Amy’s Picks and Pans, Issue 26


So many great books this month! You’ll notice they are heavy in the historical fiction and thriller genres; sometimes it just shakes out that way! Still, I also have contemporary fiction, so if that’s your jam, look no further! 

The Widows of Champagne
By Renee Ryan

Wow, what a book! I dove into The Widows of Champagne thinking it might be just another sad World War II tale, but boy, was I in for a treat. This novel took me on a journey with three generations of resilient women fighting to safeguard their family’s vineyard during a tumultuous time in France.

Gabrielle Leblanc Dupree, a woman with a secret mission, is at the forefront. Instead of gearing up for a grand celebration of two centuries of champagne excellence, she orchestrates a covert operation to protect the vineyard’s most precious vintages from the clutches of the Nazis. The tension is palpable, and you can feel the weight she carries on her young shoulders.

Then there’s Hélène, Gabrielle’s mother, a former Parisian socialite who lost her husband to a previous war. Now, her home is under German control, and the vineyards are being plundered to quench the Third Reich’s insatiable thirst for the finest champagne. But Hélène harbors an even more significant secret—a heritage hidden in the shadows.

Josephine, the family matriarch, oversees it all, witnessing her beloved vineyard facing its most challenging harvest. The narrative weaves through the struggles of these incredible women, dealing with enemies, unexpected allies, and a deep well of faith that becomes a wellspring of resistance.

As an oenophile, I reveled in the intricate details about winemaking, especially the champagne-making process. The storytelling is not just captivating; it’s downright beautiful. With three strong female leads who are both likable and courageous, the book envelops you in the terror, love, and bravery of these remarkable women. Trust me; their stories will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page.

Here’s a rare statement from me—I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel! The Widows of Champagne is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s a solid 5-star recommendation. Don’t miss out on this unforgettable journey.

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


We Hope for Better Things
By Erin Bartels

“How do you put into words the feeling that you’re an adult and yet you are utterly lost and confused? How do you say that you don’t know what to do with your life? That it feels like everything you’ve worked for is worthless and yet you don’t know what else to do but more of the same? How do you explain the feeling that your life is over when there’s nothing wrong beyond the fact that you lost a job? How do you say that out loud when innocent people are shot and killers go free and it feels like the very fabric of society is unraveling?”—Erin Bartels, We Hope for Better Things.

I’ve read two of Bartels’ other novels and enjoyed them, so I thought I’d go back to the beginning and check out her debut. It was such a wonderful decision.

When Detroit Free Press reporter Elizabeth Balsam meets James Rich, he asks her to look up an unknown relative to deliver an antique camera and a box of photos. After her investigation into the 1967 riots costs Elizabeth her job, she tracks down her aunt Nora at a 150-year-old farmhouse and moves in to contemplate her next move.

As Elizabeth and Nora pore over the photos, stories of love and sacrifice emerge, and although Elizabeth isn’t the most devout person, she begins to see God’s plan in her history and her future.

In We Hope for Better Things, Erin Bartels takes readers on a captivating journey through time and across generations. The story follows three women, each from a different time, whose lives connected in unexpected ways. She portrays the struggles of abolitionists during the Civil War era and an interracial couple navigating the complexities of 1960s America. Through these interconnected stories, she offers a powerful commentary on the enduring impact of racial prejudice and the resilience of the human spirit.

The way the author blends the past and present is praiseworthy. Through intertwining historical events and contemporary narratives, she has created a novel that is both timeless and relevant.

We Hope for Better Things explores the themes of love, sacrifice, and family bonds. Bartels’s debut is a triumph, showcasing her talent for crafting a story that is both emotional and historically significant. This book stays with you long after the last page. 5 stars!


The Golden Doves
By Martha Hall Kelly

American Josie Anderson and Parisian Arlette LaRue join forces in the French Resistance during World War II, earning the moniker the Golden Doves for their daring espionage. However, their bravery comes at a heavy price as they are captured and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where they endure unimaginable horrors.

