Such a month of great reading! It’s rare I have three 5-star ratings. Demon Copperhead, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, and Go as a River were so spectacular and so different. I found a couple of new authors to follow, but I was also disappointed by two of my favorite authors—William Kent Krueger and Daniel Silver. Don’t worry… I’m not counting them out! See if you can find something to add to your TBR list this month.
by Barbara Kingsolver
“The wonder is that you could start life with nothing, end with nothing, and lose so much in between.”—Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead.
This is my third book by Barbara Kingsolver. Prior to Demon Copperhead, her most famous book was probably The Poisonwood Bible, the story of a missionary family in the Belgian Congo in 1959. It’s a novel I’ll never forget. I also enjoyed Prodigal Summer, in which she uses her knowledge of nature to weave together three stories of life in Appalachia. Neither compares to sheer brilliance to Demon Copperhead. I know this will be one of my favorite reads of 2023—maybe ever.
Barbara Kingsolver’s monumental historical novel about the tumultuous journey of a teenage boy in southern Appalachia won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2023), the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2023), a New York Times “Ten Best Books of 2022,” and was a nominee for the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction (2022). She deserves all these accolades… and more! A prolific writer, each of her books since 1993 has been on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Demon Copperhead is a contemporary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Victorian masterpiece David Copperfield (1850), narrated by the son of an Appalachian teenager named Damon Fields, who uses his good looks, charm, and wit, to navigate foster care, child labor, athletic success, addiction, disastrous romances, and crushing losses. An orphan, the boy known as Demon Copperhead for his fiery locks, grows up in a poverty-stricken holler in Lee County, Virginia where methamphetamine and opioid use are epidemic. The plot never pauses for breath, and it captivated me throughout all 546 pages.
While many parts of the book are tragic, Kingsolver prose also shimmer with humor. I found it especially fascinating that she could channel the authentic thoughts and emotions of a teenage boy. The ensemble of characters is extraordinary, and her storytelling is powerful. I can sum Demon Copperhead up in one word: brilliant! 5 stars.
Hinds’ Feet on High Places
By Hannah Hurnard
“The Songs of Songs expresses the desire implanted in every human heart, to be reunited with God himself, and to know perfect and unbroken union with him. He has made us for himself, and our hearts can never know rest and perfect satisfaction until they find it in him.”—Hannah Hurnard, Hinds’ Feet on High Places.
Over two million copies of Hinds’ Feet on High Places have been sold since Hannah Hurnard wrote it in 1955 following the death of her father. It takes its title from Habukkuk 3:19, “The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon high places.”
In the book, we see Much-Afraid embark on a journey towards the Shepherd’s High Places. Assisted by her steadfast companions, Sorrow and Suffering, she navigates perilous trials and finally reaches the lofty summits, where her vulnerabilities evolve into strengths and her apprehensions transform into unyielding faith. There, a name change awaits, signifying a profound transformation. No longer Much-Afraid, the Shepherd renames her Grace and Glory, echoing the words of the Psalms.
Hannah Hurnard’s cherished novel captures the human yearning to ascend to greater depths of love, joy, and victory under God’s guidance. My delay in discovering this gem was serendipitous, a broken Kindle leading me to my bookshelves. As it turns out, my timing was perfect; the persecution of believers is ramping up as the time of Christ’s second coming draws near. The perspective in this little book is like a balm to the soul.
This book shares insights that remind us how God sees us beyond our current state. The Shepherd is how I’ve always pictured Jesus—compassionate, tender, perceptive, and graced with a delightful sense of humor.
This uplifting Christian allegory traces the journey from salvation to spiritual maturity. Hinds’ Feet on High Places receives my wholehearted endorsement—I can’t sing its praises loudly enough. A resounding 5-star read!
Go as a River
by Shelley Read
“Just as a single rainstorm can erode the banks and change the course of a river, so can a single circumstance of a girl’s life erase who she was before.” Shelley Read, Go as a River.
At the tender age of twelve, Victoria Nash finds herself thrust into a world of loss and responsibility. Her mother, aunt, and cherished cousin tragically die in an auto accident, leaving Torie to shoulder the household duties for her father, angry brother, and an embittered war-wounded uncle confined to a wheelchair. They live on a flourishing peach farm nestled in the very real town of Iola, Colorado, near the serene Gunnison River.
Torie’s existence becomes a relentless cycle of work, sleep, and little else; a stark reality for a teenager burdened by grown-up expectations. “The men expected me to slip silently into her role—to cook their meals, clean their pee off the toilet, wash and hang their soiled clothes, and tend to every last thing in the house and the coops and the garden.”
On a crisp autumn day in 1948, Torie’s life takes an unexpected turn. The 17-year-old delivers late-season peaches to a nearby village and meets Wilson Moon, a Native American who has left his tribe. Their love is an affront to the community and Victoria’s own family, forcing them to conceal their relationship.
