September 2022 Picks and Pans

No five-star reads this month, but The Happiest Man on Earth was definitely life-changing. I gave one novel a 2-star rating, which is rare for me. I read two books set in the Philippines, which is totally random. I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say. Circle back to Facebook and let me know!


The Happiest Man on Earth
By Eddie Jaku

“Life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. It is up to you.” Eddie Jaku, The Happiest Man on Earth.

In this uplifting memoir in the vein of The Last Lecture and Man’s Search for Meaning, a Holocaust survivor pays tribute to those who were lost by telling his story, sharing his wisdom, and living his best life possible.

Eddie Jaku was born in Leipzig, Germany, into a prosperous Jewish family. He was proud to be German. When Hitler came to power, he expelled all Jewish students from school. Since Eddie was a talented student, his father used his influence to get his son false papers so he could enroll in an elite engineering school on the other side of the country. But on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the SS deported teenaged Eddie to Buchenwald concentration camp.

Over the next seven years, Eddie faced unimaginable horrors, first in Buchenwald, then in a French labor camp, then in Auschwitz, and finally on a Nazi death march during the last days of the Third Reich. Despite the horror he experienced, he maintained a positive attitude. He lost family, friends, and the country he had so loved, yet survived through determination, cooperation with a friend, and his engineering skills. “Without friendship, a human being is lost. A friend is someone who reminds you to feel alive.”

After the war, he moved to Australia, where he prospered. He was awarded the Order of Australia, which recognizes Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement.

I published the Happiest Man on Earth as Eddie turned 100 years old! It won the Australian Book Industry Awards prize for Biography of the Year in 2021. It’s a moving, and uplifting memoir of a man whose sense of gratitude changed the course of his life, and that of countless others. 4.5 stars.


The Last Dress from Paris
By Jade Beer

London, 2017. When Lucille’s beloved Granny Sylvie asks her to go to Paris to retrieve a priceless Dior dress, Lucille is happy to oblige. What she finds in a small apartment sends her on a wild goose hunt through the City of Light that changes her life forever.

Paris, 1952. Postwar Paris is full of glamour and privilege, and Alice Ainsley is in the middle of it all as the wife of the British ambassador to France. He showers her with expensive gifts, but not his affection. Alice yearns to follow her heart and becomes caught up in a love affair for the ages.

The Last Dress from Paris is told in parallel narratives in alternative timelines. When I read books constructed in this way, I often dislike the more contemporary narrative. Not this time. I enjoyed 2017 and 1952 in equal measure.

I am no fashionista, but I found this book about haute couture intriguing. The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is charming—completely unlike what I experienced with my own and one I pray for with my own granddaughters. Both primary characters are deeply written and likeable; Granny’s emotional strength is especially astonishing. I also appreciated the mystery components of the book, and in the case, I even liked the romance!

On the downside, though, I’ve read too many books about granddaughters who find out about their grandmothers’ secret lives. It’s getting tiresome. Come on publishers, let’s be more innovative! The Last Dress from Paris is perfect for fans of The Gown (Jennifer Robison) and The Good Left Undone (Adriana Trigiani). 4 stars.

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


The Water Keeper
By Charles Martin

“I don’t really understand it, but somehow, in some impossible way, love reached down inside me, took out all the old and dirty—the scars and the stains that no soap anywhere would ever wash out. And love didn’t just clean me but made me new.”—Charles Martin, The Water Keeper

Author Charles Martin has a powerful way of sharing his faith that touches my soul. The Water Keeper is a story of God’s love encased in an action novel, and if you haven’t read it yet, you’ll want to.

Retired priest Murphy Shepherd lives alone on an island off the eastern coast of Florida, tending the grounds of a church no one attends. He’s dedicated his life to rescuing those in peril, a mission that has just killed his mentor. His specialty is finding trafficked young girls and leading them from brokenness to freedom. But he won’t be alone for long. He rescues a crafty Labrador retriever who proves to be indispensable and plucks a woman named Summer out of Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway and gets drawn into a hunt after a gang of international human traffickers as they desperately try to find her missing daughter.

I read The Water Keeper while vacationing in Florida, and it was fun to learn more about the state (I’m already planning a trip to Key Largo thanks to the book). It was a page-turner, but that’s not what drew me into the story. Martin’s novel is about the life-changing love of God and how we are put on this earth to save each other. “We don’t love because people love us back. We love because we can. Because we were made to. Because it’s all we have. Because, at the end of the day, evil can take everything save one thing: your love. And when you come to realize that, that the only thing you really control in this life is your love, you’ll see, maybe for the first time, that we’re all just lost.”

Murphy’s Shepherd’s tale is poignantly told, and the plot is interesting, but I took issue with some of the writing. Martin describes places ad nauseum to the point I had to skim paragraphs. I also didn’t connect with the characters as much as I’d hoped. I appreciated the author’s subtle biblical references and allusions to Christianity, but no serious writer should use the word “ginormous” five times in one novel. 4 stars.


