February 2023 Picks and Pans

This month was surprising. I normally don’t have as many 3-star ratings, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles or the ball bounces. Each of these books was good in its own way, some just weren’t great. Have fun adding to your TBR list!


A World of Curiosities
by Louise Penny

“Happiness as an act of defiance. A revolutionary act.”
― Louise Penny, A World of Curiosities

Louise Penny’s latest installment in the bestselling Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series marks a triumphant return for the beloved detective. In this eighteenth book, Three Pines emerges from a harsh winter, setting the stage for a special celebration. However, the return of siblings Fiona and Sam Arsenault unravels a series of unsettling events.

Memories of the bludgeoning murder investigation involving Fiona and Sam’s troubled mother flood Gamache and his colleague Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Having taken Fiona under their wing after her conviction and subsequent imprisonment, Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, yet are surprised when both siblings show up in Three Pines. Murders pile up, and Gamache senses an evil within Sam reminiscent of a notorious serial killer.

Gamache’s attention is also drawn to an eerie discovery: a 160-year-old letter penned by a deceased stone mason who recounts his harrowing experience bricking up an attic room in the village. Each word drips with foreboding, and the villagers opt to open the room and confront the secrets hidden within.

Louise Penny’s ingenuity shines once again as she weaves historical elements into the narrative, tapping into dark moments from Québec’s past. Her latest novel is a testament to her ability to craft remarkable stories. With her signature blend of meticulous characterization and pulse-pounding suspense, Penny effortlessly captivates readers, and I whipped through the pages. Prepare for an intense and riveting read.

With every addition to the Gamache series, Louise Penny solidifies her place as a crime-fiction phenomenon. A World of Curiosities earns its well-deserved five-star rating and the Agatha Award Winner for Best Contemporary Novel.


Signal Moon

Lily Baines,a young debutante, wearies under the weight of wartime Britain. Swapping her elegant white gloves for a radio, she embarks on a daring journey as part of the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1943. Assigned to intercept enemy naval communications and forward them to Bletchley Park for decryption, she stumbles upon an unexpected transmission.

Matt Jackson is a spirited young American naval officer in 2023. His ship is taking heavy fire in the treacherous North Atlantic when he radios for help. Could he be communicating with a woman in the middle of WWII?

Living on opposite sides of an eighty-year chasm, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other—Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him fend off the conflict to come.

Signal Moon is a powerful novella packed into less than fifty pages. A must-read for enthusiasts of time travel and World War II historical fiction, it is intense, endearing, and brilliant. For those partial to audiobooks, the performances of narrators Saskia Maarleveld and Andrew Gibson are fabulous. However, if profanity ruffles your feathers, be forewarned that Matt occasionally uses colorful language. Now, if only the story were longer… I wanted to keep reading! This gem earns a well-deserved five-star rating.


The Codebreaker’s Secret
By Sara Ackerman

This historical novel unfolds across two different time periods, 1943 Honolulu and 1965 Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, blending codebreaking secrets, murder, and romance. It follows two women: Isabel Cooper, a skilled cryptanalyst working to defeat the Japanese Army after her brother’s death during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Lu Freitas, a rookie journalist for Sunset magazine.

Isabel’s concerns heighten when her fellow female codebreaker, Gloria, vanishes from Station Hypo. Meanwhile, in 1965, Lu is assigned to cover the highly anticipated opening of Rockefeller’s Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. When singer Joni Diaz disappears, she teams up with a veteran photograph to investigate.

As a fan of books featuring strong female leads, I appreciated the narratives of two intelligent, talented, and courageous protagonists. The beautiful Hawaiian setting reminded me of my own vacations there, and Ackerman skillfully conveyed a strong sense of time and place. While the book provided entertainment, I never became fully invested in the story.

I’m tiring of historical fiction using dual timelines, and I believe it is time for authors to explore alternative storytelling approaches. I struggled to form a connection with the many characters present in the narrative. The ending felt abrupt. Although this wasn’t great in my opinion, it’s still worth the read. Fans of historical romance (heavy on romance) will probably enjoy it more than I did—it just wasn’t meaty enough for me. I’ll give the author another chance, but this book earns a three-star rating from me. Other reviewers have had a more positive experience, so I encourage readers to make their own judgment.

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


The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post
By Allison Pataki

Once upon a time, about 100 years ago, a 27-year-old woman was the wealthiest woman in the nation. In The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post, bestselling author Allison Pataki has crafted an intimate portrait of a woman who lived and loved on a grand scale yet proves that money cannot buy happiness.

Marjorie Merriweather Post’s journey began gluing cereal boxes in her father’s barn near Battle Creek, Michigan and learning the business from the man who, at the turn of the 20th century, made a fortune by producing healthy and quick foods like Grape-Nuts. When her parents divorced, Marjorie was rudderless. Then in 1914, C. W. Post died by suicide and his daughter inherited his estate worth an estimated $250 million in 1914 dollars (about $6.5 billion in today’s dollars.