When Victoria discovers she is pregnant, she flees to the unforgiving wilderness to give birth. Her solitary struggle and profound loneliness in the wild tugged at my heartstrings. The poignant narrative spans decades, narrated in Torie’s retrospective first-person voice. Her strength and resilience shine through, making her an inspiring protagonist.
The history of Iola adds to the story, especially when the town was intentionally flooded during the building of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. (Check out this informative piece: https://coloradosun.com/2018/12/10/iola-blue-mesa-reservoir-drought/)
Go as a River is a gut-wrenching coming-of-age saga that weaves together eloquent prose, indelible characters, and a vivid natural setting. It’s a story that delves deep into themes of friendship, love, and transformation, brimming with wisdom and an unquenchable yearning. I was deeply moved.
Shelley Read’s debut novel is a testament to her exceptional writing talent. I can’t wait to see what comes next. This is really a special book and earns a solid 5 stars.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Sisters of Night and Fog
by Erika Robuck
“Like the devil, the Nazis know that to divide is to control and conquer.”― Erika Robuck, Sisters of Night and Fog
Told in alternating chapters, Sisters of Night and Fog follows two very different women as they risk it all for the French Resistance. American Virginia d’Albert-Lake lives in France during the German occupation. She, her French husband, Philippe, and others work to save Allied pilots. Meanwhile, nineteen-year-old Englishwoman Violette Bushell marries French Legionnaire Étienne Szabo. When he leaves to fight the Germans in Egypt, she joins Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive and goes undercover in France. The two women meet when they are arrested and taken to Fresnes Prison near Paris and later to Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Robuck’s novel is moving, richly detailed, and the characters are well-drawn. The depth of research shines through, painting a vivid and immersive backdrop of wartime Europe. It is based on the lives of two actual women who risked everything for a noble cause. Their heroism, and that of others, will encourage you to conduct research as you read.
While the plot is fabulous, the writing wasn’t terrific. The printed book reveals some repetitions and sentence choppiness that went unnoticed in the audiobook version.
It’s a sad read, but if you enjoyed The Last Checkmate, the Woman at the Front, The Nightingale, or The Golden Doves, this will be a treat. Sisters of Night and Fog was my first book by Erika Robuck, and I’m looking forward to reading her next. 4 stars.
by Charmaine Wilkerson
Eleanor Bennett left a puzzling inheritance for her children, Byron and Benny. It includes a note, a USB drive with an audio recording, and a traditional black cake from a family recipe found in the freezer.
In her message, Eleanor shares the story of her life. In 1965, a young woman fleeing an arranged marriage and suspicion of murder disappears into the surf. Cutting all ties, she crosses oceans, reinvents herself, and makes heartbreaking choices to take control of her life hoping to reunite with her first love. Byron and Benny haven’t seen each other in years. Can they set aside their differences to deal with their mother’s hidden past?
A Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction and for Debut Novel (2022), and a Book of the Month Book of the Year Award Nominee (2022), Black Cake is a beautiful novel about secrets, family, love, and loss.
The author’s intricate plot unfolds in vignettes that alternate among different times, places, and viewpoints. Unfortunately, the multiple alternating timelines/storylines became confusing, even more so as the story progressed. More than once, I double-checked to make sure I was still reading the same book more than once.
I like stories with complex characters, and deep themes, but this author overdid it with social issues. It was just too much. I also found the pacing to be a trifle slow.
Incidentally, black cake is a boozy Caribbean cake filled with dried fruit such as prunes, raisins, cherries, and currants and loaded with dark rum and dessert wine or cherry brandy. I’m not keen on fruitcake, but this one might be worth a try. One must think ahead, though, as the fruit should be soaked in the alcohol for between 7 days and six months.
If you enjoyed Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, this is a good choice. Black Cake is a beautiful, poignant, and descriptive novel from a talented debut author. I look forward to watching the Hulu series, which is scheduled for release sometime in 2023. 4 stars.
*I received a digital copy for review from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Big Stone Gap
by Adriana Trigiani
Nothing much happens in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The highlight of 35-year-old Ave Maria Mulligan’s week is when the bookmobile comes to town. As the town pharmacist, she knows intimate details about the community; sometimes more than she cares to know. She’s a member of the volunteer rescue squad and leads the drama team. Imagine the excitement when Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, John Warner, come for a visit.
Adriana Trigiani’s first novel concerns the family scandals that befall Ave Maria in this seemingly uneventful town. When the self-proclaimed spinster discovers a skeleton in her family’s closet, her quiet, conventional life is turned topsy-turvy. Greed, lust, and envy aren’t just vices confined to big city limits.
