April Reads

A new month is upon us, fellow bibliophiles, which means it’s time to post what I read in April. There weren’t any 5-star winners, but there were no real duds either. In all the years I’ve been rating books, I’ve only given two 2-stars reviews—one because of grammatical errors and the other because of objectionable content. As an author I know how hard it is to write a book, and I think most books deserve at least three stars (unless a book is self-published, and then it’s no holds barred). April turned out to be a wonderful mix of genres: mystery, thriller, historical fiction, and memoir. I laughed out loud, shed a few tears, and got properly creeped out. Posting my month-end reads isn’t about bragging; one of my favorite aspects of working at the library was recommending books to patrons, and they gave me some great ideas. So without further ado…

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

I normally take notes while I am reading an advance reader copy (ARC) to help facilitate my review, but Susan Meissner’s historical novel, The Nature of Fragile Things, was so interesting I didn’t want the interruption.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and moves to San Francisco. She quickly adjusts to her new life and develops a deep affection for Kat, her new stepdaughter, but something about her husband isn’t quite right. Then one spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything she once loved. The fates of these three women intertwine on the eve of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake, thrusting them on a perilous journey.

Are you sold yet? Meissner does a masterful job weaving together an intricate plot. Her principal character, Sophie, is a woman with a troubled past, but also an impassioned hope for the future. So far, this is one of my favorite reads of 2021. 4.5 stars.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

As long as people could remember, the stave church’s bells had rung over the isolated village of Butangen, Norway. Cast in memory of conjoined twins, the bells are said to ring on their own in times of danger. In 1879, young pastor Kai Schweigaard moves to the village, where young Astrid Hekne yearns for a modern life. She sees a way out on the arm of the new pastor, who needs a tie to the community to cull favor for his plan for the old stave church, with its pagan deity effigies and supernatural bells. When the pastor makes a deal that brings an outsider, a sophisticated German architect, into their world, the village and Astrid are caught between past and future.

I first heard about the book on Goodreads when I won an advanced reader copy. Although I have some Swedish blood, my maternal grandparents were Norwegian through-and-through, and it’s because of them I have a love for Norwegian culture. This book was amazing! I especially enjoyed learning about the history of stave churches, an iconic image of old Norway. I did not know many of them had been dismantled and reassembled in continental European countries. If you are Norsk (and even if you’re not), this book is gold! 4.5 stars

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

It is 1950. London is still reeling from World War II, and Margery Benson, a schoolteacher and spinster, is trying to get through life, surviving on scraps. One day, she reaches her breaking point, abandoning her job and small existence to set out on an expedition to the other side of the world in search of her childhood obsession: an insect that may or may not exist—the golden beetle of New Caledonia. When she advertises for an assistant to accompany her, the woman she ends up with is the last person she had in mind. Fun-loving Enid Pretty in her tight-fitting pink suit and pom-pom sandals seems to attract trouble wherever she goes. But together these two British women find themselves drawn into a cross-ocean adventure that exceeds all expectations.

When a friend in my book club selected this book, I thought it was just going to be silly. But you know what? It was a delightful break from the heavy fare I tend to read. Rachel Joyce’s writing is clever, quirky, and funny. “The room smelled like gravy and old cardigans.” Outstanding, right? If I believed in reincarnation, I’d want to come back as friendly, happy, free spirited, happy-go-lucky Enid and impact others like she did Mrs. Benson. All fun aside, there were tender life lessons about the transformative power of sacrificial friendship, no matter one’s age. 4.5 stars

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves The Thursday Murder Club. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron might be pushing eighty, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case. As the bodies pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late?

An intricately woven whodunit with delightful characters. There were so many twists and turns I was guessing until the very last pages. Superb entertainment! 4 stars

A Better Man by Louise Penny

(Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #15)

It’s Chief Inspector Gamache’s first day back as head of the Sûreté du Québec’s homicide department, a job he temporarily shares with his previous second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Floodwaters are rising across the province. In the middle of the turmoil, a father approaches Gamache, pleading for help in finding his daughter. As crisis piles upon crisis, Gamache tries to hold off the encroaching chaos, and realizes the search for Vivienne Godin should be abandoned. But with a daughter of his own, he develops a profound, and perhaps unwise, empathy for her distraught father. When her body is discovered, investigatory mistakes are made, and the social media backlash is brutal.

What can I say? Louise Penny knocked another one out of the park. I clearly enjoy her books; her character-driven novels are suspenseful, very well-written, and thoroughly absorbing.  Bring on #16! 4 stars

Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon

“That’s what hope feels like: the best air you’ve ever breathed after the worst fall you’ve ever taken. ”

The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds. Life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually… make peace with whom they are.