Angels of the Pacific: A Novel of World War II
By Elise Hooper

I knew little about what took place in the Philippines during World War II—most of the books I’ve read about that era were set in the European theatre—so Angels of the Pacific was enlightening.

Elise Hooper’s historical novel was inspired by the true stories of US Army nurses and the contributions of Filipinas of the resistance. Nurse Tess Abbott is posted in Manila and enjoys life in a tropical paradise near sandy beaches and exciting nightclubs and restaurants. But when the Japanese Imperial Army invades the island nation, the nurses escape to Bataan where they live in the squalor of a battlefield hospital.

On April 9, 1942, the American forces on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. They sent medical personnel to the island of Corregidor where they cared for wounded in the Malinta Tunnel and were eventually captured as prisoners of war and held in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp for four years, where they provide lifesaving care to the civilian POWs.

In 2020 I read author Elise Hooper’s novel Fast Girls about three members of the US Olympic team who take part in the 1936 summer games in Berlin, Germany. I enjoyed it very much and was excited to receive an ARC of Angels of the Pacific.

It’s well plotted, fast-paced, and packed with action. The characters are likeable and strong, and I cheered for them as I flipped through the pages. The author did a terrific job painting word pictures of working in a field hospital on the Bataan Peninsula. Jungle life was miserable. The insects, the constant heat and humidity, the filth, hunger, and agony. “The toll of living in the jungle revealed itself when we lined up with the other nurses who had arrived on Corregidor directly from Manila four months earlier. Those of us who had spent time in the jungle appeared feral. Our hair had grown wild, well beyond regulation off-the-collar length, our coveralls were in tatters, our cuts in rations had left us underweight and gaunt, and our sallow skin glowed with a dull sheen of malarial fever sweat.”

I was invested in the story and the struggles of the characters tugged at my emotions, but I found the writing to be average. Still recommended at 4 stars.

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


Woman of Light
By Kali Fajardo-Anstine

“Every sigh is breath stolen from life.” Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Woman of Light

Woman of Light is a multigenerational western saga of an Indigenous Chicano family. The book opens in the Lost Territory of New Mexico where Pidre Lopez, a Puebloan Indigenous person, settles in Animas, Colorado, where he runs a Wild West Show.

The author the moves to 1930s Denver, where Luz “Little Light” Lopez, discovers she has clairvoyant gifts and reads tea leaves to help her aunt, Maria Jose and brother, Diego, a snake oil salesman and womanizer pay the rent. When her brother is run out of town by a white mob for dating a white girl, Luz is left to fend for herself.

She uses her family connections to land a job as the secretary in a law office, where she finds herself in a love triangle with her attorney boss and a young mariachi musician. White Supremacy groups violently attack the law office because the attorney represents the downtrodden and underrepresented.

Meanwhile, Luz is having visions that transport her to her familial homeland in the Lost Territory. In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family stories from disappearing into oblivion.

I read this book by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (National Book Award finalist for Sabrina & Corina), in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. I found it to be underdeveloped with a skeletal backstory about the family early in the book. The author’s writing style didn’t keep me engaged, but I found her characters to be noteworthy. The synopsis sounded like it would be a fascinating read, but for me, it was just okay. It is clear the author has talent, though, so I’ll try her again. 3.5 stars.

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


Mercury Pictures Presents
By Anthony Marra

This family saga follows Maria Lagana from Mussolini’s Italy to 1940s Los Angeles. As a child in Rome, her father takes her to the cinema instead of church and she develops a lifelong passion for films. When Giuseppe is arrested and imprisoned by for subversive activities against the fascist regime, Maria and her mother Maria immigrate to safety in Los Angeles.

Maria rises from the typing pool to associate producer at Mercury Pictures, a creator of B-movies. The studio is always on the verge of bankruptcy and under the thumb of the Production Code for affronting the sensibilities of the movie-going public. “I can’t show a husband and wife faithfully married for fifty years sleeping in the same bed without that two-bit Torquemada Joe Breen farting brimstone on me,” quips irreverent studio head Artie Feldman.

In his 400+ pages, author Anthony Marra alternates between post-Pearl Harbor, where Maria must register as an internal alien, and war-torn Italy. I’ve read dozens of WWII historical fiction, but Marra wrote of something I’ll probably never forget: “The pilots wear insectile oxygen masks unnecessary for low altitude bombing runs but mandated since airmen began passing out from the smell of burning flesh rising from German and Japanese cities.”

The plot was fascinating on many levels, but the author’s verbosity and level of detail were occasionally overkill. He did a wonderful job with characterization, though, particularly Artie, whose antics made me laugh, but I found his brother Ned’s anti-Christian comments offensive.