Sometimes a cute, lighthearted read is just the ticket. I listened to Big Stone Gap on a solo road trip, and it was perfect for a boring drive. The audiobook sparkled with wit, endearing characters, and vivid descriptions—I felt like I was strolling down main street with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. Narrator Grace Bennett nailed it.
My only complaint is that it took too long for anything substantive to happen… almost a quarter into the book. But then I got in the groove and fell in love with the place. It’s a feel-good romantic comedy and was a pleasant change of pace, a heartwarming light read with pockets of humor. I’ll confess, though, that it leaned toward the overly sentimental for my taste.
I’ve read other novels by the talented, and funny, Adriana Trigiani, but this was her first in the Big Stone Gap 4-book series, so I wanted to give it a try. Sure, there were moments when the writing felt clumsy, but let’s cut her some slack—it was her debut after all. Will I read the rest of the series? Maybe not, but I enjoyed this installment. Admittedly, it didn’t hold a candle to her 2012 historical novel, The Shoemaker’s Wife, but it depends on what you’re in the mood for. If you like Fannie Flagg books, this will be a winner. 3.5 stars and a thumbs up for a delightful escape.
by Sara Ackerman
“Seems like war has always been around, mostly because men are unable to come to agreement in other ways.”—Sara Ackerman, Radar Girls.
Daisy Wilder is a 23-year-old ranch hand who supports her sick mother and loves horses and Hawaii’s natural beauty. However, when the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor shakes their world, she not only loses her beloved horse but also her job.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Daisy joins Women’s Air Raid Defense. There, she learns to guide pilots in dark skies and track suspicious planes over the Pacific. Yet not everyone believes in the abilities of these women, despite the nation’s future hanging in the balance.
With unwavering determination and the man she’s falling for at the front lines, Daisy is determined to prove herself. Amidst the challenges, Daisy and her newfound friends discover both romance and embark on a quest to find her missing horse. Through it all, Daisy’s self-esteem soars, and she uncovers love, courage, strength, and the power of sisterhood.
My feelings about this book are mixed. Although I enjoyed learning about women’s contributions in WWII Hawaii, there were some cliches that caught my attention. The romantic subplot, though clean and suitable for all ages, followed a well-worn path: a woman resisting her attraction to a handsome man, a blossoming relationship, and a potentially relationship-threatening secret.
For those who prefer audiobooks, Cassandra Campbell’s is among the best in the business. 3.5 stars.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary copy. The opinions are my own.
By William Kent Krueger
William Kent Krueger‘s novella, The Levee, explores the true cost of survival during the historic 1927 Mississippi Flood. This natural disaster was one of the worst in US history. At 80 miles wide, it submerged 27,000 square miles of land and displaced nearly 640,000 people across from Illinois to Louisiana.
It is during this calamity that Krueger has set his novella. To save a family trapped by the rising water, four men in a rowboat battle the deluge: three are convicts coerced into service by the local prison; the fourth, their leader, is driven by concealed motives.
When they arrive at Ballymore, an ancestral home protected by a towering, circular levee, not everyone in the family is eager to be rescued. As the flood’s threat increases and time ticks away, the crew and the family must make critical decisions.
The Levee explores the human struggle against nature and how greed, cowardice, and courage motivate people to choose different paths. Although the short audiobook (3 hours 36 minutes) was entertaining, the story was just too short to develop the characters. I didn’t care what happened to them. I’ve listened to other books narrated by J.D. Jackson, and he isn’t one of my favorites.
Led Zeppelin fans might be interested in this little factoid—the band recorded the iconic song, “When the Levee Breaks” in 1971 about the 1927 Mississippi Flood. 3 stars.
The Runaway Wife
by Dee MacDonald
Have you ever wanted to run away from home… as an adult? I must admit I’ve entertained the idea, but I am such a chicken! Who would rescue me when disaster strikes? What would I do with my little sweet little lap dog?
One evening while mashing potatoes for dinner, Connie McColl decides she’s had enough. She’s tired of her husband’s constant rounds of golf, tired of her children expecting her to babysit their unruly kids at the drop of a hate, and. She’s tired of solving one family crisis after another. When is it her turn to live?
So Connie packs a bag, gets in her little green car and drives off with no destination in mind. As she travels from England to Scotland on an unexpected adventure, she meets people she will never forget. The big question is, will she ever go home?
Connie has heart, compassion, and wild sense of adventure—I wish I had her spirit! Other readers thought the novel was hilarious, but I think “cute” would be a more apt description. Written by a Brit for Brits, I would have been lost had I not visited the island twice.