After WWI, Marjorie takes a more active interest in the Postum company, spearheading a major expansion. In 1929, she renamed the company General Foods Corporation. Not content to stay in her prescribed roles of high-society wife, mother, and hostess, she, along with her second husband, E.F. Hutton, began expanding the business and acquiring other American food companies such as Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Jell-O, Baker’s Chocolate, Maxwell House, and Bird’s-eye.

So what did she do with all that money? She partied and traveled. She dined with the rich and famous, including presidents, heads of state, and movie stars. When the economy was booming in the roaring twenties, she bought up Russian artwork and jewelry, and built palatial homes. But although she sought happily ever-after with men and money, she never truly found it.

Marjorie did everything on a grand scale, especially with love. She had four husbands: Investment banker, Edward Bennett Close; Financier Edward Francis Hutton; American Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies; and Pittsburgh business executive, Herbert A. May.

That’s a synopsis of the woman. But what did I think of the book? Marjorie’s focus on accruing and spending her obscene wealth bothered me. Post funded a US Army hospital in France during World War I, but it wasn’t until after the 1929 stock market crash that she had a true philanthropic wake-up-call. She locked away her jewelry in a safety deposit bank and used the money she saved on insurance to open the Marjorie Post Hutton Canteen in the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Hiring men who were out of work, she outfitted them with white gloves and blazers. She asked them to shave and paid them as waiters. Every table had a starched linen tablecloth and a glass vase of fresh-cut roses. The Canteen served over 180,000 free meals in its first year and a half.

Marjorie Post was a fascinating historical figure, but I didn’t get a sense of emotion from the author, whether it was joy, passion, grief, or sadness. It was especially glaring after her divorces. Overall, an interesting read. 4 stars.

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


The New Girl
By Daniel Silva

At an exclusive private school in Switzerland, mystery surrounds the identity of the girl who arrives each morning in a motorcade. She is believed to be the daughter of a wealthy international businessman. Her father is actually Khalid bin Mohammed, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Once celebrated for his daring social and religious reforms, Khalid is now reviled for his role in the murder of a dissident journalist. When his 12-year-old daughter is kidnapped, he turns to Gabriel Allon, an art restorer, and the director of Israeli intelligence for help.

As always, Silva weaves a complex and multi-layered plot, filled with twists and turns. Fans of his novels will be pleased with the return of many characters from other books in the series.

The author incorporates real-life events into his narrative, in this case drawing inspiration from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. What sets Silva apart is his ability to balance the tension with art references.

While The New Girl was an engaging page turner, I didn’t care for it as much as the other 18 books in the series. Nonetheless, I love how the author adds art references to soften the tension. His author’s notes are among the best out there. If you are a fan of the thriller genre, begin with the first book in the series, The Kill Artist. It’s worth diving into the world Silva has created. 4 stars.


The Metal Heart
By Caroline Lea

Identical twins Dorothy and Constance are haunted by their parents’ mysterious disappearance near Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. To start anew, they settle on the neighboring island of Selkie Holm in the autumn of 1941. Against the backdrop of World War II, a German U-boat sinks the British battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. Eight hundred and thirty-four men lost their lives, prompting Winston Churchill to order the construction of defensive barricades between the islands. Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa, are transported to Selkie Holm to quarry stone, and build the barriers.

Many of the islanders are hostile towards the prisoners, but the twenty-three-year-old sisters see beyond the surface and witness the suffering of sick and wounded men enduring the harsh Orkney winter. Driven by compassion, they selflessly volunteer to nurse the prisoners.

Dorothy is drawn to Cesare, a young man broken by the horrors of battle. As the war persists, her relationship with Cesare threatens her bond with Constance. Having relied on each other since their parents’ disappearance, the sisters now face a challenging dilemma—duty versus desire.

The Metal Heart is a unique blend of war, art, history, action, and romance. Set in Scotland’s lesser-known Orkney Islands during World War II, this novel captivated me with its exploration of the Italian Chapel, a fascinating historical site. Among the POWs was Domenico Chiocchetti an artist who was tasked with transforming two Nissen huts into a chapel (you can learn more about the chapel at https://www.orkney.com/listings/the-italian-chapel).

While the book’s pacing was slow in parts because of excessive philosophizing, overall, it was an engaging read. Some UK reviewers claim the book is historically inaccurate, but in my case, ignorance is bliss. Overall, The Metal Heart is a poignant novel of love, jealousy, and conscience, and I enjoyed it. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.


The Whalebone Theatre
By Joanna Quinn

“For a fortunate few, war allows us to rise in ways that would otherwise be impossible. We can bring the very best of us to bear.”― Joanna Quinn, The Whalebone Theatre

Cristabel Seagrave loses her mother during childbirth, and her father, Jasper, who remarries when she is four, passes away shortly thereafter. This leaves Cristabel in the care of her disinterested stepmother, Rosalind, who later marries Jasper’s aviation-obsessed brother, Willoughby.

