Amy’s Picks and Pans, Issue 31

Dear Readers,

As we dive into another edition of our bookish journey, I’m excited to share with you a delightful mix of fabulous reads and some that, well, missed the mark. This month, we’ve encountered stories that transported us to new worlds, characters who lingered long after the final page, and narratives that challenged our perspectives in unexpected ways.

From heartwarming tales of resilience to gripping mysteries that kept us guessing, the literary landscape has been rich and varied. Of course, no reading journey is complete without a few disappointments, and we’ll explore those too—books that promised much but left us wanting more.

So, grab your favorite beverage, settle into your reading nook, and join me as we reflect on the highs and lows of this month’s literary adventures. Whether you’re seeking your next great read or simply love to discuss the power of storytelling, I hope you’ll find inspiration and insight within these pages.

Happy reading!

The Gourmet Bookworm


The Echo of Old Books
By Barbara Davis

Bookbinder and rare-book dealer Ashlyn Greer’s affinity for books extends beyond the intoxicating scent of old paper, ink, and leather. She has a unique gift for sensing the emotions of a book’s previous owners. She is intrigued when a man named Ethan Hillard donates a pair of books to the store. Both are bound in a similar fashion, but there is no author information or publisher data. Her gift becomes an obsession.

As Ashlyn researches the mystery of these books, she uncovers a decades-old romance between two authors. Hemi and Belle’s conflicting accounts reveal a tragic love story shaped by political agendas and social dynamics. (I couldn’t help thinking how nice it would have been for Ashlyn to have had the Internet, but it was the 80s.) The more Ashlyn learns about Hemi and Belle, the nearer she comes to bringing closure to their love story—and to the unfinished chapters of her own life.

Author Barbara Davis alternates Ashlyn and Ethan’s contemporary storyline with chapters from the two mysterious books, set over 40 years in the past. Her ability to balance the historical elements with the present-day storyline is commendable, ensuring that the pacing remains engaging throughout. She weaves historical details into the story, providing just enough context to enrich the narrative without overwhelming it.

What sets The Echo of Old Books apart is its unique premise, which combines elements of mystery, romance, and historical fiction in a seamless blend. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so induced to stay up all night reading, a testament to the novel’s gripping storytelling and interesting characters. It’s no surprise it was nominated for the 2023 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. Don’t miss this standout novel! 5 stars.

The River We Remember
By William Kent Krueger

“Our lives and the lives of those we love merge to create a river whose current carries us forward from our beginning to our end. Because we are only one part of the whole, the river each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stories we tell about our past.”–William Kent Krueger, The River We Remember.

William Kent Krueger has done it again with The River We Remember, a captivating mystery set in the heart of small-town Minnesota. Set on Memorial Day 1958, the story opens with the discovery of the half-clothed body of wealthy landowner Jimmy Quinn in the Alabaster River, dead from a shotgun blast. His death sparks a complex and engrossing investigation led by Sheriff Brody Dern; a highly decorated war hero haunted by his past.

Even before Dern gets the autopsy results, rumors implicate Noah Bluestone, a Native American war veteran burdened by prejudice and his marriage to a Japanese survivor of Nagasaki. The sheriff struggles to determine whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder, and to calm the townspeople.

As always, the author’s portrayal of the characters and the world they inhabit immerses the reader. From the newspaper publisher to the war widow and Quinn’s second wife, each character is crafted with intricate backstories that add depth and richness to the narrative. The novel is not just a mystery but a masterful portrait of mid-century American life, capturing the essence of a bygone era with authenticity and detail.

In The River We Remember, William Kent Krueger has crafted a spellbinding mystery that combines the lingering scars of war and the complexities of small-town life. While the multitude of characters and subplots may require some effort to keep track of, the payoff is well worth it. It is an interesting read that combines the allure of a small-town mystery with profound insights into human nature.