The Runaway Wife is a heartwarming romantic comedy about self-discovery, love, friendship, and family. It was a book club pick, and I enjoyed it well enough. If you are looking for chick lit that doesn’t require analysis or a dictionary, this might be a good choice. There is some suspect grammar and sentence structure, but it was fun when I took off my editor’s hat. My book club, which is made up of mostly 60 somethings, averaged 3.8 stars in their ratings, so you might enjoy it more than I did. 3 stars.
by Daniel Silva
Israeli Spy Chief Gabriel Allon is on vacation in Venice with his wife and two young children when his friend, the reform-minded Pope Paul VII, dies suddenly. The Holy Father’s private secretary, Archbishop Luigi Donati, suspects foul play and summons Allon to the Vatican. What follows is a hunt for truth and justice.
The Swiss Guard who was standing watch outside the papal apartments the night of the pope’s death is missing. So, too, is the letter the Holy Father was writing during the final hours of his life. A letter addressed to Gabriel.
As the cardinals gather for the papal conclave, Allon investigates the murder and uncovers a vast conspiracy. He unearths the long-suppressed Gospel of Pontius Pilate, a text that challenges the traditional narrative of Jesus’s crucifixion in which the blame is put on the Romans rather than the long-condemned Jews. This revelation doesn’t sit well with a shadowy far-right Catholic group known as The Order, and it is determined to keep this explosive book hidden.
The Order is my least favorite of the Allon books thus far. It is Daniel Silva’s third novel about a murderous Catholic conspiracy, a formula that has grown stale. He needs a new villain. The book may offend some Catholic readers. It is full of corrupt clergy and refers to Church scandals over the ages. Silva notes his book is fiction and there’s no Gospel by Pontius Pilate. However, he argues the Church is responsible for much of Christian anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, The Order lacked the tension and unpredictability I expect from the Gabriel Allon series. It reminded me too much of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. In the end, I give it a modest 3 stars. If you’re a die-hard fan of the series, it’s still worth a read for the sake of continuity, but don’t expect the same level of excitement as in the previous nineteen books.
The Golden Spoon
by Jessa Maxwell
For six amateur bakers, competing in Bake Week is a dream come true. A former journalist, a pie aficionado, a math teacher, a bored millionaire, a retired nurse, and a building restorer are all vying for the coveted Golden Spoon.
A big white tent is pitched at Grafton Manor, an aging Vermont estate to film the tenth season of the popular TV show. But for the show’s famous host, cookbook legend Betsy Martin, Bake Week is more than just a competition. Grafton Manor is her family’s home and legacy, and Bake Week is her life’s work.
But as the competition heats up, minor acts of sabotage begin; sugar and salt swap places, gasoline masquerades as orange essence, a refrigerator door mysteriously stands ajar, and a burner gets cranked up. Then a body is discovered, and it’s clear not everyone is there for the love of baking.
As a fan of The Great British Baking Show, I was naturally drawn to this baking themed mystery. It’s billed as a mystery/thriller, but it leans more towards the cozy, locked-room subgenre, which isn’t my cup of tea. For the uninitiated, cozies are light-hearted mysteries that keep sex and violence offstage.
If I’m honest, the first half of the book had me yawning, and the ending felt like a sprint to the finish line. However, a delightful twist at the end caught me by surprise.
The Golden Spoon is a light, intriguing read. If you like authors such as Joanne Fluke, M.C. Beaton, Alan Bradley, Richard Osman, Rhys Bowen, or Lillian Jackson Braun, this book could be perfect for you. For me, it was just okay. It’s slated to become a limited series on Hulu, so if you are a fan of Hallmark and Lifetime movies, it could be an enjoyable watch. 3 stars.
** I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book; all opinions are my own.
By Karen Joy Fowler
Booth delves into the intricate history of the family connected to one of America’s most infamous figures, John Wilkes Booth. Junius Booth, a renowned British stage star, escapes with his “wife” Mary to rural Maryland despite being married to another woman. Over sixteen years, they raise ten children in a bohemian lifestyle, characterized by vegetarianism, anti-slavery beliefs, literary pursuits, and free-thinking.
Junius’s constant travel for his acting career leaves Mary to care for the children and the home. His alcohol-fueled infidelity plunges Mary into severe bouts of depression, leaving the children to rely on each other. The Booths move from rural Maryland to Baltimore in 1846, where they establish themselves as one of the nation’s leading theatrical families.
The novel unfolds with a series of scandals, family successes, and criminal misfortunes. It focuses on the lives of several of the siblings: Rosalie, Edwin, John, and Asia.
Booth was named Best Book of the Year by Real Simple, AARP, and USA Today, but I can’t fathom why. If you want to learn about the life and downfall of John Wilkes Booth, find another source. He doesn’t become the focus of this novel until nearly seventy percent through.
Fowler captures the essence of the setting and era while developing intricate characters. Her incorporation of significant national events, such as the Dred Scott case and John Brown’s uprising, was impressive, but it felt like she didn’t want to exclude any of her research findings. Sadly, the writing occasionally suffers from extensive philosophical digressions, lacking in action. The slow pacing, lengthiness, and boring storyline were disappointing. 3 stars.