Reviews by Becky H

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The Bitter Side of Sweet
by Tara Sullivan
This sweet has a very bitter side (9/29/2016)
This middle school novel tells the story of three children caught in the cacao industry in the Ivory Coast. Although hard to read because of the brutal treatment of the children, the book tells a worthwhile story. The three children of the story are two boys mislead to believe they would be working only for a season for wages. Instead they were neither paid nor allowed to leave. They worked under very harsh primitive conditions. The third child was a girl kidnapped and forced to work the cacao fields because her mother, a journalist, was exposing the slave-like conditions of the workers. The story of the children’s eventual escape is both heartbreaking and thrilling.
The afterword offers a way to affect the harvesting of the cacao pods and the mistreatment of the children.
Not recommended for tender hearted, younger children.
5 of 5 stars
The Fifth Gospel
by Ian Caldwell
THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell (3/3/2015)
What a great book! The writer gives you a feast for the intellect while presenting a spell binding murder mystery. It might help if you have a bit of Biblical or Christian knowledge, but if you don’t, it will be liberally supplied without preaching. The schism between the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Roman Church is a major part of the plot. The schism plays out in the family that is the center of THE FIFTH GOSPEL. One brother is a Roman Priest, the other an Eastern Christian priest. The victim is a lay person who is investigating the provenance of the Shroud of Turin with the help of both brothers.
The writing is clear and fluid. The characters are well rounded and interesting personalities. The plot is slowly revealed through the machinations and hierarchy of the Country that is Vatican City. You will be drawn into the plot, the family, the Vatican and the Church as the tale unfolds.
Book groups will discover many avenues to discuss – family, faith, church, power, crime, punishment, divorce, suicide, among them.
5 of 5 stars
The Art of Baking Blind
by Sarah Vaughan
a delicious read (2/21/2015)
Vaughan has created five very likeable characters in the contestants for the “Next Mrs. Eaden, ‘ although Mike seems like the required male, an afterthought serving only as a foil for Claire’s Jay. Kathleen Eadon, who appears in back flashes, is the glue that serves to highlight each of the other character’s flaws and perfections. The book is lengthy (over 400 pages) but is a “quick” read. You will want to know the conclusion of the contest, and the solutions to each of the contestant’s (and Kathleen’s) dilemmas.
I hope in the finished book there is a glossary of the British cookery terms – and pictures of the wonderful treats the bakers create. The descriptions of the baking projects are scrumptious and will send you to the kitchen -- or hustling off to the grocery. Book groups will find a “baker’s dozen” of topics for discussion – marriage, motherhood, cookery skills, self worth, bulimia, miscarriage, contests and many more.
The Well
by Catherine Chanter
A couple buckets too long (2/14/2015)
THE WELL is several buckets of water too long. The first 200 pages of the book were boring. The last 100 were fast paced and absorbing. The question – Are the last 100 pages worth the first 200? If you like many pages of psychological wanderings to get to the real story then – Yes, you will like this book. If you just want your mystery to get to the point with logic, this book will drive you crazy. The identity of the murderer was never really in doubt.
The characters were unknowable until near the end of the book so a connection with the characters was difficult. The one "knowable" person was Lucien. The sub plot of drought was the link that held everything together, unfortunately, the drought was known only through inference. A reasonable explanation of why the drought was everywhere except at the well was never addressed. That leaves one with magic, psychology and an unsatisfying read.
3 of 5 stars for good writing but a plodding plot.
The Long Way Home: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, #10
by Louise Penny
I should have read the others first! (2/7/2015)
This was my first Inspector Gamache novel and that was a mistake. I should have read the preceding novels first! Even at the end of the book I was still sure I was missing important nuances of plot , conversation and place.
That said, I enjoyed this book. The mystery lurks into being in the first paragraphs and keeps one on edge for the remainder of the book. The characters are well defined. The plot is rich with suspense and is logically rendered. You will care about the characters and be surprised by the ending. There is humor in the characters, especially Ruth and Rosa, as well as humanity and empathy.
If you know a bit about art and artists you will be ahead of the game. If you know nothing about art and artists you will learn a lot about their temperaments and work styles. Neither instance will detract from the story.
5 of 5 stars
The Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah
Well researched and well written (2/3/2015)
Do not be put off by the “women’s fiction” classification of this book. THE NIGHTINGALE is a well- researched, well written discussion of the realities, cruelties and decisions that face an ordinary family in Vichy France. The book, beginning in 1938 as war approaches, is told from the viewpoint of the surviving sister many years later. The family, father and two sisters, is torn apart by their individual decisions when one sister and her children are forced to house a German officer in the family home in a small village after her husband joins the Allied Forces. The father, remaining in Paris, attempts to continue the family’s bookstore, while the second daughter chooses to join the resistance.
Village life under occupation and the dangers of resistance are clearly shown. The characters and situations are well developed and realistic. The supporting characters are shown to be humans acting under extreme duress – the good are not always good and the bad are not always bad.
I would have preferred to learn more about Rachel and her plight after she is forced from her job early in the occupation. We never quite learn how she is able to survive and seemingly thrive with no money and no way to get any.
Book groups will have a plethora of topics to discuss, including what decisions they would make concerning “outing” Jews, lying to friends and family, fraternizing with the enemy, murder, resistance, and many others.
5 of 5 stars
The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell
by William Klaber
A "lost" life (12/21/2014)
This was such an interesting story and yet so sad. Lucy Ann, who lived most of her life as a man, was a remarkable person. Abandoned by an abusive husband and left with a small daughter to care for, she returned "home" to an unforgiving family. After donning men's clothing and cutting her hair she left her daughter behind to establish herself as a "proper wage earner" in a society that did not look kindly on divorce or even spinsterhood.