Whether you’re a fan of Krueger’s previous books like I am or a newcomer to his writing, this novel is sure to please. His latest novel is a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Mystery & Thriller (2023), so I’m not the only read who thinks his work is fabulous. 5 stars.

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

By T. J. Newman

In Drowning by T. J. Newman, a routine flight turns into a nightmare when a plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean, sinking 200 feet below the surface with twelve passengers trapped inside. As water floods the cabin, a desperate race against time unfolds. A small pocket of air keeps them alive, but the clock is ticking.

The story shifts between the passengers fighting for their lives underwater and the frantic rescue team on the surface, working against the clock to save them. Amidst the chaos and fear, the characters reveal their strength, courage, and humanity.

Newman delivers a heart-pounding and authentic portrayal of survival, hope, and the indomitable human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. Drowning is a gripping, emotional thriller that will keep readers hooked until the very last page.

The characters are well-developed and relatable, each bringing their own struggles and strengths to the harrowing situation. The emotional depth of the passengers and crew, combined with the high stakes of survival, creates a captivating human drama. The tension is palpable, and Newman’s background as a flight attendant lends an authentic touch to the aviation details, making the scenario even more believable.

Newman’s writing style is crisp and clear, with short chapters that enhance the pacing. The shifting perspectives provide a full view of the unfolding disaster and the desperate attempts to save those trapped underwater. The sense of urgency and the fight against time are skillfully conveyed, keeping you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Wow! This novel is super entertaining. For those with claustrophobia, Drowning might be daunting, but if you can get past a few hair-raising early scenes, you’ll be engrossed in this spectacular thriller. 5 stars

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

A Stray Drop of Blood
By Roseanna M. White

“She felt a presence within her, one so strong she could barely breathe, one so gentle she felt laughter bubble up. She never wanted to move, never wanted to lose the intensity of this moment, even as she thought that it would surely consume her totally if it remained over her much longer. The peace filled her so completely that there was surely no room left for anything else.”—Rosanna M. White, A Stray Drop of Blood

A Stray Drop of Blood by Roseanna M. White is a touching and soul-stirring tale that captivated me from start to finish. Abigail, born free but sold into slavery after her parents’ death, serves the kind Visibullis family in Jerusalem. Her beauty, however, draws the unwanted attention of Jason, the family’s son, upon his return from Rome. Abigail struggles with her feelings towards Jason, torn between her duty and the impossible task of loving him as he demands.

As political unrest seethes in Jerusalem and captivating stories of a rabbi named Jesus circulate, Abigail’s world is turned upside down. Tragedy strikes, leading her to seek justice at the trial of Barabbas. Instead, she encounters Jesus, condemned to die in Barabbas’s place. A stray drop of His blood falls upon her, and she realizes Jason was right—Jesus is indeed the Son of God. This divine encounter transforms Abigail, offering her the love and freedom she longed for.

The book’s emotional depth and historical richness reminded me of Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series, which is a tremendous compliment. The story is beautifully woven with themes of faith, redemption, and love, making it a highly recommended read for fans of Christian fiction. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and it did not disappoint. I rate it 4.5 stars.

The Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House is a gripping historical novel set in the late 1700s on a Virginia plantation. Lavinia, a young Irish girl who becomes orphaned during her voyage to America, is at the center of the story. The plantation owner takes her in and assigns her care to Belle, a black slave working in the kitchen house, for her care.

Lavinia grows up among the slaves, forming deep bonds with her new family, yet she also struggles with her identity and place in the world as she is neither fully accepted by the slaves nor the white family. The narrative unfolds through the perspectives of Lavinia and Belle, revealing the complexities of their lives and the harsh realities of slavery.

The novel explores themes of family, identity, and the brutal impact of slavery, offering a poignant and vivid portrayal of life in the antebellum South. Life at the plantation is grim. The vicious overseer starves, mutilates, and beats the field slaves while Lavinia looks on helplessly.

Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. After the captain dies, Lavinia marries his son, Marshall and at 17 becomes the mistress of Tall Oaks.

