Amy’s Picks and Pans, Issue 30

This month, I embarked on a literary journey across 3,643 pages, traveling through Uganda, Kenya, Italy, Scotland, England, Norway, Berkeley, Washington DC, and even ancient Pompeii. I delved into historical fiction, a psychological thriller, detective fiction, and a couple of mysteries. While I had more 3-star reads than usual, I also discovered two amazing books. Remember, your mileage may vary—none of these were total clunkers! Dive in and see where these stories take you. Happy reading!

A History of Burning
by Janika Oza

The story begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when 13-year-old Pirbhai, the eldest son of a poor family, is conscripted British to work on the East African Railway in Kenya. Then one day, Pirbhai commits an act so heinous it will haunt him forever and reverberate across his family’s future for generations to come.

Pirbhai’s children are born and raised under the searing sun of Kampala during the waning days of British colonial rule. As Uganda moves towards independence and military dictatorship, Pirbhai’s granddaughters, Latika, Mayuri, and Kiya, are coming of age in a divided nation.

Then, in 1972, under Idi Amin’s brutal regime, all Asians are expelled, and the family has no choice but to flee. In the chaos, they leave something behind.

Janika Oza’s impressive debut takes readers on a journey spanning four continents and five generations of an Indian family as they’re forced to migrate again and again for political and economic reasons. As Pirbhai’s grandchildren, scattered across the world, find their way back to each other in exile in Toronto, a shocking letter arrives that causes each generation to question how far they will go, and who they will defy to secure their own place in the world.

A History of Burning is an unforgettable family saga of complicity and resistance, about the stories we share, the ones that remain unspoken, and the eternal search for home.

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of ten characters as they move around the world and struggle to maintain solidarity and cultural traditions. While the multiple viewpoints might be challenging for some readers, Oza’s storytelling shines through in this sweeping historical novel. 5 stars.

The Golden Gate
by Amy Chua

“Right— we’re the good Orientals now. But I still can’t buy a house outside Chinatown. That’s ‘all men are created equal’ for you.”—Amy Chua, The Golden Gate.

In 1944 Berkeley, California, presidential hopeful Walter Wilkinson is found dead in his room at the Claremont Hotel, launching an investigation by Homicide Detective Al Sullivan. Early evidence points to the three granddaughters of wealthy socialite Genevieve Hopkins Bainbridge and links to the 1930 murder of 7-year-old Iris Stafford, rumored to haunt the hotel.

The Golden Gate, written by Yale law professor Amy Chua, is an old-fashioned detective novel rich with California history and real-life figures. The story alternates between Genevieve’s deposition and Sullivan’s first-person narration, weaving in historical nuggets about notable personalities like Margaret Chung, the first Chinese woman physician in the US, and architect Julia Morgan.

Chua effectively combines multiple narratives, creating a detective novel reminiscent of 1940s police procedurals set in San Francisco. While the book offers an engaging plot, the story feels somewhat disjointed at times. Additionally, the depiction of racism and internment camps in the 1940s is disturbing yet thought-provoking.

The Golden Gate is a fascinating read with a strong moral compass and historical depth, earning a solid 4.5 stars.

** Thanks to NetGalley for review copies of the audiobook and eBook. The opinions expressed are my own.

The Good Left Undone
by Adriana Trigiani

The story centers on Matelda Roffo, an Italian grandmother nearing the end of her life, who decides it’s time to reveal her family’s hidden secrets. As she unfolds the past, we’re transported back to her mother Domenica’s life in pre-World War II, Italy.

Domenica thrives in the coastal town of Viareggio, Italy until she is banished by the Catholic Church. Her journey takes her from the rocky shores of Marseille to the mystical beauty of Scotland and onto the dangerous streets of war-torn Liverpool.

Trigiani’s writing is lush and evocative. She captures the essence of Italian culture—the food, the landscapes, and the deep-rooted traditions. I could almost taste the homemade pasta and feel the sun on my face in her picturesque hometown. Another standout element of the book is the depth of its characters. The way Trigiani writes the three generations of women feels authentic and relatable.

What really struck me was the way Trigiani weaves the past and present together, showing how the choices and sacrifices of one generation echo through the lives of the next. It’s a reminder that the past, no matter how distant, shapes who we are and who we become.

