Amy’s Picks and Pans, Issue 25

Stop the Press! Winter’s chill is setting in, and if you’re anything like me, now’s the perfect moment to bulk up your “want to read” list. This edition brings you a diverse array of genres, from historical fiction and feminism to Christian thriller, time travel, and contemporary fiction. Join me on a literary journey spanning Russia, California, Wyoming, Alabama, England, France, Iran, and the Philippines. I should be jet-lagged with all that traveling through my eyeballs! Among these pages, you’ll find some real gems (and, in my humble opinion, a couple of duds). Here’s hoping you discover something delightful to while away the chilly hours. Extra! Extra! Read All About It!


Take My Hand
by Dolen Perkins-Valdez


Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a powerful and eye-opening novel that addresses a disturbing piece of history. Set in 1973, it follows Civil Townsend, a newly graduated nurse who returns home to work at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. Her supervisor assigns her to give the Depo-Provera birth control shot to India and Erica Williams, who are only 11 and 13 years old. The girls have not yet reached puberty and are not sexually active, which leads Civil to question the motives behind her assignment.

When Civil later learns the girls have been sterilized without their consent, she embarks on a legal battle against the clinic. The courtroom drama that unfolds is gripping and thought-provoking.

Perkins-Valdez skillfully uses a dual narrative, switching between an older Civil narrating events to her daughter in 2016, and a younger Civil experiencing the events in real-time.

Take My Hand is inspired by true events that rocked the nation. It’s a captivating read that skillfully blends disturbing elements with themes of love and forgiveness. As a reader, I was impressed by this impactful novel. It opened my eyes to a case I was unaware of. It will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. 5 stars.

** Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a copy of this book. The opinions are my own.


The Tehran Initiative
by Joel C. Rosenberg


The Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg is a gripping, action-packed thriller that picks up where The Twelfth Imam left off. In this book, things are even more intense as Iran conducts its first atomic weapons test, setting off a chain of events that could change the world as we know it.

Millions of Muslims believe their long-awaited messiah, the “Twelfth Imam,” has arrived, sending shockwaves across the globe. Israeli leaders fear that Iran, under the influence of the Twelfth Imam, might launch a devastating nuclear attack.

The president orders CIA agent David Shirazi to sabotage Iran’s nuclear warheads before Iran or Israel can launch a devastating first strike. The consequences of such a move could be catastrophic, with the entire Middle East at risk of going up in flames, oil prices soaring, and the global economy teetering on the edge.

Joel C. Rosenberg, a Christian author, weaves his faith into the narrative, but it’s not overbearing. He also handles the portrayal of Muslims with sensitivity, avoiding broad stereotypes.

The story is a relentless, high-octane thriller that keeps you hooked from start to finish. There’s never a dull moment, and it’s hard to put down. The political intrigue in the book adds an extra layer of complexity. Despite being written in 2011, the story’s relevance to today’s world is striking. The protagonist, David Shirazi, is a likable character, making it easy to root for him throughout his mission.

I bounced between the eBook and audio version, and Christopher Lane’s narration is top-notch. The Tehran Initiative is a 5-star read that doesn’t disappoint. It’s a thrilling page-turner, and I’m eager to dive into the next book in the series, Damascus Countdown.


by Guzel Yakhina, Lisa Hayden (Translator)


Zuleikha takes readers on a journey through a lesser-known chapter of history. The story is set during Vladimir Lenin’s dekulakization campaign in 1930, a time when millions of kulaks found themselves in the crosshairs of political repression.

The tale opens in a Tatar village near Kazan. Zuleikha, a strong peasant woman, sees her husband murdered by communists. Her life takes a harrowing turn as she’s forced into exile, enduring a grueling train journey to a remote Siberian outpost. The camp’s conditions are brutal, claiming the lives of many during the unforgiving winter.

As Zuleikha gradually adapts to her new reality, she forms a motley crew of companions, including her husband’s killer, Ignatov, who come together to build a new life. The transformation of Zuleikha from a frightened young woman into a persevering survivor is a testament to the human spirit.

Author Guzel Yakhina draws inspiration from her grandmother’s experiences, who was exiled as a young girl and endured sixteen years of separation from her home. The novel, published in English in 2019, garnered well-deserved recognition, winning the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award and the Big Book Award in 2015. Zuleikha has been translated into twenty-one languages, resonating with readers worldwide.

The book sheds light on a dark period in history, during which 282,000 peasant households vanished, 100,000 kulaks were executed, and almost 10 million peasants were exiled to the Arctic. Three million perished from disease, starvation, or exposure. The epic story told in Zuleikha is not just shocking; it’s a sobering reminder of the human cost of political agendas.

The writing in this book is good, but the repetition of some words might make you wonder if it’s the author’s style or the translation. Regardless, it’s a worthwhile read, offering insights into the ongoing polarization in the region. And while there may be moments that feel dull, hang in there—the story’s power to captivate and educate is worth every page. Zuleikha deserves a solid 4.5 stars for its historical depth and ability to make you ponder the tragedies of the past and their echoes in the present.