I really enjoyed Amy Harmon’s novels, What the Wind Knows and From Sand and Ash, so I knew her new release would be a winner. It had a lot going for it: Other than the ill-fated Donner Party and the computer game my kids played a zillion years ago, I knew zip about the Oregon Trail. I loved this book. It was a romance (minus the sap) steeped in American history and had wonderful details about Native American culture. The primary male character, John Lowry, was inspired by Harmon’s husband’s five X’s great grandfather, which made the book even more compelling. P.S. I sure am glad I wasn’t a pioneer. 4 stars

Daylight by David Baldacci

(Atlee Pine #3)

 For many long years, FBI agent Atlee Pine was tormented by uncertainty after her twin sister, Mercy, was abducted at six and never seen again. Now, just as Atlee is pressured to end her investigation into Mercy’s disappearance, she finally gets her most promising breakthrough yet: the identity of her sister’s kidnapper, Ito Vincenzo. With time running out, Atlee and her assistant Carol Blum race to Vincenzo’s last known location and unknowingly stumble straight into military investigator John Puller’s high-stakes case, blowing his arrest during a drug ring investigation involving a military installation. Pine and Puller’s joint investigation uncovers a connection between Vincenzo’s family and a scheme that strikes at the very heart of global democracy. Peeling back the layers of deceit, lies and cover-ups, Atlee finally discovers the truth about what happened to Mercy.

I’m a David Baldacci junkie like many of you who enjoy a good thriller. The problem is that his books can be hit-or-miss. Fortunately, this one was a hit. The plot was intricate and the author’s idea to team up the principal characters from three of his series (Atlee Pine, John Puller, and Will Robie) was brilliant. 4 stars.

 Greenlights By Matthew McConaughey

I read Greenlights in a day, not because I’m a fast reader, but because it is short, and I also listened to the audiobook as I was cleaning the house (and it needed a lot of help). Because I write memoir, I also read it to see trends in the market, and this one was a pleasant surprise. It’s an unconventional retrospective filled with raucous stories, outlaw wisdom, and lessons learned the hard way about living with greater satisfaction.

When Matthew McConaughey approached the half century mark, he took a one-way ticket to the desert and wrote this book: an album, a record, a story of his life so far. “This is fifty years of my sights and seens, felts and figured-outs, cools and shamefuls. Graces, truths, and beauties of brutality. Getting away withs, getting caughts, and getting wets while trying to dance between the raindrops.” It’s his love letter to life. This book is a guide to catching more greenlights—and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too.

I loved it. This book was well written, quirky, and very McConaughey. The narration was marvelous. One of my favorite movies of all time is Sahara, a 2005 adventure film in which he and Steve Zahn play treasure hunters. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, but it always makes me laugh. Matthew McConaughey IS Dirk Pitt. He is irreverent, adventurous, charming, and free-spirited. He is also arrogant, and his bumper stickers were annoying, but overall, Greenlights earned four stars.

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

(Gabriel Allon, #16)

“You exist in this place, you sleep peacefully in this land tonight, because of people like me.”

Legendary spy and art restorer Gabriel Allon is poised to become the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service. But on the eve of his promotion, events conspire to lure him into the field for one final operation. ISIS has detonated a massive bomb in the Marais district of Paris, and a desperate French government wants Gabriel to eliminate the man responsible before he can strike again. He has no choice but to insert an agent into the most dangerous terrorist group the world has ever known. Natalie Mizrahi, an extraordinary young doctor, will pose as an ISIS recruit in waiting. Her perilous mission will take her from the restive suburbs of Paris to the island of Santorini and the brutal world of the Islamic State’s new caliphate, and eventually to Washington, D.C., where an apocalyptic night of terror is planned.

Riveting… Captivating… Heroic… Frightening… Excellent! 4 stars

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work, and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance. In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west in search of a better life.

Kristin Hannah is arguably the reigning rock star of historical fiction. The Nightingale is currently in movie production at TriStar Pictures, which also optioned her novel, The Great Alone. One thing I like most about her writing is her pacing. Historical fiction can be tedious, but she does a wonderful job of keeping the plot moving. Her character descriptions help readers see them, but I didn’t feel like I got to know Elsa’s heart. The point of view and pronouns were confusing: sometimes Mom, sometimes Elsa, sometimes Grandma and sometimes Rose. Consistency would have been better in that regard. Although The Four Winds wasn’t my favorite of her books, it was still excellent. 4 stars

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them is a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured vet returning from Afghanistan, a septuagenarian business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. And then, tragically, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor. Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place for himself in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a piece of him has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all his fellow passengers. But then he makes an unexpected discovery—one that will lead him to the answers to some of life’s most profound questions: When you’ve lost everything, how do you find yourself? How do you discover your purpose? What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?

I enjoyed this book far more than I expected. Dear Edward was sobering—it’s about the sole survivor of a plane crash after all—but the premise was fresh, the writing was first-rate, and the huge ensemble cast of characters were so well developed I felt like I knew them. This was not an easy book to write, and not always easy to read. The back and forth between past and present was sometimes onerous and poor Eddie’s situation made my heart heavy, but Ann Napolitano is clearly very talented. 4 Stars.