One aspect I particularly enjoyed was Trigiani’s observations on the aging process. “When you see an old lady who’s on the wrong side of a good mood, now you know why. She has a past that you can’t understand because you didn’t live it. As she ages, her feet hurt, her back aches, her knees click, she cooks, she cleans, she worries, she waits, and then she gets sick and dies. Be kind, Anina. Someday you’ll be the old lady.” Oh, how I can relate!

The Good Left Undone is a poignant family saga. Trigiani conveys the beauty of Italy, the hardships of war, the taste of family recipes, and the enduring love of family. I give it 4 stars.

An Incomplete Revenge
by Jacqueline Winspear

“There was something about even the smallest fire that was more unsettling than other crimes of a similar caliber. The match idly thrown on tinder can become an all- consuming blaze, while sparks ignored can envelop a mansion if left unchecked. And flame ignited for the sake of malicious damage strikes at the very heart of individual and collective fear, for isn’t fire the place where the devil resides?”—Jacqueline Winspear, An Incomplete Revenge.

Set in 1931 during an economic downturn, An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear follows psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs as she tackles a puzzling case in the picturesque village of Heronsdene, Kent. Every year, during the bustling hop harvest, strange fires break out. Maisie is called in to uncover the truth behind these incidents, but she quickly realizes the villagers are hiding more than they’re willing to share, including the tragic fate of the Martin family during a World War I zeppelin raid.

Winspear’s writing shines with rich historical detail and atmospheric descriptions, bringing the village and its colorful inhabitants to life. Integrating Romani culture adds a unique and fascinating layer to the narrative. Maisie is a likeable protagonist, combining sharp investigative skills with deep empathy, making her journey as engaging as the mystery itself.

The plot unfolds at a steady pace, filled with twists that keep you guessing. The details about hop picking and the Romani in England are intriguing, and themes of revenge, prejudice, and community are woven seamlessly into the story. Overall, the fifth installment of the Maisie Dobbs series is a well-crafted, engaging mystery that offers both suspense and emotional depth. 4 stars.

The Norse Queen
by Johanna Wittenberg

The Norse Queen takes readers to ninth-century Norway, a time of fierce battles and fractured kingdoms. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Åsa, is the daughter of a Norse king with dreams of becoming a shield-maiden. Her world shatters when she spurns a powerful warlord who then decimates her family, killing her father and brother and taking her captive. To save her people, she must marry her father’s killer and, to exact her revenge, she must rise to become his queen.

I am of Norwegian heritage and have some familiarity with the culture. The novel’s depiction of Norse culture feels authentic, reflecting meticulous research. For instance, the burial rituals are vividly described: “Far below lay her mother, buried with the baby who killed her. They lay together in the timber burial chamber, tucked into her mother’s bed made up with down-filled linen, surrounded by treasures. Åsa remembered her father performing the rites of death. In a grief-fueled killing frenzy, he’d sacrificed his favorite horses and two dogs along with mixed livestock to accompany his wife and child into the afterlife.”

However, the book loses momentum about halfway through. The battle scenes, while frequent, lacked intensity. The excessive detail sometimes feels like the author is showcasing her knowledge, which can detract from the story’s flow.

Despite these flaws, The Norse Queen offers an interesting portrayal of a young woman’s struggle for power and vengeance in a brutal era. It’s a solid read for those interested in Viking history and Norse mythology. 4 stars.

Double Indemnity
by Robert Whitlow

In Double Indemnity, Robert Whitlow crafts a tale of mystery and suspense set in north Georgia. Matt and Elena Thompson’s seemingly perfect life unravels with secrets and financial troubles. Their marriage faces a critical blow when Matt dies in a suspicious hunting accident.

New attorney Liz Acosta and pastor Connor Grantham are drawn into the turmoil of the Thompsons’ lives. Liz digs into the legal intricacies of Matt’s death, while Connor, who counseled the couple, finds himself entangled in their explosive arguments.

Whitlow’s legal knowledge adds authenticity, and elements of faith and clean romance provide a wholesome touch. However, uneven pacing and a slow start might test some readers’ patience. Despite these flaws, the alternating perspectives of Liz and Connor keep the story engaging.

For fans of Christian suspense, Double Indemnity offers enough intrigue and faith-based themes to satisfy. With 22 books on his resume, Whitlow’s reputation is notable, with a Christie Award win and four movie adaptations to his credit. Rating: 3.5 stars rounded up to 4

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

Miss Aldridge Regrets
by Louise Hare

In 1936 London, Lena Aldridge, a talented mixed-race singer and actress, dreams of performing on grand stages. Yet, her reality finds her stuck in the dimly lit confines of a shabby basement jazz club in Soho. Life takes a cruel turn as her beloved single father passes away, her married boyfriend walks out on her, and her best friend involves her in a murder.

