Amy’s Picks and Pans, Issue 29

Welcome back to my monthly book picks and pans! This month was a whirlwind of adventures and not as many pages turned as usual, but fear not—my book selections still pack a punch. From the good, the not-so-good, and everything in between, my mixed bag of reviews is sure to keep things interesting. Whether you’re looking for a tale to tug at your heartstrings, a mystery that keeps you guessing, or a wild literary ride, grab your TBR list and let’s journey through this month’s eclectic reading roundup! There are a few titles and authors with which you might not be family, so dare to branch out. Remember, these are my opinions… yours may differ.


Hello Beautiful
by Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano, the brilliant writer behind Dear Edward (2020), has done it again with her latest novel, Hello Beautiful. While I normally steer clear of Oprah’s Book Club picks, Ann Napolitano is phenomenal, so I gave it a go.

We meet William Waters as a young boy in a house silenced by tragedy. His parents can hardly look at him, so it’s a relief when he earns a scholarship to college far away from his childhood home. He soon meets Julia Padavano, an ambitious young woman. He is soon engulfed in her boisterous close-knit Italian family, and embraced by sisters Sylvie, a romantic bibliophile, Cecelia, an aspiring artist, and Emeline, the caretaker of the family. But William’s depression surfaces the entire family is upended.

Hello Beautiful is a tender, moving re-imaging of Little Women, Louise May Alcott’s epic Civil War portrait of the March sisters. Here, the author transports us to a real Chicago community, Pilsen, spanning the years from the 1970s to 2008. Napolitano creates a believable narrative with flowing prose and evocative characterization (although the eldest sister falls short in the likeability department.)

The initial half of the novel had me eagerly turning pages, but as the story progressed, it felt tedious. Some might term this a “slow burn,” but I longed for more action and less emotion. In fact, the abundance of drama almost dulled its impact for me. The writing was amazing, though, and I would have loved to take one of her fiction writing classes.

If you are in the mood for an emotionally charged read, Hello Beautiful is just the ticket. 4 stars.

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


Beasts of a Little Land
by Juhea Kim

“Life is only bearable because time makes you forget everything. But life is worthwhile because love makes you remember everything.”― Juhea Kim, Beasts of a Little Land.

Juhea Kim’s first novel tells a story of friendship and forgiveness during Korea’s fight for independence. The novel begins in 1917, when a captive a Korean hunter saves a young Japanese officer from an attacking tiger. In an instant, their destinies are connected, laying the foundation for an intricate saga spanning five decades.

Central to the narrative is Jade Ahn, a young girl from a poor rural family who is sold to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in Pyongyang. She forms a deep friendship with an orphan boy named JungHo, who ekes out a living begging on the streets of Seoul. As they come of age, JungHo is swept up in the revolutionary fight for independence, and Jade becomes a celebrated courtesan and movie star.

The novel unfolds through the skillful storytelling of Juhea Kim, a Korean-born writer with a Princeton education. I gained a better understanding of Japan’s occupation of Korea during WWII. The novel sheds light on the Koreans’ unyielding determination to break free from the yoke of oppression.

Particularly intriguing were the insights into the life of a courtesan within a culture that holds many in reverence. I didn’t know they used pulverized, powdered seashells on their faces. I always thought it was rice powder.

While the novel’s intensity and depth were gripping, the pacing occasionally led my thoughts to wander. The abundance of detail, while enriching the narrative, also contributed to its slower rhythm. The myriad characters further challenged my engagement, sometimes leaving me disoriented.

A tragic and somber tone marks this haunting tale, which explores themes of unrequited love, dire poverty, and the harsh realities of Japanese occupation. A word of caution for the sensitive reader: the book contains unsettling instances of violence, including rape, assault, and murder.

Author Juhea Kim is off to a good start in her writing career. Beasts of a Little Land is perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee, Lisa See, and Amy Tan. I suggest reading this novel rather than choosing the audiobook. The narrator is terrific, but the characters are hard to keep track of. 4 stars.

by Hernan Diaz

Trust takes readers on a journey through the intricate world of high finance during the 1920s and 1930s in New York City. The book is about Andrew Bevel, a fictional financier who outsmarts the market just before the fateful stock market crash of 1929. When everyone else is losing their shirt, he converts his investments into cash mere weeks before the Great Depression hit.