The narrative unfolds into a post-war era, with Josie working for U.S. Army intelligence in Fort Bliss, Texas, as part of Operation Paperclip, while Arlette searches for her missing son and tries to rebuild her life in Paris. Their paths converge once more when they embark on a perilous mission to hunt down a notorious Nazi doctor in French Guiana.

What struck me most about The Golden Doves is its seamless blend of spy thriller and historical fiction, offering an interesting narrative that shifts between the years 1952 and the war-torn period of 1940-1945. The emotional depth of the characters is brilliant, drawing readers into their world as they navigate through the aftermath of war and personal loss.

The rich historical details woven throughout the story, particularly the exploration of French Guiana, added a fascinating layer to the narrative, expanding the scope beyond the familiar settings of wartime Europe. I enjoyed the informative author’s notes at the end of the book, which provided valuable insights into the historical context and background of the novel.

This is the second book I’ve read about Operation Paperclip (the first was The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer), and the third book I’ve read by Martha Hall Kelly. She just keeps getting better! 5 stars.

**I received a digital copy from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


The Bucharest Dossier
by William Maz

As a book reviewer, one of the best parts of my job is discovering new authors. William Maz was an unknown name to me until The Bucharest Dossier landed in my hands, and I can now say I am a fan.

This international espionage thriller follows Bill Hefflin, a Romanian expat who’s parents brought him to America as a child during the Cold War. After graduating from Harvard, he’s recruited by the CIA as an analyst. His skills are put to the test when he’s asked to return to Bucharest. It’s the start of the bloody 1989 uprising against Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Communist leader of the country.

What unfolds is a complex web of intrigue, in which Hefflin is not just an observer but a key player in a game manipulated by the CIA and the KGB. Amid this political turmoil, Hefflin also harbors a personal quest—to uncover the fate of his childhood sweetheart, Pusha, who disappeared years ago.

Bunny trail alert. I was so fascinated by the historical elements in this novel that I spent longer than necessary researching the facts. Nicolae Ceaușescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 until his overthrow in 1989. He and his wife, who he appointed the first deputy prime minister, lived in opulence as the Romanian population suffered food shortages because Ceausescu exported most of the harvest.

The Ceausescus were arrested during the revolution. Their trial, which began and ended on Christmas Day, lasted less than an hour. The military judge declared both guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to death. A firing squad immediately executed them.

I remember seeing horrifying images of children in Romanian orphanages. Beginning in the late 1960s, Ceausescu battled a demographic crisis by banning contraception. He required women to bear at least five children, which resulted in 150,000 children being placed in state-run orphanages.

The Bucharest Dossier is a terrific debut. Its fast-paced plot, coupled with well-integrated historical facts, kept me hooked from beginning to end. Hefflin is a relatable protagonist, making it easy to invest in his journey. Maz’s writing is authentic, drawing from his own experiences growing up in Bucharest under communism.

This espionage thriller is worth your time. I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up, The Bucharest Legacy. 4 stars.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a comp of this novel. The opinions are my own.


Enemy at the Gates
By Kyle Mills

I’ve been a fan of the Mitch Rapp series ever since the first book hit the shelves in 1999. When Vince Flynn passed on after churning out thirteen fantastic books, I thought, “That’s it, the end of an era.” But then Kyle Mills stepped up to the plate, and while his first couple didn’t quite hit the mark for me, he’s found his groove with Enemy at the Gates.

After two decades of covert ops and assassinations, Mitch is contemplating hanging up his spy hat. He’s feeling the wear and tear, has settled down with a family, and is not exactly fond of the new president. And this president, Anthony Cook, is a different breed—cunning, autocratic, and disloyalty to America’s institutions. Plus, he doesn’t trust Rapp or CIA director Irene Kennedy.

Things kick into high gear when Kennedy discovers that a mole in the Agency has been snooping around for intel on trillionaire Nicholas Ward. She convinces Mitch to protect this high-profile target, and he heads to South Africa, where both he and Ward have homes. To catch the hacker, Rapp turns Ward into bait.