The Lost English Girl
by Julia Kelly


Author Julia Kelly takes us on a journey to Liverpool in 1935, where we meet 18-year-old Viv Byrne, who was raised in a strict Catholic home. She finds herself in a difficult situation when she becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with a Jewish saxophonist Joshua Levinson.

To avoid the shame of being an unwed mother, Viv and Joshua hastily tie the knot. But Viv’s overbearing mother offers Joshua a large amount of money to disappear on their wedding day, knowing the child will now be born in wedlock. He agrees and heads off to New York City to chase his dreams of jazz stardom.

Five years later, Viv has to choose whether to evacuate her daughter, Maggie, to the countryside to protect her from German bombs. Over the course of three days, 1.5 million people, including 800,000 children, were evacuated from British towns and cities in Operation Pied Piper.

Tragedy strikes when Maggie’s host family’s house is bombed, while Joshua, who gave up his musical aspirations, returns home to serve in the Royal Air Force. The story revolves around Viv and Joshua’s efforts to reunite and find out what happened to their daughter.

The Lost English Girl is told from the alternating perspectives of Viv, Joshua, and Maggie. The author’s commitment to historical accuracy is clear through her portrayal of child evacuations and the stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy and interfaith marriages.

I supplemented the book with audio, but the male narrator didn’t quite hit the mark. The book deserves a 4-star rating for its compelling characters and historical depth.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary copy of this book. The opinions expressed are my own.


When We Had Wings
by Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, Susan Meissner


When We Had Wings is inspired by the real-life “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.” Seventy-seven American military nurses taken prisoner in the Philippines, provided lifesaving care to the civilian POWs in the Santo Tomas and Los Banos Internment Camps where they were held from 1942 to 1945.

The book is a collaboration between historical fiction heavyweights Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, and Susan Meissner. The story unfolds through the perspectives of Eleanor Lindstrom, who leaves her Minnesota dairy farm for the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, Penny Franklin, an army nurse escaping personal troubles in Texas, and Lita Capel, who has a Filipina mother and American father and works as a nurse near the base.

Their friendship develops over cocktails in the tropical paradise of Manila, but the Japanese invasion changes everything, leading them from military bases and local hospitals to internment camps and prisons.

Their unwavering determination to keep hope alive, not only for themselves but also for their fellow inmates, is at the heart of this gripping narrative. When We Had Wings is rich in historical detail, bringing the jungles and wartime experiences to vivid life. I was invested in the characters’ fates, sharing their joys, and shedding a tear or two along the way.

When We Had Wings struck me as reminiscent of Angels of the Pacific, which I read earlier. The beginning of the book was corny, but I was impressed as the story unfolded.

I alternated between reading the eBook and listening to the audio version. As always, narrator Saskia Maarleveld rocked it. Honestly, I prefer Susan Meissner’s and Kristina McMorris’ solo work, but this collective effort still tells an interesting story. 4 stars


No Two Persons
by Erica Bauermeister


The heart of this story beats with Alice Wein, an aspiring writer who weaves her pain into a striking debut, Theo, inspired by her brother’s tragic overdose.

The book, told through loosely intertwined short stories, explores how one novel can affect people from all walks of life. We follow characters like Alice, a lonely bookseller, a homeless teenager, a free diver pushing limits, an outraged artist, and a grieving widower. Each person connects with something unique in Alice’s creation, changing their viewpoints unexpectedly.

As a fellow author, I connected with the dream of wanting to create a story that not only gets read but passionately shared. Yet, No Two Persons left me hanging. The brief chapters and abrupt endings made it tough to really get into the characters’ heads. I hungered for more depth; some plot points felt a bit too simple and underdeveloped.

I gave the eBook a boost with the audio version, and the full cast performance was exceptional. The voices gave life to the characters, enhancing the experience. Despite my gripes about the book’s length and pacing, I settled on a 4-star rating.

** I received a digital copy of the book for review via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.


Lessons in Chemistry
by Bonnie Garmus


Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is an entertaining story that combines science, romance, and a search for equality in the early 1960s. The story follows chemist Elizabeth Zott, who faces challenges working with an all-male team at Hastings Research Institute. Elizabeth falls in love with her colleague, has his child, and is fired due to double standards and scandal around her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Her career takes an unexpected turn when she becomes the host of a popular daytime cooking show, Supper at Six, which introduces a revolutionary approach to cooking.

The novel introduces readers to a quirky protagonist and a colorful cast of characters, including the intelligent dog, Six-Thirty, recently retired from the military. The story is an easy, quick read, laced with humor that, while not laugh-out-loud funny, maintains a cute and endearing charm.

However, it’s important to note that Lessons in Chemistry isn’t for everyone. Some readers may find its jabs at Christianity and man-bashing offensive.

