary characters had grit and pluck, and I rooted for Roman and Emilia to be together. The dual narrative was a great way to tell their story. It was far better than The Things We Cannot Say, which Rimmer also wrote. She did a much better job of varying the length of her sentences in this book, which improves readability immensely.

Now, the editor in me needs to be persnickety. The author had an annoying habit of repeating the same words and phrases over and over again. It was so distracting, in fact, that I started counting how often she broke that cardinal rule. For example, she used forms of the word “frustrate” four names on just one page. A writer should never do that. A good editor should have caught that. “Hiss,” “determine,” “fury,” and “blurt,” were also overused.

All things said, The Warsaw Orphan was a fabulous book about an ugly time in history. I often measure books by their opportunity cost… was it worth the time I spent reading a book when I could have been reading, or doing, something else. Her book was definitely a good time investment. 4.5 stars.

Island Queen
by Vanessa Riley

Born into slavery on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, Dorothy Kirwan Thomas bought her freedom—and that of her sister and her mother—from her Irish planter father and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the colonial West Indies. Island Queen is a vivid portrait of a larger-than-life woman who left her mark on history.

Vanessa Riley’s novel is the definition of epic historical fiction. Dolly Thomas overcame discrimination, racial oppression, and misogyny and built an empire for herself and her children. She lost many of those she loved, yet she pushed on. She was a remarkable woman, a true trailblazer.

There was much to admire in this book, but one aspect that I found troubling. She learned how to work the system and leverage the competing attentions of the men in her life: a shipping merchant, a wealthy planter, and a roguish naval captain who would later become King William IV of England. Although Dolly was undeniably beautiful, I found it odd that so many men fell in love with her, and her wavering moral compass bothered me. And the babies… whew… she just kept having them! From a writing standpoint, the sentences were fluid and varied in the length, both signs of good writing. I questioned some of her word choices, however. For example, “floundering nightshirt.” Hmmm, can a garment flounder? At nearly 600 pages, Riley’s novel was ambitious, perhaps overly so. It may have been more effective written as a series; there was certainly enough material for that. If you’re an audiobook fan, the narration is spectacular. 4 stars.

Dangerous Women
by Hope Adams

London, 1841. One hundred eighty Englishwomen file aboard the Rajah, embarking on a three-month voyage to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land on the island of Tasmania. Most were transported for minor crimes, but one has a deadly secret and will do anything to flee justice.  As the prison ship sails farther from land, a young mother is mortally wounded, and the hunt is on for her assailant.

How’s that for a plot?! This was a great book full of mystery and intrigue set in a time and place few readers are familiar with. It’s hard to imagine being “convicted” of a petty crime and then being banished to an unforgiving foreign land. And on top of it, you must travel in close quarters for weeks on end on a prison ship filled dubious individuals. The author did a fine job of developing her characters and creating tension. An excellent debut novel by Hope Adams. Although I enjoyed The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline more, Dangerous Women was a good read. 4 stars.

The Bounty
by Janet Evanovich, Steve Hamilton

Have you heard of the Nazi gold train (Wałbrzych)? I apparently live under a rock, because I hadn’t until I received a publisher galley of Janet Evanovich’s latest book, The Bounty. Unfortunately, this is just an urban legend about a train laden with gold and treasure that was hidden by the Nazis in southwest Poland during the last days of World War II, but the book was still a fun read.

Special agent Kate O’Hare and international con man Nick Fox team up for the seventh time to face their most dangerous foe yet—a vast, shadowy international organization known only as the Brotherhood. Directly descended from the Vatican Bank priests who served Hitler during World War II, the Brotherhood is on a frantic search for a lost train loaded with $30 billion in Nazi gold, untouched for over seventy-five years somewhere in the mountains of Eastern Europe. From a remote monastery in the Swiss Alps to the lawless desert of the Western Sahara, the two crisscross the globe in a desperate scramble to stop the bad guys.

