We Norwegian Americans love to say “Uff da.” The phrase is used to express many emotions: exasperation, annoyance, surprise, anger, exhaustion, enthusiasm, dismay, and even joy. It also works as an uber-mild curse. So what does this have to do with my July book reviews? Well, today I am expressing my frustration for posting this in September rather than July. UFF DA! I was on a road trip for much of the month and only eked out seven books, but a few of them were amazing. Here goes.
by Yaa Gyasi
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”—Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing.
Homegoing traces a single bloodline across seven generations, beginning in eighteenth-century Ghana and ending three hundred years later. This epic family saga follows two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born into different villages and never know one another. One of them marries into privilege, the other is sold into slavery. The enslavement of Africans was not just a crime committed by white men, but was abetted by other Africans.
The novel is effectively written in alternating narratives. One thread follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, Homegoing is gorgeous. Gyasi wrote unforgettable characters into this epic novel of horror and beauty. It is well-researched, gut-wrenching, and beautifully told. A fabulous debut novel. 5 stars.
Published Date: June 2016
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers, Roots by Alex Haley, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
The Diamond Eye
by Kate Quinn
“Snipers must make themselves calm in order to succeed, and that is why women are good at sharpshooting. Because there is not a woman alive who has not learned how to eat rage in order to appear calm.”—Kate Quinn, The Diamond Eye.
With each of her historical novels, Kate Quinn gets better. After her 2021 book, The Rose Code, I didn’t think that was possible, but The Diamond Eye is a stellar achievement.
In the snowbound city of Kiev, history student Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko’s life revolves around her job as a library researcher and caring for her five-year-old son, Slavka. But when Hitler invades Russia, she forges a different path. Armed with a beat-up rifle, the Russian army sends her to the bloody battlefields of the eastern front. Mila becomes the Nazis hunter known as Lady Death. With news of her three hundredth kill, Mila joins the Russian delegation and travels to the United States to raise funds for the war effort.
Still reeling from a serious injury and devastated by the loss of several loved ones, Mila develops an unexpected friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and an even more unexpected connection with a fellow sniper. But when an old enemy from Mila’s past joins forces with a deadly new foe, Lady Death battles her own demons and enemy bullets in the deadliest duel of her life.
The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel loaded with phenomenal heroism and historical detail. As with The Alice Network, The Huntress, and The Rose Code, her latest features a strong, whip-smart woman as the main protagonist. Her descriptive prose made me feel as if I were inside Mila’s head and looking through a sniper’s rifle. Much of the plot came from Pavlichenko’s book Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper, which I look forward to reading. I will say, however, that I was uncomfortable with the author putting thought in Eleanor Roosevelt’s head, but that is a minor criticism.
A realistic, propulsive read full of action and emotion, The Diamond Eye an unforgettable true story of a quiet bookworm who became history’s deadliest female sniper. It was riveting. Bravo. 5 stars.
Publication Date: March 2022
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax; A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton; The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II and War of the Rats by Svetlana Alexievich; Code Name Code name Helene by Ariel Lawhon; Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are wholly my own.
Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II
by Daniel James Brown
“They couldn’t know that they were about to see things and do things that would change them utterly, things they would regret, things that would sear their souls, and things they would cherish beyond all reckoning. They couldn’t yet understand that they were about to step off the edge of the world.”—Daniel James Brown, Facing the Mountain.
From the author of Boys in the Boat comes another phenomenal read, this one begins as the U.S. enters WWII. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, approximately 125,000 Japanese Americans lived on the U.S. Mainland and 200,000 immigrated to the territory of Hawaii. Some were first-generation Japanese Americans, known as Issei, who had emigrated from Japan and were not eligible for U.S. citizenship and 80,000 were second-generation individuals born in the U.S. (Nisei) who were citizens.
On March 18, 1942, the War Relocation Authority began taking people of Japanese descent into custody. It opened ten internment camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas that held approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans. By 1943, draft-age Nisei lobbied to prove their patriotism and joined an all-Japanese American fighting unit in the U.S. Army.
Facing the Mountain is an unforgettable chronicle of war-time America and the battlefields of Europe. It features four Japanese American families and their sons, who volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and are deployed to France, Germany, and Italy, where they accomplished the near impossible.