Mercury Pictures Presents is hard to rate. There were some aspects I adored, and others I didn’t care for at all. The novel included impressive historical detail, but it might have been better split into two books. In my mind’s eye, I could picture the author smiling as he typed out his witty banter, but it was too much. He spent so much effort being clever that the story suffered—it took me longer than usual to read because I had to stop and refer to my dictionary too often. Too many storylines, too much minutiae. Marra is no doubt a gifted writer. This book was just not my style. 3 stars.

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


Sister Stardust
By Jane Green

“I knew now, what the rock and roll lifestyle entailed. As alluring as it was, it carried a darkness that could pull you under.”—Jane Green, Sister Stardust.

Inspired by a true story, author Jane Green reimagines the glamorous and tragic life of Dutch fashion icon and socialite Talitha Getty through the eyes of Claire, a young woman in search of adventure who is drawn into Talitha’s orbit.

It’s the swinging ‘60s when 19-year-old Claire gets kicked out of the house by her stepmother and moves to London to get a job. Her music manager boyfriend introduces her to his circle of friends, members of the Wide-Eyed Boys rock band. Before long, she’s whisked away to a pleasure palace in Marrakesh, Morocco, where she meets John Paul Getty Jr. and his wife, Talitha. Claire, newly christened Cece by her new friends, becomes completely engrossed in the indulgent sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll scene.

The push and pull of who Claire is and who she wants to be as Cece is a study in human nature. She so desperately wants to be somebody, and to have friends who love her, that she makes terrible choices and loses her innocence.

I was eager to read this book because it has thematic similarities to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel, Daisy Jones and the Six. The historical details are fascinating, and many real people are featured on its pages, including Mick Jagger and John Lennon. Jane Green is a talented storyteller, and the book is well written, but it is sordid. Most of the characters are morally bankrupt and looking for love in all the wrong places: there are orgies, a massive amount of drug and alcohol abuse, and debauched behavior.

One aspect of Sister Stardust really bothers me. The publisher pitches it as a “reimagining” of Talitha Getty’s life, which implies the author fabricated episodes about a real person. The same thing applies to her characterization of John Paul Getty Jr. That seems unethical. 3 stars.

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


The Twilight World
By Werner Herzog, Michael Hofmann (Translator)

“Our tasks are to remain invisible, to deceive the enemy, to be ready to do seemingly dishonorable things while keeping safe in our hearts the warrior’s honor.” ~ Werner Herzog, The Twilight World.

Although German filmmaker Werner Herzog has produced, written, and directed over sixty feature- and documentary films, The Twilight World is Werner Herzog’s debut as a novelist.

As the Imperial Army prepares to withdraw from Lubang Island, Philippines in December 1944, Japanese intelligence officer, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, is ordered to hold the island until the army returns. At first, he is with three other soldiers, but one-by-one they succumb to the jungle. They ignore leaflets announcing the Japanese surrender, technological advances such as jet aircraft and tubeless radios and Onoda mistakes American planes and ships en route to Korea and Vietnam as proof that WW2 rages on. In 1974, he is discovered alone in the jungle by an eccentric wanderer hunting for yeti (you can’t make that up) who tells the soldier the war has been over for nearly thirty years. 

This could have been such a great book. The true story of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda is tragic, yet remarkable. Imagine living in the wilderness not knowing World War 2 has been over for twenty-nine years! Onodo surrendered his sword in 1974 after believing he had been singularly defending Japanese territory against the United States. His is a fascinating story, but the book was tedious. It has a surreal quality like Herzog’s films, and not at all my style. Thankfully, the novella was only 144 pages, so the time investment was minimal. I supplemented the book with audio, but it seemed peculiar to have a book set in Japan read with the director’s own thick German accent. 3 stars.

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


Marrying the Ketchups
By Jennifer Close

I’m really kicking myself for taking the time to finish this book. When a publisher entrusts me with a review copy of a new release, I feel obliged to hang in there until the very last punctuation mark.

Marrying the Ketchups is about a close-knit, albeit dysfunctional, Catholic family in Chicago. Within weeks, the beleaguered Chicago Cubs win the World Series, Donald Trump is victorious in his bid to become president, and the Sullivan patriarch, Bud, dies unexpectedly. Suddenly, their lives are inexorably changed. JP Sullivan’s, Bud’s Oak Park, Illinois restaurant, was his legacy and their anchor. Now the family doesn’t know what to do.

I’m seeing reviewers compare Marrying the Ketchups to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, which is absurd. It doesn’t even come close to Reid’s novel. Now, it would be unfair for me to say there is nothing good about Close’s book. It’s nostalgic and although the family is a mess, the familial glue holds together when Bud dies. Gretchen’s storyline is well done, and she is likeable. Then there’s the title… it is ingenious!

The downside, however, is that the author spews a liberal agenda from beginning to end and the myriad political references are as annoying as a flock of jaybirds. The anger, man-hating, and over-the-top feminism ticked me off. (I’m all about equality of the sexes, btw). I also don’t care to read about committed couples cheating on each other. In one case, it is a gay affair between two men, the other a married man cheating on his wife. I’d like my valuable time back. 2 stars.

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






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