One stormy night in 1928, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel near Devon. By law, the whale belongs to the King, but twelve-year-old orphan Cristabel, along with her half-sister Flossie, cousin Digby, kitchen maid Maudie Kitcat, and a visiting Russian painter named Taras Kovalsky, transform the massive rib cage into a theater. They stage performances of The Iliad and various Shakespearean plays, gaining some notoriety in the process.

Fourteen years later, Cristabel and Digby’s experience in theatrical playacting becomes valuable when they are both airdropped into Nazi-occupied France on separate espionage missions to aid the Resistance during World War II.

The novel explores themes of love, family, bravery, and the loss of innocence, delivering an imaginative narrative. However, despite its 558-page length, the book failed to captivate me. I didn’t feel connected to the characters, except for the delightful portrayal of Christa as a young girl. It wasn’t one of those books I looked forward to reading at the end of the day, but I enjoyed it enough to give it 3.5 stars.


The Last Mona Lisa
By Jonathan Santlofer

On August 21, 1911, Vincent Peruggia, an Italian criminal, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre Museum. The events that transpired during the two years before its recovery remain a mystery.

Luke Perrone, an art history professor who has battled alcoholism, embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about his notorious ancestor, Peruggia. His search leads him to the Laurentian library in Florence, Italy, where he hopes to find his great-grandfather’s journal. He wants to know if a forgery replaced the stolen Mona Lisa prior to its recovery in 1913.

Assisted by John Washington Smith, an ambitious analyst from Interpol’s Art Theft Division, and the enigmatic Alexandra Greene, Luke delves into the dark underbelly of the art world. Along the way, they confront deceitful scholars, counterfeiters, stalkers, a Franciscan monk, and a Russian hit man, while the body count rises.

Santlofer’s novel alternates between Luke’s increasingly dangerous investigation and Vincent’s poignant story. Himself an artist, the author lends credibility and authenticity to the story. The book includes gripping action sequences and vivid depictions of Florence, Paris, and Nice.

The premise for this book was fascinating; I did not know the Mona Lisa was stolen, but the plot felt contrived and lacked the smooth flow I look for. It reminded me of The da Vinci Code, and if you are a fan of Dan Brown’s work, you should check it out.

I alternated between the eBook and audio, and Edoardo Bellerini’s (a two-time Audie award winner) narration was spectacular. The Last Mona Lisa has plenty of things going for it, but I thought it was just okay. I give it five stars for the plot, but just three for execution.


Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
By Gabrielle Zevin

In 1986, Sadie Green, 11, visits a children’s hospital where her sister is being treated for cancer. There, she befriends another patient, a 12-year-old Korean Jewish boy named Sam Masur, who has a badly injured foot, and the two bond over their love for video games. Over 600 hospital visits later, they have a fight and don’t speak again for six years when they reconnect while attending college in Boston. The pair, with help from their friend Marx, form a company designing video games. Before even graduating, they have created their first blockbuster video game, Ichigo.

Spanning three decades and various locations, including Cambridge and Venice Beach, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow delves into themes of identity, disability, failure, and the human need for connection.

Despite receiving accolades such as the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction (2022) and the Book of the Month Book of the Year Award (2022), this novel did not resonate with me personally. Initially, I found the book’s exploration of video games intriguing, but the excessive references to gaming became overwhelming.

The early chapters, focusing on Sadie and Sam’s childhood, were captivating, but my interest waned as the story progressed. While the writing and character development were commendable, the complex nature of Sadie and Sam’s friendship made it difficult for me to sympathize with or like them. In fact, all three main characters were toxic in their own ways.

Ultimately, the plot became too overwhelming for my taste. Incorporating significant amounts of trauma in the narrative left me feeling disheartened. The prevalence of LGBT characters and the extensive social commentary felt excessive and “woke” to me. 3 stars.

**I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All opinions are my own.


Signal Fires
By Dani Shapiro

In the summer of 1985, tragedy strikes when three teenagers, under the influence of alcohol, experience a catastrophic car crash that claims the life of one of them. The collision shatters the lives of those involved, including Ben Wilf, a young doctor who arrives at the scene.

Years later, the Shenkmans move into the neighborhood. During a snowstorm, Ben saves their newborn’s life when the mother goes into labor at home during a snowstorm. Waldo, the Shenkmans’ intellectually gifted yet solitary son, forms a strong connection with Dr. Wilf, who is now retired and grappling with his wife’s dementia.

Opinions on this book diverge significantly among readers. While some found it deeply moving and contemplative, I found it to be a dreary and melancholic tale that unfolded at a sluggish pace. The pervasive sense of gloom throughout the narrative made it a rather disheartening read. Fortunately, its brevity was a saving grace.

One aspect that detracted from my enjoyment was the author’s tendency to shift abruptly between different points of view and timelines without clear transitions. To me, this literary device disrupted the overall flow of the story.

Incorporating the Covid-19 pandemic felt out of place and contrived, considering that the story initially begins in 1985. The decision to introduce this contemporary event seemed disconnected from the core plot.

While I thought of abandoning the book altogether, I persevered until the bitter end. Undeniably well-written, it was the thematic content itself that failed to resonate with me. 3 stars. Good but not great.

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