Amy’s Picks and Pans, Issue 27


Hey fellow bookies! Spring has sprung, birds are looking for love, and flower bulbs are popping through the moldering ground. Just imagine, with a gentle breeze stirring the air, there’s nothing like kicking back with a good book. So, let’s grab a cup of something yummy and dive into this month’s hits and misses in the literary world. I’ve got my stack right here, and I’m ready to share my thoughts. Let’s find out which books might become your sun-soaked companions and which ones might just be better used as doorstops. As always, these are just my opinions, you may think differently. Ready? Let’s turn the page!


Remarkably Bright Creatures
By Shelby Van Pelt

“Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.”― Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures

So, picture this: a novel about a talking octopus who’s also an escape artist. Sounds pretty out there, right? Well, that’s what I thought too until I read Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt.

This book has been making waves (pun intended) as a 2022 Goodreads Choice Award nominee for Best Fiction and Best Debut Novel, and let me tell you, it’s now firmly planted among my all-time favorites. Here’s why:

The story follows Tova Sullivan, who’s been working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium to cope with the loss of her husband and the mysterious disappearance of her son thirty years ago. One day, she discovers that Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus, not only has a knack for escaping his tank but can also talk and reason. Their unlikely friendship blossoms in the most heartwarming way.

But that’s not all—enter Cam Cassmore, a rock musician down on his luck, who’s searching for his estranged father in the same town. When Cam takes over Tova’s job while she is recovering from an injury, Marcellus senses a connection between the two, leading to a series of events that will tug at your heartstrings.

What makes this book shine is its charming mix of whimsy and depth. It’s not just about a talking octopus; it deals with themes like grief, aging, and loneliness with grace and humor. The narrative is also unique, with Marcellus himself narrating some chapters.

Shelby Van Pelt has crafted a debut novel that’s as heartwarming as it is witty, as touching as it is insightful. I couldn’t put it down, and I bet you won’t be able to either. So if you’re looking for a truly enchanting read, Remarkably Bright Creatures gets my wholehearted recommendation. 5 enthusiastic stars!


Oath of Loyalty
by Kyle Mills

“I always knew there was a power-hungry ruling class, but I didn’t allow myself to see how many people would be willing to kneel in front of it. Maybe freedom just demands too much of the average citizen. Too much personal responsibility. Too many opportunities for failure.”—Kyle Mills, Oath of Loyalty.

What is it about fictional assassins that make us cheer for them? With Mitch Rapp, it’s because he is smart, powerful, studly, and he fights for the good guys. Now he has become a kinder, gentler man who is finally feeling his age. Talk about abusing this body? Sheesh!

In Oath of Loyalty, the 21st installment of the Mitch Rapp series, author Kyle Mills delivers a gripping tale that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. CIA director Irene Kennedy finds herself in the tricky position of brokering peace between POTUS Anthony Cook and the formidable Mitch Rapp. The terms seem straightforward: Rapp agrees to keep a low profile while Cook is in power, and in return, the administration promises not to target him.

But peace is short-lived, as Rapp must defend his partner, Claudia Gold, whose cover is blown by the very people he agreed to trust. Now, Rapp must navigate a treacherous landscape to protect his family and uncover the truth behind the betrayal.

What sets Oath of Loyalty apart is its multifaceted characters and the depth they bring to the story. While Rapp remains the quintessential badass, readers also get glimpses of his vulnerabilities and the toll his lifestyle has taken on him. Mills deftly intertwines fast-paced action with political intrigue, keeping the tension high throughout.

What I loved about Oath of Loyalty is that it’s not just your run-of-the-mill action flick in book form. Sure, there are plenty of heart-pounding moments and political chess moves, but the characters? They’ve got layers. Kyle Mills really nails it, giving Rapp and the gang more depth than ever before.

Moreover, the narrative is enriched by timely references to current events, adding an extra layer of realism and terror to the story. With its relentless pacing and intricate plot, Oath of Loyalty stands out as a stellar addition to the Mitch Rapp series. Fans of the franchise will not be disappointed. 5 stars.


The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
by Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi returns with her signature blend of rich narrative and vivid imagery. The Secret Keeper of Jaipur picks up the threads of Lakshmi’s life a dozen years after we left her in The Henna Artist. Escaping from a scandal in Jaipur, Lakshmi finds sanctuary in the foothills of the Himalayas, creating a new life with her sharp-witted adoptive son, Malik, and her doctor husband.

It’s now 1969 and Malik is studying the building trade as an intern at the Facilities Office of the Jaipur Royal Palace. Their latest project is a state-of-the-art cinema. More than a thousand people flock to Jaipur’s Royal Jewel Cinema on opening night. But as intermission ends, the balcony collapses. As the dust settles, the secrets hidden in the theater’s construction threaten to bring down one of the city’s most powerful families. Malik suspects fraud and Lakshmi returns to Jaipur to help Malik bring out the truth.