The CIA, the FBI, and a WWII treasure map… what’s not to like about that combo? Janet Evanovich’s books always make me smile, and The Bounty was no exception. It’s a romcom and spy thriller all rolled into one Indiana Jones-esque adventure story loaded with historical references. The Bounty was a kick and is perfect for the beach or a staycation. If you are more into audiobooks, this one is narrated by Scott Brick, one of my favorites. 4 stars.

Legends of the North Cascades
by Jonathan Evison

Any type of review is subjective, whether it is of a movie, a restaurant, or a book. Sometimes my book ratings differ significantly from those of other professional readers… I’m a tough critic because I write and edit for a living. In this case, I rated the book higher than the average rating of 3.77 stars.

After three tours in Iraq, Dave Cartwright went home to small town Washington State to the people and the place that once defined him. Most days, his love for his seven-year-old daughter, Bella, was the only thing keeping him going. When tragedy struck, Dave made a dramatic decision: he took her to live in a cave in the wilderness of the North Cascades. They made an arduous journey up the mountain and experience one disaster after another. Bella retreats into a different world, that of a mother and son who lived there at the end of last Ice Age.

This novel was beautifully complex, gorgeously written, and visually appealing. At first, I didn’t care for the parallel narrative of Bella and her father/the native woman and her son, but as the novel progressed, the way Evison constructed the novel was ideal. Legends of the North Cascades was a reminder that a life of isolation is not how God designed us. We were meant for community among people who love and care for us. It was also an indictment on contemporary society. It was heartbreaking to read about a veteran who felt he needed to escape into the mountains to get away from the world. Was it a happy read? No. But it was very well done. 4 stars.

The Price of Paradise
by Susana López Rubio, Achy Obejas (Translator)

“Hunger for life, for a future, for color—a hunger grown not in a matter of months but years. They say faith moves mountains, but hunger is never far behind.” ~ Susana López Rubio, The Price of Paradise

Havana, Cuba, 1947. Young Patricio flees impoverished Spain to start anew in Havana, Cuba with only the clothes on his back and dreams of a better life. Blessed with good looks and natural charm, he lands a job at one of the most luxurious department stores in the world. When he falls in love with Gloria, the wife of a notorious mob boss, Patricio knows he has put them in terrible danger. In a reckless love affair that spans half a century, their lives intertwine repeatedly as they are confronted with murder, betrayal, and revolution.

The Price of Paradise was set on the lush tropical paradise of Havana where Salsa dancing and mojitos reigned supreme and the famous—and infamous—visited the island in search of sunshine and officials who accepted bribes to look like other way. The book contained fascinating historical tidbits about Cuba during the turbulent 40s and 50s, and 60s under dictators Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro. It’s a who’s who of the time, with storylines about Ava Gardner, Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power, John Wayne, and gangster Meyer Lansky. I even learned a bit about the history of chewing gun.

Patricio is loveable and Gloria is complicated, making for a dynamic relationship and although the love story is sweet, it is also corny. The author did a great job of maintaining my interest throughout her novel, but I must admit that I rolled my eyes more than once. I’m not sure it is the author’s fault or that of the translator, but some of the language was inauthentic. For example, I doubt the phrases “blown away” or “worth a ton” were used by locals during the setting of this novel. Similarly, a woman of gentle breeding from a wealthy family wouldn’t have used foul language as often as Gloria did.

If you have the option, read the book rather than listening to it. The dual narrative was effective in print, but the male narrator was terrible and sounded inappropriately American. The female narrator did a wonderful job voicing Gloria.  5 stars for history, 3 for writing = an overall rating of 4.

The Maidens
by Alex Michaelides

Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek Tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike—particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.

Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered. Mariana, a university alumnus, rushes to comfort Zoe. When another body is discovered, her obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility and her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything—including her own life.

That’s a killer (pun intended) premise, isn’t it? I became a fan of Alex Michaelides when I devoured his bestselling psychological thriller, The Silent Patient, in 2019. It was twisted and creepy, and very well done. Unfortunately, his sophomore novel just didn’t compare. Some aspects of the book were great. The protagonist was fascinating and flawed, (both books featured a therapist who grew obsessed.) The plot was definitely unique, although the story line about Persephone’s journey to the underworld wasn’t my jam. I also had a strong inkling who the killer was from the get-go, always a disappointment in a mystery. Still, there were some surprises. It was a good book, just not great. 3.5 stars.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love.