The 442nd is one of the most decorated units in American history. The press called them “the Purple Heart Battalion” and the Germans nicknamed them “the little iron men” for their courage and fortitude.
This is a fascinating history of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, loaded with historical tidbits from both the European and Pacific theatres, but the depictions of life in Italy during the war — the hunger, the desperation — are especially disturbing.
The attention to detail is mind-blowing. There is so much history covered, so many battles retold, and the extraordinary photos support the narrative. I’ve read many books about war, but this one really humanized the experience. I wasn’t aware that trench foot (the slow death of nerves and tissues in the feet) was often fatal. “Trench foot often precedes gangrene and was an old, familiar enemy of soldiers everywhere. It had caused an estimated two thousand American and seventy-five thousand British casualties in World War I.”
This is more than a war story. Brown also tells the story of their families living in concentration camps on U.S. soil, the interracial marriage of a young Nisei man and a white pastor’s daughter who stood against the government in defense of his own civil rights.
Facing the Mountain is a heartbreaking picture of what Japanese Americans sacrificed for their country during World War II. The American Constitution, the fundamentals of democracy — personal liberty, equality, free speech — no longer applied to people of Japanese heritage despite the heroism they displayed on the battlefield.
I’d have given this book a five, but there are many long, convoluted sentences, and too much battle detail. I had to do some skimming. 4.5 stars.
Published Date: May 2021
Read-alikes: Honor Before Glory by Scott McGaugh; The Eagles of Heart Mountain by Bradford Pearson; Bridge to the Sun by Bruce Henderson; Just Americans by Robert Asahina.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary review copy of this book. The opinions are my own.
by Ann Leary
“I trust you’re familiar with the type of girl I’m referring to,” she tells the audience. “You’ve seen her slinking in and out of bawdy houses and illegal drinking establishments… she may seem normal enough—in fact, she’s often quite pretty. Until you see her again, a few years later, ruined and destitute, begging for handouts, surrounded by her own diseased and illegitimate children.”—Ann Leary, The Foundling.
So says Dr. Agnes Vogel, the administrator of the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as Dr. Vogel’s secretary at an institution for mentally disabled women. She’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel, who had been the only woman in her medical school class. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.
Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is an inmate. Lillian begs her to help her escape and Mary faces a terrible choice. To whom should she be loyal: her childhood friend or her hero, Dr. Vogel?
The Foundling was inspired by the author’s grandmother, who worked at Laurelton State Village in central Pennsylvania. The concept was to detain, segregate, care for, and train feeble-minded women of childbearing age (between the ages of 16 and 45 years). They warehoused women regarded as problem daughters, troublesome wives, and unwed mothers.
It’s hard to imagine women were institutionalized for being “feebleminded.” What does that even mean? Besides abnormal behavior and very low scores on IQ tests, feeblemindedness was frequently linked to promiscuity, criminality, and social dependency. They deemed some women to have moral feeblemindedness because they defied social norms or their husbands and were involuntarily held in mental alyssums until they were no longer of childbearing age.
I read historical novels to learn something about the past. The Foundling taught me about eugenics, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the powerlessness women experienced in the first part of the 20th Century.
The novel is authentic, the characters well drawn, and the book really opened my eyes to an ugly chapter of American history. I supplemented the book with audio but didn’t care for the narration. The Foundling is suspenseful, sometimes thrilling, and has a great ending. 4 stars.
Published Date: May 2022
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale; The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas; The Girls with No Names by Serena Burdick.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary copy of this book. The opinions are my own.
What Happened to the Bennetts
by Lisa Scottoline
“I knew my life would forever be divided into Before and After.”—Lisa Scottoline, What Happened to the Bennetts.
The Bennett family is on their way home from 15-year-old Allison’s lacrosse game when a pickup truck tailgates them on a dark stretch of road. They are forced to stop, and two men jump from the pickup and pull guns on Jason, demanding the car. What happens next will change their lives forever.
Later that night, Jason and his family receive a visit from the FBI. The agents tell them that the carjackers are members of a dangerous drug-trafficking organization, and Jason and his family are now in their crosshairs. The agents advise them to enter the witness protection program immediately, and they have no choice but to agree. Taken from all they know, trapped in an unfamiliar life, the Bennetts begin to fall apart at the seams.