This thriller’s got the total package—a psycho villain, an altruistic virologist, and Mitch Rapp, the world’s deadliest assassin. The action is relentless; I was practically on the edge of my bed! It oozes espionage, intrigue, and political drama that hits too close to reality.

Quick tip: Start this series from the beginning or risk being lost in the shuffle. I’m giving it a solid 4 stars—it’s a wild ride you don’t want to miss.


Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club
by J. Ryan Stradal

I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis during the heyday of supper clubs. My mom did less cooking as my siblings left the house, so we’d often go out to eat. Two of my favorite spots in the 70s were Jax Café and The White House. Even on vacations up north, we’d seek these classic supper clubs.

What exactly is a supper club, you ask? Well, they were a big deal in the upper Midwest. You’d know one the moment you walked in. Picture wood paneling, a relish tray, and a candle flickering in a red jar on every white tablecloth. Your meal would typically include soup or salad, bread, potato, and an entrée like fish, steak, or chops. And let’s not forget the drinks—a proper supper club knows how to make a mean old-fashioned, and they’d serve up delightful ice-cream drinks like grasshoppers, brandy alexanders, and pink squirrels after dinner.

I recently read Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal, and it took me on a walk down memory lane. The story revolves around Mariel Prager and her journey with the Lakeside Supper Club on Bear Jaw Lake, Minnesota. The story is a rollercoaster of emotions, following Mariel’s journey through her family’s restaurant. From her grandmother’s love for the place to her mother’s reluctance, the restaurant holds memories, both good and bad. When Mariel inherits it, she finds unexpected love and loss, all while navigating the challenges of running a business.

What I loved most were the honest, relatable characters. Stradal paints a vivid picture of Midwestern life, and you can feel the authenticity on every page. The story jumps back and forth in time and switches between characters’ perspectives, which didn’t always work.

There were some terribly heartbreaking moments, too, so be prepared to shed some tears. Overall, it’s a lovely read that captures the essence of family-run businesses and the Midwest. I’d give it 4 stars, mainly for the spot-on setting and the characters who felt like old friends.


Simply Lies
by David Baldacci

Hooray for a new standalone by one of my all-time favorite authors! David Baldacci, a master storyteller with 150 million copies sold worldwide, is back with Simply Lies, a psychological thriller that pits two formidable women against each other.

In this gripping tale, we meet Mickey Gibson, a single mother and former police detective who now works for ProEye, a global investigation company specializing in tracking down the financial assets of tax-evading elites. When Mickey receives a phone call from a colleague asking her to inventory the home of an arms dealer who has disappeared, she thinks it’s just another routine assignment. However, things take a dark turn when she discovers a murdered man on the property. Mickey finds herself framed for a crime she didn’t commit, and her job is on the line.

Baldacci weaves an intricate web of deception and suspense as Mickey races against time to clear her name. The novel is packed with twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the very end. While I appreciated the complex plot and Baldacci’s portrayal of strong female characters, I couldn’t connect with Mickey or the writing style. The dialogue felt forced and didn’t ring true to real-life conversations.

As a devoted Baldacci fan (I’ve devoured twenty-eight of his novels), Simply Lies may not be his best work, but it’s still a thrilling read. I found myself engrossed in the story, eager to unravel its secrets. Despite its flaws, Baldacci’s storytelling prowess shines through, making it a solid addition to his impressive body of work. I suspect I will read every book he writes. 4 stars.


Sold on a Monday
By Kristina McMorris

Sold on a Monday takes readers on a poignant journey back to 1931 Philadelphia, a time marked by widespread unemployment, bank runs, hunger, and despair. During this hardship, struggling reporter Ellis Reed stumbles upon a heart-wrenching scene—two young siblings on a farmhouse porch next to a sign that reads: 2 CHILDREN FOR SALE.

Ellis captures a photo, meant for his eyes only, but his editor unexpectedly publishes it. The repercussions are devastating, pulling in the editor’s secretary, Lillian Palmer, who sees more than just a story in the image. As Ellis and Lillian become romantically involved, they embark on a journey to right the wrongs caused by the photo and mend a fractured family.