I’d been hearing about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo for ages, and when I realized the same author also wrote Daisy Jones and the Six, I was all in. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a gifted writer. Her plot was intricate, and her characters were well developed—although Evelyn Hugo was a despicable person who would do anything for success. I turned the pages in great anticipation for the first half of the book until I found out what the “forbidden love” was. I’m not going to dance around this… The LGBT themes made me uncomfortable. I guess I should have done more research before picking it up. Still, I must give credit where it is due. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was well done. 3.5 stars.

Hidden Valley Road
By Robert Kolker

Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream in Colorado Springs with their twelve children. But behind the closed doors of their house on Hidden Valley Road were psychological breakdowns, shocking violence, and hidden sexual abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after the other, were diagnosed with schizophrenia. And the other six children stood by, horrified, with no way of knowing whether they would be next.

The family has a scientific legacy. They are so statistically unusual that they were one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of mental Health as part of the search for the genetic origins of schizophrenia. I picked up a copy of this book to research schizophrenia for a client’s memoir I’m writing. Parts of it were spellbinding – albeit horrifying – as though I was peering into the private confines of the Galvin’s lives without being invited. Except that I was invited. Why, I’m not sure.

First the pluses:

The amount of research that went into writing this book is mind-blowing and the author has my immense respect for the amount of work required to write his book. To me, it is unimaginable that the family members (well, primarily the sisters) had the guts to share such private trauma. How could they even remember details of the events that took place over decades? Thankfully, the medical community has found better ways to treat mental illness.

The minuses:

Mr. Kolker is clearly a very accomplished journalist. In this case, however, I thought the writing was a hot mess. At 400 pages, Hidden Valley Road was too long, too rambling, too dry. The behind-the-scenes research was overly detailed and could have used serious editing. I couldn’t keep the sick brothers straight. They were each hospitalized so many times it became almost like a broken record. I don’t know how I would have organized the content differently, but the redundancies were frustrating. Much of the book was excruciatingly dull, and I found myself fast forwarding through the second half it to reach the conclusion. With all the heartbreak, I expected to feel some emotion, but it read more like a textbook.

The author doesn’t need my accolades, though. In 2020, Hidden Valley Road was an Official selection of Oprah’s Book Club, A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year and People’s #1 Best Book of the Year. It was also named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, TimeSlateSmithsonian, Forbes, Audiophile, Parade, Kirkus, Library JournalPublisher’s Weekly, and The New York Post. 3 stars.

Basil’s War
by Stephen Hunter

The pitch for this book inspired me to request an advance reader copy from the publisher. “Action-packed and bursting with WWII-era intrigue (much of which has basis in fact), Basil’s War is a classic espionage thriller from Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, essayist, and bestselling novelist Stephen Hunter.” It had to be great, right? Hunter has twenty novels to his credit, most notably the Bob Lee Swagger series, which inspired the movie Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg, and the TV series by the same name, starring Ryan Phillippe. Both were entertaining. (Incidentally, Mr. Hunter won his Pulitzer as a film critic at The Washington Post.)

I’ll lead off with praise for the book. It made me chuckle. “… now is finally the time to divulge, before we all die of starvation or alcohol withdrawal symptoms.” That’s amusing! “I lend you my butterfly’s dollop of attention.” Witty, right? “She lay back and tried to find the place between relaxation and coma where she could enjoy much and think little.” I can relate!

This short novel was campy and clever, but not thrilling in the least. I expected it to be far different and was disappointed when it wasn’t. The protagonist was arrogant and promiscuous—not in a cool, 007 way—and I just didn’t find the plot intriguing. I both read the book and listened to the audio version, but I had to stop listening because the narrator was too over the top. 3 stars for me. Meh.





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