The book is divided into four distinct sections, some of which worked better than others. First there is a short,unflattering novel written by author Harold Vanner about an investor named Benjamin Rask and his mentally ill wife. The character is obviously based on Andrew Bevel. The second part is Bevel’s partial autobiography, correcting the supposed mistakes in Vanner’s fictionalized story. In part 3, readers are introduced to journalist Ida Partenze, the daughter of an exiled Italian anarchist, who Bevel hires to ghostwrite his story. Finally, the last section presents a series of journal entries by Bevel’s wife, Mildred, who is dying of cancer in a Swiss spa. Each voice is different, each truth unique, yet all threads are interrelated.

Now, allow me to vent for a moment. It’s infuriating that book reviewers, who are readers rather than fellow writers, have the gall to give this book a one-star rating. Let’s talk accolades: Booker Prize Nominee (2022), Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2023), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2022), and the Kirkus Prize for Fiction (2022). Diaz also won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2022. In my book (pun intended), those one-star ratings seem more like sabotage attempts. Someone even gave it a “1 star rounded down” rating. Seriously? Oh, and if you didn’t finish the book, it is inappropriate to write a review. A DNF is a DNF. Alright, stepping off the soapbox.

I get why not everyone fell head over heels for Trust. Finance aficionados will probably revel in the story, but to others, it may be a tad dry in parts. Honestly, I wonder if some people don’t like the book because it is too brilliant, too complex. It’s the type of book that belongs on a college English Literature syllabus. Hernan Diaz first made waves with his debut novel, In the Distance, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and with Trust he took home the coveted award. He definitely has literary chops. 4 stars.

The Arctic Fury
by Greer Macallister

In early 1853, a mysterious benefactor summons experienced California Trail guide Virginia Reeve to Boston and offers her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead a party of 12 women into the wild, hazardous Arctic in search of the lost Franklin Expedition. Based on true events, Greer Macallister’s The Arctic Fury is an adventurous historical mystery that considers what might have been if a women’s expedition traveled to the Arctic when women weren’t expected to leave the house, let alone explore the corners of the globe.

A year and a half after the expedition, Virginia finds herself on trial for murder when not all the women return. Macallister captures the suspenseful journey from all angles as readers uncover the truth about what really happened out on the ice.

She pulls no punches depicting the grisly, dangerous realities of 19th-century Arctic journeys. The 13 strangers travel by train, canoe, ship, and dogsled to the formidable climate that pushes the characters to their limits. Each character is drawn with care, making their struggles and interpersonal dynamics powerful.

The novel’s structure is interesting, with the prosecutor’s statements often followed by flashbacks to the expedition. Some readers might find the detailed descriptions of the environment lengthy, though they contribute significantly to the setting’s authenticity.

Despite the occasional pacing issues, The Arctic Fury is a bold and engaging tale that mixes historical detail with the thrills of survival fiction and the intrigue of legal drama. While not for the squeamish, it will appeal to those who enjoy historical narratives with strong female leads and a touch of mystery.

Overall, I give it 4 stars. My book club’s average rating was 3.6. It’s a well-put-together epic with tension and surprises that will hold your attention.

Head Shot
by Otho Eskin

Head Shot takes place in Washington, D.C. and follows detective Marko Zorn as he struggles to balance his moral code with breaking the rules. The story kicks off as Zorn, with his junior partner, Lucy, investigates the murder of a former flame.

But just when things seem complicated enough, he is assigned an off-the-books mission: safeguarding Nina Voychek, the prime minister of Montenegro, during her official visit. Political enemies are planning her assassination, and he soon learns that he is also a target. After a few attempts on his life, he enlists some shady resources to hunt down whoever is after him and prevent an international tragedy on American soil.