This book swings between the perspectives of Lakshmi, Malik, and Malik’s sweetheart Nimmi. Joshi masterfully draws the reader back into the vibrant world she’s created, filling each page with lush descriptions of India’s culinary delights, its sensory-filled settings, and a plot that stays with you long after you put the book down. She deftly navigates the intricate layers of Indian culture, the pulls of tradition, and the push for modernity.

With its secrets and intrigue, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur garners a well-deserved 4 stars, leaving you reaching for the next installment in the trilogy, The Perfumist of Paris.


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 jam-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.

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


Dark Roads
by Chevy Stevens

The Cold Creek Highway stretches close to five hundred miles through British Columbia’s rugged wilderness to the west coast. For decades, young indigenous women traveling the road have gone missing. Authorities have brought no killer or abductor to justice.

In part 1 of Dark Roads, seventeen-year-old Hailey McBride calls Cold Creek home. Her aunt and controlling police-officer step-uncle assume the responsibility of taking care of her after her father’s death. Overwhelmed by grief and forbidden to work, socialize, or date, Hailey runs away, believing she can use the outdoor skills her father taught her to survive the harsh wilderness. She also hopes people will believe she was the killer’s latest victim so she can have a fresh start.

A year later, in part two, Beth Chevalier arrives in Cold Creek to attend the annual memorial service for the highway victims, who include her sister. Beth takes a waitressing job at the local diner, just as Amber did, desperate to understand what happened to her and why.

Author Chevy Stevens writes this creepy coming-of-age thriller with multiple perspectives and an atmospheric, suspenseful tone. It’s dark and unsettling. There are clever twists, but once again, the book has LGBT content and pokes fun at Christians. It was a good book, just not great. Others liked it better, so don’t let my review make your decision. 3.5 stars.

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


By Gary Paulsen

“That simple. You lived or you died. And in between the two, if you kept your mind open and aware and listened and smelled and watched… In between you learned.”
― Gary Paulsen, Northwind

Northwind is quite a journey. The hero of our story is a 12-year-old orphan named Leif, whose life is upended when a deadly plague strikes his small fishing camp. It’s gritty and raw—Paulsen doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of it all. To save Leif and another young boy, a dying elder puts the two kids in a cedar canoe and tells Leif to paddle north to where the air is clear.

Unsure of his destination, Leif finds himself with few supplies as he navigates the shorelines that teem with wildlife, all described with Paulsen’s classic attention to detail. Throughout his journey, he comes to understand the importance of learning from nature.

I normally don’t read books for this age group, but I wanted to see how Paulsen wrapped up his legacy. After all, Hatchet was legendary, and he wrote a whole library’s worth more. From what I understand, he had a tough childhood, which may be why he wrote books about teenagers surviving on their own.

Booklist perfectly likened this short, middle-grade novel to a YA version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Sadly, it didn’t click for me. The storytelling felt lifeless and depressing, not at all what I expected. Paulsen clearly knew a great deal about nature, but little emotion made its way into the book.

The highlight for me was the author’s note—Paulsen shared bits about his life and his Norwegian grandma. That stuff was gold. Also, a heads-up if you prefer audiobooks—the narrator was talented, but maybe not the right voice for this one. I’m landing on 3 stars for the whole experience. For die-hard Paulsen fans, it’s a must-read, but if you’re looking for the heart-pounding emotion of Hatchet, you might want to brace yourself for something a little different.

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


The Last Chance Library
by Freya Sampson

“Libraries are like a net, there to catch those of us in danger of falling through the cracks.”–Freya Sampson, The Last Chance Library

The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson casts a warm glow on the cozy little world of June Jones, a shy librarian in a quaint English village. The library is June’s safety net until it’s not. The threat of losing her beloved library to budget cuts forces June out from the stacks to stand up for her community’s beating heart. This book wraps you up in its comforting embrace like a well-worn cardigan.

With a quirky cast of oddball patrons that feel lifted from a village party, including a romantic interest who never quite steps off the well-trodden path of misfit love stories, The Last Chance Library is comfort food in literary form. But here’s the rub—I recently read a book with a similar plot, and the sense of déjà vu was tough to shake.

For readers looking for depth and complexity, June’s journey might not hit the mark. She’s a character that may strike you as overly timid, and the plot doesn’t stray far from familiar grooves. Yet, there’s a charm to its simplicity, and it’s the kind of book you can pick up on a noisy plane and still manage to fall into without missing a beat.

It’s sweet and uncomplicated, so if that’s the literary escape you’re after, you’ll find solace here. For me, it’s a gentle read that didn’t quite stir my soul. I landed on three stars for The Last Chance Library—it’s not one for the history books, but it might be just the ticket for a breezy afternoon.