Just when it seems like all hope is lost, a mysterious stranger extends an irresistible offer: a starring role on Broadway and a luxurious voyage aboard the RMS Queen Mary. Lena jumps at the chance to skip town. So what if the offer is too good to be true?

Onboard, she passes as Italian, and a dysfunctional aristocratic family draws her into their fold. On their first day at sea, one among them is killed in an eerily familiar way. Soon, other members of the family meet untimely demises, and Lena can’t shake the feeling that she’s being framed.

The characters are well crafted, and the attention to period details is spot on. While the overall plot kept me guessing with its twists and turns, it is ridiculously implausible. The anti-climactic ending caught me off guard and Lena’s onboard romance seemed contrived and lacked natural flow.

While the story has its quirks, it is entertaining enough to pique my curiosity about the next installment in the Canary Club Mysteries series. If you’re a fan of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Lena Aldridge’s adventures are likely to satisfy.  3.5 stars.

The Thinnest Air
by Minka Kent

“Monsters are real. They’re real, and they’re capable of doing the unspeakable. And they don’t hide under beds or in closets—they hide in plain sight. You just don’t always notice them.”― Minka Kent, The Thinnest Air.

Meredith Price seems to have it all—a loving husband, charming stepchildren, and a life of luxury in a mountain resort town. Her life, however, takes a dark turn when she mysteriously disappears, leaving behind her car, purse, phone, and a slew of unanswered questions.

The story unfolds through dual perspectives: Meredith’s, detailing her life with Andrew and leading up to her disappearance, and Greer’s, her sister, who arrives in town desperate to find her. Greer’s investigation leads her to dark and unsettling truths, forcing her to confront the possibility that no one truly knew Meredith.

Kent does a nice job building suspense, making this 286-page psychological thriller a quick and engaging read. However, the author’s use of unnecessary vulgarity and some awkward writing detracts from the experience. The ending, unfortunately, left me and other readers feeling unsatisfied.

While The Thinnest Air has its strengths, including an enthralling premise and a fast pace, it falls short in execution. I give it 3 stars.

The Traitor Beside Her
by Mary Anna Evans

This book had potential but ultimately fell short of expectations. Set in 1944, it follows 21-year-old Justine Byrne, who is recruited by US Army Intelligence, to work at Arlington Hall, a code-breaking facility to uncover a traitor.

Initially, the premise promised a gripping WWII espionage thriller. Unfortunately, the execution didn’t live up to that promise. The pacing was inconsistent, with the plot dragging in places where it should have been tense and thrilling. The characters, especially Justine, lacked depth and development. Though portrayed as an intelligent woman, she came across as flat and one-dimensional.

The historical setting was well-researched, but it often overshadowed the plot. The repetition of words throughout the book was distracting, and the audio narration didn’t do any favors, adding to the overall lackluster experience.

While The Traitor Beside Her started with possibilities, it quickly became boring. The lack of character depth, uneven pacing, and a dull plot made it a disappointing read. If you’re looking for a gripping WWII thriller, look elsewhere. I rated this book a generous 3 stars.

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

The Wolf Den
by Elodie Harper

In The Wolf Den, author Elodie Harper brings to life the brutal and unforgiving world of Pompeii’s notorious brothel. Amara, once the cherished daughter of a Greek doctor, is sold into slavery by her mother, and is now a prostitute.

Despite her circumstances, Amara finds solace in the bonds she forms with the other women in the brothel. Together, they navigate the dangerous streets of Pompeii, dreaming of freedom and a better future.

The narrative is engaging, and Amara’s strength and resourcefulness make her a character worth rooting for. However, the book’s explicit depiction of sex and violence makes it a tough read for those who prefer gentler stories. The portrayal of the brutal reality faced by sex slaves during that era is probably accurate, but it can be overwhelming and disturbing.

There are moments of inauthenticity that took me out of the story, such as the use of British slang that wouldn’t have existed in 74 AD Pompeii. The book offers a heartbreaking glimpse into the lives of women experienced horrors beyond my imagination. 3 stars.

** Thanks to the publisher for a comp of this title. The opinions expressed are my own.

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