One aspect that stood out to me was the devastating impact of yellow fever during those times, which I had known little about before reading this book.

Unfortunately, I found some flaws in the writing. The second half of the book isn’t as fluid as the first, and occasionally, the author uses too much detail in describing her surroundings to the point I wanted to skip ahead.

The story is wonderful, though, not gratuitously emotional or disturbing, and well-paced. I’ve read many novels about slavery in the South, but the plight of a white indentured servant was a nice twist. It’s always hard to read about slavery, but understanding that time period is so important.

The Kitchen House was a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction and for Debut Author in 2010 and I can see why. I look forward to reading more of Grissom’s work. 4 stars.

The Immortals: The World War II Story of Five Fearless Heroes, the Sinking of the Dorchester, and an Awe-inspiring Rescue
By Steven T. Collis

On January 23, 1943, troop ship, the SS Dorchester left New York city en route to Greenland as part of a convoy of three troop ships escorted by Coast Guard cutters. During the early morning hours of February 3, the German submarine U-223 torpedoed the vessel off Newfoundland. Over 900 souls were on board.

Also aboard were four chaplains—Alexander Goode, John Washington, George Fox, and Clark Poling—representing different faiths, who comforted soldiers and sacrificed their own lives to save others when the Dorchester sank.

In twenty-five minutes, one torpedo killed more than a quarter of the number of personnel lost during the entire attack on Pearl Harbor. Chaplains helped the soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. The chaplains went down with the ship. The sinking of the Dorchester would go down in the annals of history as the worst single loss of US personnel of any American convoy during the entire conflict.

Collis alternates between accounts told from the perspective of the Nazi U-boat captain and his crew (as found in their journals and later interviews) and survivors from the Dorchester who credit the four chaplains with saving their lives. Coastguardsman Charles Walter David, Jr., emerges as another hero, rescuing 93 survivors from the frigid waters. The scene of the men freezing to death in the water was heart-wrenching.

However, the book falters in execution. The abundance of military names and vessels confused me, and the narrative’s textbook-style lacked emotional depth. A shift to historical fiction might have better conveyed the story’s power. Despite these flaws, The Immortals remains a worthwhile exploration of faith and sacrifice amid WWII’s forgotten episodes. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

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

The Road to Jerusalem
By Jan Guillou, Anna Paterson (Translator)

The Road to Jerusalem by Jan Guillou is the first book in the Crusades trilogy, set in the 12th century. The story follows Arn Magnusson, a young nobleman in Sweden destined for greatness. Born into the powerful Folkung clan, Arn receives an exceptional education at the Varnhem Abbey, where he learns both religious doctrine and the art of warfare. His path takes an unexpected turn when he falls in love with Cecilia, a noblewoman, and their forbidden relationship leads to Arn being sentenced to serve 20 years as a Knight Templar.

This richly detailed historical novel brings the 12th-century world vividly to life. Guillou masterfully blends historical accuracy with engaging storytelling, creating a narrative that is both educational and entertaining. Arn Magnusson is an interesting protagonist, whose journey from the serene life in a monastery to the brutal realities of the Crusades is fascinating.

Jan Guillou’s descriptions of medieval Sweden and the Holy Land and his historical details are impressive. The contrast between the two settings is striking, and Guillou’s meticulous research shines through, providing readers with a deep understanding of the period. The characters are well-developed, each with their own motivations and struggles. Arn’s growth from a naïve young man to a seasoned warrior is believable and relatable. Cecilia’s plight back in Sweden adds emotional depth to the story, highlighting the harsh realities faced by women during this time.

This novel not only tells one man’s story but Sweden’s as well. Christianity was still a new religion in this region in the 1100s. The politics are challenging, and tribal life is described within the context of its time. The references to Swedish culture, especially the names, add a layer of authenticity that I enjoyed.