It’s clear author Bonnie Garmus has found a considerable audience, though, with the book receiving a Goodreads Choice Award for Debut Novel and a nomination for Historical Fiction in 2022 (it’s also streaming on Apple TV+). The novel’s clever storytelling resonates with many readers, making it a worthwhile choice, especially for those who enjoyed books like Where’d You Go Bernadette?, The Rosie Project, and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

** I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All opinions are my own.


Burning Ground
By D.A. Galloway


Burning Ground by D.A. Galloway begins in 1971. It is the story of Graham Davidson, a young man grappling with survivor’s guilt after losing three siblings. Estranged from his father and searching for purpose, he stumbles upon the concept of vision quests from a Crow Indian.

Graham lands seasonal work in Yellowstone National Park, which sets the stage for a spiritual journey that takes a rather unexpected turn. During a full moon at a sacred thermal area, something extraordinary happens—he finds himself transported back in time one hundred years. There he joins the Hayden Geological Survey, which explored the region that one year later became Yellowstone National Park.

A menacing cavalry lieutenant poses a significant threat to Graham. On his journey, he experiences a string of terrifying events, including a tragedy in a geyser basin, a bear encounter, and a confrontation with hostile Blackfeet Indians.

The story takes a romantic turn as Graham falls in love with Makawee, a Crow woman who serves as their guide. As the expedition nears its end, Graham faces an agonizing decision: does he stay in the past with the woman he loves, or return to the future?

The book impresses with its thorough research and a unique perspective on the founding of our first national park. It’s rich with real-life historical figures, adding depth to the narrative. Character development is a strong suit, with well-formed protagonists and antagonists. However, the narrative gets bogged down by historical facts and background biographies, which disrupt the flow.

As someone who enjoys time travel novels, this one hit the spot, especially since it’s set in the United States. The descriptions are vivid, painting a rich picture of the surroundings, but there is an excess of minutiae.

There are some other shortcomings to consider. The writing is awkward and amateurish—Graham’s lack of discomfort upon discovering he has landed in the wilderness of another century is a notable example. I alternated between reading the eBook and listening to the audio version, and the narration leaves much to be desired. I wouldn’t have finished the book if it hadn’t been a book club selection.

If you like time-travel stories and American history, you might enjoy Burning Ground, but you’ll have to overlook the writing issues. It’s a two-star rating from me.


Mastering the Art of French Murder
By Colleen Cambridge

Tabitha Knight arrives from Detroit for an extended stay with her French grandfather. Thanks to her neighbor and friend Julia Child, she is learning how to cook for her Grandpère and Oncle Rafe.

The night after Child’s sister, Dort, hosts a party at Child’s apartment, a guest named Thérèse Lognon is discovered dead in the basement. The murder weapon is a knife from Julia’s kitchen.

When Inspector Merveille reveals that a note, in Tabitha’s handwriting, was found in the dead woman’s pocket, Tabitha conducts her own investigation to find the actual killer before she or one of her friends ends up in prison. Much to the inspector’s consternation, Tabitha gathers clues until another murder occurs. Tabitha’s investigation leads her to Théâtre Monceau, a local English-language theater where Dort worked with the victim, and where most of the suspects are rehearsing an Agatha Christie play.

I bounced between the audiobook and the ebook for this title, which was very convenient. Polly Lee well narrated the audiobook and does a fine job.

On the positive side, I enjoyed the cooking tips Julie offered Tabitha. On the less-than-positive side, the rookie writing had me wanting to edit as I read. Not a good sign. The author made Julia Child sound imbecilic, particularly when it came to the investigation of the murder. She was a CIA agent, for goodness’ sake, and would have been smarter than that. I also found the protagonist irritating… so glad this is a short book.

A quick, light read, even though the subject is murder. It wasn’t a bad book, just not a good one. I doubt I’ll read the rest of the series. 2 stars.

** I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All opinions are my own.


Sisters in Arms
by Kaia Alderson


Sisters in Arms explores the history of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, called the “Six Triple Eight.”. The 6888th had 855 women, amongst whom were three Latinas. They were among the first Black women allowed to serve in the army during World War II.

This historical follows Grace Steele and Eliza Jones, from their recruitment in New York City to their mission in Europe. As part of the 6888th, their task is to tackle a substantial backlog of mail.

The novel not only addresses the challenges of wartime but also the harsh realities of segregation and prejudice. Despite its historical significance, my journey through this novel left me conflicted.

While Grace and Eliza are fictional, Alderson weaves in real-life characters, adding an authentic touch to the story. The depictions of boot camp and a U-boat chase are exciting highlights.

While the historical backdrop is interesting, the execution of the novel leaves much to be desired. The dialogue needed more work and was occasionally punctuated by contemporary phrases that seemed out of place in the 1940s setting. The constant arguing between the main characters became annoying, taking away from their potential depth.

Alderson’s writing style fell short of my expectations. The language was too explanatory and repetitive, with occasional problems with sentence structure. The overall tone felt more akin to young adult fiction.

In the end, despite the novel’s attempt to illuminate a lesser-known chapter of history, I could only muster a 2-star rating. I struggled to finish a book that should have been a right up my alley.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions are my own.

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