I couldn’t help thinking about my grandfather while I read this book. In 1909, his father relinquished him following the death of his mother. He was just eight years old and never attended school. It also reminded me of my mom growing up on a farm in North Dakota during the Great Depression and the homeless men who knocked on my grandparents’ kitchen door hoping for a hot meal and a place to sleep.

McMorris’ skill storytelling is captivating. She masterfully crafts a vivid cast of characters, and the plot is both heart-wrenching and honest. The author’s portrayal of Depression-era Pennsylvania is immersive, making me feel the desperation that permeated the lives of so many during that time.

Sold on a Monday was inspired by an actual newspaper photo that stunned readers across the nation. If you’d like to see the photo, follow this link. Warning: the true story is disturbing.

4 stars.

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


State of the Union
By Brad Thor

State of the Union kicks off with a ticking time bomb situation. Picture this: Russian agents playing hide-and-seek with 19 suitcase nukes across the United States. Fast forward twenty years to President Jack Rutledge being handed an ultimatum: inform the American people that the U.S. will withdraw from world affairs, remove its troops from all foreign countries, and surrender its seat in the United Nations (among other organizations).

If he does not do as he is commanded, sleeper agents will set off the hidden nuclear weapons. The president calls upon Navy SEAL turned Secret Service agent Scot Harvath who’s got just seven days to save the day.

Harvath teams up with beautiful Russian Intelligence agent Alexandra Ivanova and a highly trained CIA paramilitary detachment. He races from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., to the streets of Berlin, the coast of Finland, and even the heart of Mother Russia before returning home for a final showdown.

This is my third book in the Scot Harvath series. State of the Union is not as captivating as the other two, but it was still good. Sure, it’s a high-octane thrill ride of espionage and possible nuclear annihilation, but Thor got carried away with the tactical details, and occasionally interrupted the plot’s flow.

Thor has crafted a likable hero you can root for. Harvath’s the kind of guy you’d want on your side in a brawl or, you know, a nuclear crisis. Word on the street is that Thor’s writing gets better with each book; I’m already eyeing the next in the series, Blowback. 4 stars.


Symphony of Secrets
By Brendon Slocumb

With his background as a music educator and performer, Brendan Slocumb brings a unique authenticity to his storytelling that shines through in this novel.

Bern Hendricks, a musicology professor, is asked to authenticate a newly discovered piece by Frederick Delaney, a renowned 20th-century composer. Little does he know; this assignment will lead him down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies. With the help of a computer whiz, he uncovers evidence suggesting Delaney may have stolen his most famous work from a young Black composer named Josephine Reed. Determined to right this wrong, Bern finds himself in the crosshairs of a powerful organization that will stop at nothing to protect their secret—even if it means resorting to murder.

The narrative skillfully alternates between the 1920s and 1930s and the present day, weaving together a tale of race, power, and the world of modern music. While some parts might seem improbable, the mystery remains fascinating and kept me hooked until the conclusion.

One highlight of the novel is Slocumb’s vivid portrayal of 1920s New York City. Slocumb’s attention to detail brings the era to life—the music scene, the food, and the cultural mix that defined the city. It’s particularly intriguing to learn that both Black and White audiences frequented many music venues—a testament to the complex history of race relations in America.

However, I have to dock a star for the author’s note, which left me with a sour taste. Despite this, Symphony of Secrets is a great read that music enthusiasts and mystery lovers alike will enjoy. So, if you’re ready for a journey through the world of music, power, and intrigue, give this one a go. Four stars from me.

Author Brendan Slocumb has found his writing niche. For over twenty years, he has been a public and private school music educator and has performed with several orchestras. So it was natural for him to have music be the backdrop of his two novels, The Violin Conspiracy, and Symphony of Secrets.

I would have given Symphony of Secrets 5 stars were it not for the author’s note. It rubbed me the wrong way. 4 stars.