The multi-layered plot is full of action and the protagonist, the smart-ass detective, is flawed and likeable. The author clearly has a great deal of knowledge about police work and international intrigue. For example, his description of taking out an opponent in a gunfight is very believable. There’s a reason he is so knowledgeable: Otho Eskin served in the U.S. Army and in the United States Foreign Service in Washington and in Syria, Yugoslavia, Iceland, and Berlin (then the capital of the German Democratic Republic) as a lawyer and diplomat.

The formatting of my review copy was so messed up that it was difficult to differentiate between dialogue and paragraphs, but for the most part, the writing was solid. While each installment in the Marko Zorn series can stand its own ground, reading The Reflecting Pool (the series opener) first would have provided additional context.

I enjoy reading books published by indie presses, instead of always the big five and their imprints. I enjoyed this thriller and will read his other books. If you enjoy Daniel Silva and David Baldacci, give this author a shot. 3.5 stars.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Light Pirate
by Lily Brooks-Dalton

The Light Pirate isn’t a book I would normally choose to read, but that’s the beauty of being in a book club… stepping outside one’s comfort zone. The only other dystopian books I’ve read are The Hunger Games and Divergentnovels—this genre isn’t really my go-to. This book really had me thinking about what could happen in the future. My closest friends and I have long discussed what we would do if this country completely fell apart (even more than it already has). The plan is that we would build a compound and use our strengths to survive. I’ll be the resident chef.

I can’t image doing that alone like Wanda did. Florida is slipping away. As devastating weather patterns and rising sea levels gradually wreak havoc on the state’s infrastructure, Floridians are forced to abandon their homes and move to other states. The Lowe family clings to their home, bracing for each storm that rolls through. As the effects of climate change overwhelm America, we meet Wanda, a girl born during and named after a devastating hurricane. She must live alone in Florida’s mangrove swamps in harmony with nature as civilization crumbles. She reminds me of Kya Clark in Delia Owens’ masterpiece, Where the Crawdads Sing.

Lily Brooks-Dalton creates a believable picture of nature reclaiming Florida from its human inhabitants, and her complex and engaging characters make the story sing. Her novel is a story of survival, love, and loss, and there is a LOT of loss. Her depictions of nature gave me a bird’s-eye view of the climate and the struggles of survival. My husband, a science teacher who never reads for pleasure, would have been impressed and interested.

Now, I’m going to write something that other reviewers thought but didn’t express based on how they shelved this novel. The lesbian relationship at the end was out of left field and felt superfluous. There, I said it.

I tally over 100 books a year, and The Light Pirate probably has the most unique premise of any I’ve read. It is a treatise on climate change, exaggerated but still entertaining. The author had me thinking about living a simpler life and preparing for all contingencies. I want a big garden, so I won’t starve to death after the apocalypse; I won’t be eating rodents. Naturally, my husband better be with me… I am too much of a weenie to survive in such an environment. Reading this book made me second guess buying a snowbird condo in Florida to escape the Minnesota winters. I hope the Sunshine State isn’t reclaimed by nature anytime soon. 3.5 stars.

Clark and Division
by Naomi Hirahara

Clark and Division by Edgar Award-winner Naomi Hirahara brings readers into the poignant struggles of a Japanese American family in 1944 Chicago. After spending two years in the Manzanar internment camp, twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her family face another blow—the mysterious death of Aki’s sister, Rose, ruled a suicide by police. Convinced of foul play, Aki is determined to uncover the truth, thrusting us into a tale woven with historical intricacies and the harsh realities of racism and displacement faced by Japanese Americans during and after World War II.

Hirahara’s portrayal of 1940s Chicago is rich in historical detail, offering a vivid backdrop to the personal and communal challenges Aki navigates. While Aki’s journey is an interesting exploration of identity and resilience, some narrative choices—like an oddly placed anecdote about cross-dressing—feel disjointed, detracting from the story’s coherence. The book’s conclusion arrives abruptly, diminishing the impact of the mystery.

Despite these shortcomings, Hirahara’s extensive research and dedication to portraying this dark chapter of American history are clear, making Clark and Division an important, if flawed, read.

Rated 3 stars, the novel has its moments and educative value, though it may not satisfy those seeking a tight, engaging mystery. However, for its historical insight, it might be worth exploring further in the series.

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

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