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

As the illegitimate child of a Japanese aristocrat and her African American GI, Nori Kamiza is an outsider from birth. When she is abandoned by her mother, she is confined to the attic of her grandparents’ imperial estate in Kyoto and subjected to daily chemical baths to lighten her skin. But when chance brings her legitimate older half-brother, Akira, into her life, the siblings form a powerful bond—a bond their formidable grandparents cannot allow and that will irrevocably change the lives they were always meant to lead. Because now that Nori has glimpsed a world in which perhaps there is a place for her after all, she is ready to fight to be a part of it.

Fifty Words for Rain had a lot going for it. It was interesting to read about how Japanese culture was evolving in 1948. Nori was a complex, intelligent character, and her resilience in the face of adversity was inspiring. This coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s quest for acceptance in post–World War II Japan was lyrically written… but it was too depressing, too tragic, too culturally inauthentic, and the ending was a deal-breaker. 3.5 stars

Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan

 On June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski sank thirty miles off the coast of North Carolina and two-thirds of her passengers and crew perished. Such is the backdrop of author Patti Callahan’s historical novel, Surviving Savannah. When the wreckage is discovered 180 years later, Savannah history professor Everly Winthrop is asked to guest-curate a new museum collection of artifacts. Everly can’t resist the opportunity to solve some mysteries and myths surrounding the devastating night of its sinking. Her research leads her to the astounding history of a family of eleven who boarded the Pulaski together, and the extraordinary stories of two women from this family.

Wow… doesn’t that synopsis make you want to snatch up a copy of the book? When I received an advance reader copy of Surviving Savannah, I was excited. It sounded like a great departure from typical WWII historical fare, and besides, my small Minnesota community is home to Lake Pulaski. How could I not love it? First the good points. I’d never heard of the Pulaski disaster and I loved delving into the history of the sinking. The dual timeline alternating between the past and the present was an effective way to structure the novel. On the downside, I just couldn’t take off my editor’s hat. I wanted to restructure the sentences, put a red pen through oft-repeated words and phrases, and change the voice from passive to active. In my humble opinion, the ending was too predictable and the commentary on slavery didn’t seem to fit the narrative. 3.5 stars

Her Final Breath by Robert Dugoni

(Tracy Crosswhite #2)

Homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite has returned to the police force after the sensational retrial of her sister’s killer. Still scarred from that ordeal, Tracy is pulled into an investigation that threatens to end her career, if not her life. A serial killer known as the Cowboy is killing strippers in cheap motels in North Seattle. Even after a stalker leaves a menacing message for Crosswhite, suggesting the killer or a copycat could be targeting her personally, she is charged with bringing the murderer to justice. With clues scarce and more victims dying, Tracy realizes the key to solving the murders may lie in a decade-old homicide investigation that others, including her captain, Johnny Nolasco, would prefer to keep buried.

I’m a big fan of Robert Dugoni. This book was as well written as his others, but I’m giving it a lower rating because it was just too disturbing for me. Life is hard enough without reading about serial killers who prey upon women. Still, the book was a real page-turner, and if you’re not as chicken as I am (I had to lock my bedroom door), you’re going to love it. 3.5 stars

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. Every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast. And then someone turns up dead.

Although there were many hairpin twists and turns and I didn’t see the ending coming, The Guest List was an implausible, dark book overflowing with deplorable characters. The multiple points of view made for a confusing read, yet somehow all the separate storylines some together in a neatly wrapped package at the end. Meh. 3 stars

An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford

Last night I finished reading An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford. Now, I’m a real sucker for WWII historical fiction, and if you mix in a little espionage, I’ll stay up all night reading. This novel, however, had me wondering when it was going to end.

Here’s the basic plot:

Evelyn Varley has always been ambitious and clever. As a girl, she earned a scholarship to a prestigious academy well above her parents’ means, gaining her a best friend from one of England’s wealthiest families. In 1939, with an Oxford degree in hand and war looming, Evelyn finds herself recruited into an elite MI5 counterintelligence unit. A ruthless secret society seeks an alliance with Germany and, posing as a Nazi sympathizer, Evelyn must build a case to expose their treachery. But as she is drawn deeper into layers of duplicity—perhaps of her own making—some of those closest to her become embroiled in her investigation. With Evelyn’s loyalties placed under extraordinary pressure, she’ll face an impossible choice: save her country or the people who love her. Her decision echoes for years after the war, affecting everyone who thought they knew the real Evelyn Varley.

With a write-up like that, I expected to be blown off the edge of my seat and burning through pages of this WWII thriller. What I got, however, was an overdramatized plot and sappy dialogue. It’s funny how the traitors kept spilling the beans to Evelyn (but hey, that did keep the plot moving along so everything could be tied up in an enormous bow at the end). Her writing style and my reading style just weren’t a match. 3 stars.

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