The Lake Pagoda
By Ann Bennett

The Lake Pagoda takes readers on a journey to French Indochina in the mid-1940s, a period rarely explored in WWII historical fiction. The protagonist, Arielle, is of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage working as a secretary for the French colonial government. When the Japanese invade Hanoi, her native blood spares her from imprisonment, but she is forced to work for the enemy.

Ariel’s life takes a dramatic turn when she is approached by the Viet Minh, a Communist organization led by Ho Chi Minh. The agent threatens to expose dark secrets from her past if she doesn’t pass them information from the Japanese. She must navigate the dangerous path of espionage and resistance.

When I first discovered this novel on Kindle Unlimited, I was immediately drawn to its historical setting. The transition from Indochina to Japanese-held Hanoi and then to an independent Vietnam intrigued me, offering a fresh perspective on this pivotal time in history. While the plot held promise, I found myself less enthusiastic about picking up the book as I progressed. My disappointment stemmed from the writing style, which I felt relied too heavily on certain words and phrases. This aspect of the book detracted from my overall enjoyment.

Nevertheless, the historical value of The Lake Pagoda is undeniable. It shed light on a period and setting often overshadowed by more widely explored facets of World War II. I’d rate it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4, for its insightful portrayal of a crucial moment in Vietnamese history.


The Reading List
By Sara Nisha Adams

“It was strange, the idea that this book wasn’t just for him, it was for everyone. All these people who had taken it out before him, people who would take it out after him. They might have read it on a beach, on the train, on the bus, in the park, in their living room. On the toilet? He hoped not! Every reader, unknowingly connected in some small way. He was about to be a part of this too.”—Sara Nisha Adams, The Reading List.

Aleisha, a teenager working as a library clerk in Wembley, North London, stumbles upon a life-changing discovery—a list of eight classic novels titled “Just in case you need it,” beginning with To Kill a Mockingbird. This leads her to connect with Mukesh Patel, a lonely widower yearning to bond with his book-loving granddaughter. As Aleisha and Mukesh share the books, a beautiful connection forms, intertwining their lives with the stories they read.

Divided into sections based on each book, the novel delves into profound themes like mental illness, grief, abandonment, and self-doubt. It’s a poignant exploration of how literature can bridge the gap between people and offer solace in challenging times.

While the book starts strong, capturing the essence of its premise with warmth and depth, some readers may find that it loses momentum in the second half. Nevertheless, it’s a touching debut novel that showcases Sara Nisha Adams’ ability to craft heartfelt stories inspired by real-life connections.

This book is a nominee for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction (2021), and it’s clear why—it’s a story that celebrates the power of books to bring people together and provide comfort in times of need. Drawing from her own family history in Wembley, Adams infuses the novel with a personal touch that adds depth to the narrative. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

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


Sparring Partners
By John Grisham

If you’re into John Grisham’s legal thrillers like I am, you might be curious about his first collection of novellas, “Sparring Partners.” I’ve been a fan of Grisham’s work for a while now, having read over a dozen of his books, but this collection didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

The novellas in Sparring Partners all revolve around the theme of law, which is a common thread in Grisham’s writing and something I usually enjoy. In “Homecoming,” we follow Jake Brigance, a familiar character from Grisham’s previous novels, as he’s called upon to help his old friend Mack Stafford, a disgraced former attorney who disappeared with his clients’ money, leaving behind his family.

“Strawberry Moon” introduces us to Cody Wallace, a young man sitting on death row for a crime he committed as a teenager. As his execution approaches, he has one last wish, adding an interesting layer to the story.

Finally, in “Sparring Partners,” we meet Kirk and Rusty Malloy, two brothers who inherit their father’s law firm after he’s imprisoned for murdering his wife. As the firm falls apart, they turn to Diantha Bradshaw for help.

While I was excited to dive into these stories, I found the character development lacking and the plots underwhelming. Given Grisham’s track record of forty-seven consecutive #1 bestsellers, I expected more from this collection. However, if you’re a die-hard Grisham fan or simply love legal thrillers, it might still be worth a read. I’d give it 3 stars.

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

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