I felt disappointed by the lack of content about the Crusades, which was why I wanted to read this book. I learned a lot about the Knights Templar, the best force of knights that ever rode with lance and sword in the Holy Land. The Knights Templar never surrendered and did not fear death. To them, their war was holy and the instant they died in battle, they would enter Paradise.

Some readers might find the level of historical detail overwhelming. Honestly, I found the book to be a snoozer. Maybe I’ll find book number two more appealing. 3.5 stars rounded down to 3.

The Inheritance
By JoAnn Ross

When conflict photographer Jackson Swann passes away, his three estranged daughters find themselves brought together at his vineyard for the reading of his will. JoAnne Ross’s novel, The Inheritance, explores the lives of Tess, a renowned writer and actress; Charlotte, a Southern socialite, trapped in an unhappy marriage; and Natalie, Jackson’s French daughter from a long-term affair, who grew up amidst the vineyard’s rich history.

The sisters come together reluctantly and find themselves captivated by the enchanting legacy of their grandmother—a former WWII Resistance fighter in France—and her love for a wounded American soldier who influenced the fate of their family.

For readers intrigued by wine culture and WWII history, The Inheritance offers glimpses into both, adding depth to its family drama. However, the novel fell short for me. This wasn’t my genre; I’m not a big fan of Women’s Fiction. I’m a woman, and I like fiction, but this felt more like chick lit to me. It was silly and contrived in parts. I should have known I wouldn’t love it… many of her books are “bodice-rippers” with men displaying unnatural abs on the cover. Ugh.

For readers who enjoy light-hearted family dramas and are drawn to narratives set amidst vineyards and historical legacies, The Inheritance offers a moderate diversion, earning it a tepid 3-star rating.

** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy. The opinions expressed here are my own.

Cabal of The Westford Knight
By David S. Brody

I had high hopes for this book, especially with its intriguing premise of Templar Knights, ancient artifacts, and secret societies. Unfortunately, it fell short in too many ways.

The story follows attorney Cameron Thorne and British researcher Amanda as they race around New England, trying to uncover 600-year-old mysteries. It sounded like a thrilling adventure, but the execution left much to be desired. The plot was convoluted and hard to follow, making it a struggle to stay engaged.

One of the major issues was the book’s strong anti-Christian tone. It felt heavy-handed and detracted from the story rather than adding any meaningful depth. The author’s handling of religious themes was off-putting and could be quite offensive to some readers.

Moreover, the audiobook narration was poor, which made the experience even more frustrating. The narrator’s delivery was dull and lacked the energy to bring the story to life.

At 442 pages, the book was simply too long; I was bored and often wished it would just end. It’s disappointing because I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, but it never captured my attention. I give it 2 stars.

The Madwomen of Paris
By Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Madwomen of Paris takes us back to 19th-century France, focusing on Laure Bissonet, a talented artist. After her father’s death leaves her homeless and in debt, Laure has a breakdown and ends up in the hysteria ward of the Salpêtrière asylum. As she recovers, Laure works as a resident ward attendant and takes on the responsibility of caring for Josephine, a patient who the asylum’s famous director uses in hypnosis demonstrations. Laure plots their escape from the oppressive institution.

The novel vividly depicts the struggles women faced in a society that often labeled them mad for defying norms. It highlights the 19th-century obsession with hysteria and the dangerous treatments used on patients. If I had lived in Paris back then, they would have locked me up for my depression and anxiety. How horrifying!

It’s fascinating to read about what doctors thought caused “hysteria.” They believed the uterus roamed around the body and could be put back in place with pleasing smells. Ridiculous, right?

Unfortunately, this book didn’t work for me. My eyes glazed over, and my mind constantly wandered as I read. It was so dull. I wish the author had written it from the point of view of one or more of the patients, which would have been more powerful.

The author clearly did her research, which is a positive, but her writing didn’t impress me. She went off on tangents, and the lesbian theme felt unnecessary to the plot. I thought this would be a terrific book on a subject I hadn’t yet explored, but it was just terrible. My apologies to the author. 2 stars.

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

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