Here’s the rub — it felt like déjà vu. I’d wandered down this plotline recently with another book, and let’s be honest, once you’ve seen one small-town library under siege, you’ve seen ‘em all. If you’re cool with the bookish equivalent of a Sunday afternoon TV movie, then The Last Chance Library might just be your cup of tea. June didn’t do much for me, either; she’s got the depth of a paddling pool in a drought. The narrative stuck to the safety of the shallow end, too, with twists you could spot a mile off.

So, what’s the verdict? It’s a three-star sticker from me. It’s the sort of read that’s perfect when you want to switch off and not think too hard — maybe something to keep you company on a lazy beach day. Just don’t expect to be swept off your feet. If you were hoping for a plot that’d make you sit up in your lounge chair, you might want to browse a little longer on the shelves.

The Last Chance Library is a cute, lighthearted book, oozing with loveable characters, and a predictable storyline. While the protagonist, June, was too simpering for my taste, she kind of grew on me, and although the story arc is a trifle cliché, I’m giving it 3 stars for a simple, light read. (You won’t get lost in the plot even if an infant on your flight is wailing.) Overall, not to my taste, but an okay read. Three stars, because it’s nice, it’s easy, and it didn’t take forever to read.

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


The Angel Makers: Arsenic, a Midwife, and Modern History’s Most Astonishing Murder Ring
By Patti McCracken

I recently read The Angel Makers by veteran journalist Patti McCracken. It’s a chilling dive into the world of true crime. The book takes us back to the 1920s in the Hungarian village of Nagyrév, where things got seriously dark.

Zsuzsanna Fazekas, aka Auntie Suzy, rolls into town in 1911, and guess what? Her husband is nowhere to be found. Suspicious, right? Then she racks up arrests for conducting illegal abortions, but somehow keeps dodging conviction. That’s when her side hustle begins.

She cooks up arsenic from flypaper and selling it to women who want to bump off their kin. And not just a few, mind you. We’re talking about husbands, kids, parents—anyone who stood in the way of what these women wanted. One woman killed seven family members! Auntie Suzy’s crew racks up a body count of at least 160 people over fifteen years. Her cousin is the clerk filing all the death certificates, so nobody blinked an eye until an anonymous note blew the lid off the scheme in 1929.

Cue the dramatic trial scenes, with sixteen women and one unlucky guy getting slapped with convictions. A few swing from the gallows, and Auntie Suzy? Well, she and a couple others die by suicide.

McCracken lays it all out with a mix of archival research and vivid storytelling. While the historical backdrop and characters are painted in rich detail, the pace kind drags because of her overindulgence in details. Don’t get me wrong, it’s creepy as heck in places, but I skimmed just to keep things moving.

In the end, The Angel Makers left me with mixed feelings. It’s an exploration of a seriously messed-up piece of history, but it might’ve worked better as a long-form article rather than a book.

Oh, and get this—some sources say the death toll could be as high as three hundred. Wrap your head around that one, if you dare. Overall, The Angel Makers is a chilling tale, no doubt. Props to McCracken for bringing this macabre slice of history to light. 2.5 stars rounded up to 3.

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


The Cellist
By Daniel Silva 

“A nuclear bomb can only be dropped once. But money can be wielded every day with no fallout and no threat of mutually assured destruction.”—Daniel Silva, The Cellist.

I picked up The Cellist by Daniel Silva, hoping for the usual rollercoaster ride, but ended up feeling like I was stuck on a slow-moving tour bus. Look, I’m usually all in for Silva’s twists and turns, but this? This was a slog.

First off, the whole vibe’s off. We’re back with billionaire Viktor Orlov, who’s up to his neck in trouble again. His London pad, supposedly tighter than Fort Knox, gets breached on what? A rainy evening? Come on. Then there’s this journalist, conveniently dropping off the map after Orlov’s taken out by a nerve agent. And, of course, MI6 thinks she’s to blame. It’s like everyone’s lost their common sense.

Enter Gabriel Allon, art restorer and master spy, who’s got a soft spot for Orlov. He’s darting from London to Amsterdam, then Geneva—classic Silva setup, right? But instead of the cool spy craft that usually has me on the edge of my seat, we get tangled in this murky plot with the Hayden Group stirring up trouble with old-school KGB tactics. And guess what Allon is after? Big financial scandals. Thrilling? Not so much.

And don’t get me started on the COVID angle. I get it, it’s current—but it’s also everywhere. When I pick up a spy novel, I’m looking to escape, not be reminded of the evening news.

The real kicker for me was the politics. Silva wades through a swamp of political commentary, which—let’s be honest—leans pretty hard left. The Author’s Note might as well have been an op-ed piece. I’m love a good political thriller, but the balance was off. It felt preachy, and not what I signed up for.

I usually buzz through Silva’s books, but with The Cellist, I was watching the page numbers more than the plot. It’s a 2-star from me, and that’s being generous. Here’s hoping Silva gets back to the action and leaves the policy analysis on the cutting room floor.


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