I love a good thriller after a heavy read, and this one filled the bill. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to leave your entire life behind to enter the witness protection program. The Bennett family abandons everything familiar—family, school, friends, a successful business—to begin a new life, with a new name, in a new city. At first they stubbornly refuse, but once they are in the organization’s crosshairs, they agree to be whisked away. The poor Bennetts are met with one catastrophe after another until Jason takes matters into his own hands.
I supplemented the eBook with audio, which in this case was ideal. I listened to it while cleaning the house, which I abhor, and it was interesting and entertaining. Had I only read it, some of the writing would have driven me crazy. Author Lisa Scottoline loaded her novel with good guys, bad guys, secrets, twists and turns, and the escape was riveting. What Happened to the Bennetts is perfect for fans of John Grisham, Harlan Coben, Wanda M. Morris, and Gregg Hurwitz.
Published Date: March 2022
Genres: Thriller, suspense
Read-alikes: The Perfect Witness by Iris Johansen; Killer View by Roy Johansen; The Island by Adrian McKinty; Never Far Away by Michael Koryta.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary copy of this book. The opinions are my own.
Path of the Assassin
by Brad Thor
“People who took themselves too seriously not only were no fun, but could also be very dangerous.”—Brad Thor, Path of the Assassin.
I read Brad Thor’s debut, The Lions of Lucerne last year (originally published in 2002). I was obviously late for the party, but I was excited to find a new political thriller author. In Path of the Assassin, Navy Seal turned Secret Service agent Scot Harvath is taking on one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations. After rescuing the President from kidnappers, Harvath vows to capture or kill those responsible for the plot. A trail of clues points to Hashim Nidal, the planet’s most ruthless terrorist, who has assembled an international league of Islamic terrorist networks to topple both Israel and America.
Only one person can positively identify Nidal—a public relations expert and hijacking survivor. Together, Meg and Scot must untangle a web of global intrigue stretching across four continents—from Macau, Jerusalem, and Chicago, to Libya, Capri, and Rome—to prevent the Arab world from going to war with Israel.
Path of the Assassin is action-packed, engrossing, and suspenseful, but much of the plot is implausible. Harvath’s civilian sidekick would have never been brought into the CIA to identify a terrorist. She certainly wouldn’t have been put through the rigors of training and then put in harm’s way. Farfetched as it is, the book is highly entertaining, and I look forward to reading the next installment. 4 stars.
Publication Date: January 2003
Genres: Thriller, political thriller, suspense
Read-alikes: The Overton Window by Glenn Beck, Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy; American Assassin by Vince Flynn, Split Second by David Baldacci.
The Final Case
by David Guterson
From the author of Snow Falling on Cedars (PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Winners, 1995) comes a disturbing legal drama. In this fictionalized account, a thirteen-year-old Ethiopian girl adopted by a conservative, white fundamentalist Christian couple is found dead of hypothermia a few feet from the back door of her home in Seattle. Her adoptive parents are put on trial for murder. An octogenarian criminal attorney defends the mother, Betsy Harvey. His son narrates the story as he drives his father to and from court.
In 2013, a jury found Carri and Larry Williams guilty on almost all the charges brought against them: manslaughter of Hana, and for Carri, homicide by abuse. They were also convicted of first-degree assault of a child for abusing her younger brother, Immanuel, both of whom were adopted from Ethiopia. Larry was sentenced to almost 28 years and Carri to just under 37.
Many readers wrote glowing reviews of The Final Case, but mine will not be one of those. I applaud the concept of the book; it is a horrifying, thought-provoking story of an innocent child being disciplined to death by overzealous, cruel parents. David Guterson is a talented storyteller and painted vivid word pictures, but this was a very frustrating read. Much of the book had no bearing on its premise. Why did it matter how the narrator met his wife, etc.? He went down very long, albeit funny, trails of nothing to do with anything. It reminded me of Cliff Clavin on Cheers who liked to hear himself talk. I just didn’t like the writing. There would be a modicum of plot followed by pages of word explosions. I nearly shut the book because of the overdose of adjectives and the ridiculously long sentences, one of which was 243 words long! Not for me. 2 stars.
Published Date: January 2022
Genre: Legal thriller
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions are my own.