Klaber's well researched volume relates Lucy Ann's life with sympathy and sensitivity. He deals with her misfortunes when discovered to be a woman dressing as a man and a woman living as husband with another woman. The late 1800's were not good years for a non-conforming woman.
Book groups will find a wealth of topics for discussion – our treatment of non-conformists, religion, woman's roles, men's roles, mothers who desert their children, "fallen" women, lesbians, mental illness, insane asylums and many others.
5 of 5 stars
Backyard
by Norman Draper
Only if you have a warped sense of humor. (10/11/2014)
I did not enjoy this book. I didn't like any of the very unlikeable characters-especially Dr. Spoot, the main character. The story was filled with mean actions and objectionable and deplorable attitudes. (Acting like a Nazi is not funny!) The "gardening" aspect, which was what drew me to the book in the first place, was actually a mockery of gardening. Perhaps this book was supposed to be sarcastic and hilariously funny. If so, it was entirely lost on me. The only somewhat likeable characters were the Fremonts and even there, drunkenness and "peeing" in ones backyard were deemed appropriate behavior.
Skip this one. The writing is pedestrian and the jokes are sophomoric (in the worst sense).
The Death of Lucy Kyte: A New Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey (Josephine Tey Mysteries)
by Nicola Upson
The Death of Lucy Kyte (9/4/2014)
Josephine Tey is one of my favorite authors so when I discovered that another author was writing using Ms. Tey as her protagonist I was intrigued. In this outing Josephine inherits a cottage in a village still under the influence of a murder that occurred in that same cottage many years ago.

Surprisingly the will that grants Josephine the cottage contains an enigmatic bequest to Lucy Kyte who “may take whatever she wants” from the cottage.
THE DEATH OF LUCY KYTE is an engaging and convincing mystery on several levels. First – who is Lucy Kyte? No one will admit to knowing her – and this in a village of few persons who all know each other. Second – what does Lucy want? Related mysteries abound. The mysteries are all connected and satisfactorily resolved by book’s end.

The characters are clearly drawn. The plot is tightly woven and original. Altogether an enthralling book.

5 of 5 stars
Ruth's Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind
by Donald McCaig
Ruth's Journey, The Story of Mammy and Solange (8/8/2014)
Though the book is related by Ruth (Mammy), the story is really Solange and Miss Ellen’s story. You might ask “Who is Solange?” Solange is Scarlett’s grandmother, but you won’t find her in Gone with the Wind.
Solange is a French heiress who is married off to a second son with prospects in sugar. She arrives in Haiti to find the sugar plantation in disarray and the second son a poor manager. Ruth is an orphan that Solange appropriates for herself. When the Haitian slave revolt becomes a dangerous reality, Solange, her husband and Ruth decamp to Charleston, South Carolina.
Here Ruth finds love and marriage in Jehu, a free black. Unfortunately Jehu finds Pastor Vesey and his church of slaves. When Vesey’s plot to overthrow and murder white slave holders is discovered, Ruth’s family is shattered and the story changes location to Savannah. Here Solange marries for a third time and gives birth to Ellen, Scarlett’s mother.
The last quarter of the book covers Miss Ellen and Gerald O”Hara’s marriage and life at Tara. The book ends with the outbreak of the Civil War.
The book is well written and follows a pre-ordained curve to introduce us to Scarlett and give us a back story for why Scarlett is who she is. Actual events and people give a feeling of reality to the novel that is a bit too long. Too much of the book deals with Solange and her amorous adventures. If you are looking for a novel of pre-Civil War manners, you will be happy. If you really want to know Ruth and a slave’s life, this is not the book for you.
4 of 5 stars
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell
by Nadia Hashimi
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell (8/4/2014)
Two women who were “bocha posh” in their youth are the two heroines of this double story. Rahima is the modern girl who is turned into a boy in order for her family to survive in a patriarchal society where girls/women are forced into the extreme background of life. Shekiba (the great-great-grandmother of Rahima) becomes “bacha posh” because of the deaths of her immediate family and the shunning of her extended family. Both women live in a very structured Aghan society that does not permit females to participate in society.
The intertwined tales follow the women throughout their lives as they transition from girl to “boy” and then back to girl. The second transition is the most difficult as they must adjust from relative freedom to a rigidly obedient life under the complete domination of both males and the older women who can make their lives miserable or pleasant.
Traditional Afghan society is made very clear as we learn the intimate details of Rahima and Shekiba’s lives. Both women make choices that determine their fates as well as the fates of those they love or simply grow to know. The character who connects the two women is Shaima, Rahima’s aunt, who tells the story of Shekiba in order to encourage Rahima to live her life as fully as possible.
Book groups will ponder the fate of the many women who people the book and find much to discuss – husbands, education, the position of women, ethical behavior, the importance of family and, of course, the oddity of “bacha posh” itself.
5 of 5 stars
The Arsonist: A novel
by Sue Miller
This book has no end (7/24/2014)
I enjoyed this very well written book until I got to the end. Then I felt cheated. Where was the conclusion? What happened? Who was guilty? Who died? Who loved?
Frankie and Bud were clearly drawn, likeable characters. Frankie’s life in Africa was detailed enough to make her believable if unknown and unknowable. Bud was always known and knowable. Sylvia and Alfie were good foils for Frankie and Bud.
The fires seemed peripheral to the story, unnecessary even.
Did I like this book? While I was reading it – unequivocally yes! Did I like it once I finished the book – not so much. The last 10 pages seemed like a cop out – I don’t know what to do with these characters and their story, so I’ll just end it. Very unsatisfying.
Summer House with Swimming Pool
by Herman Koch
Summer house with Swimming Pool (6/18/2014)
I made it through 100 pages of this book before deciding I didn’t like any of the characters and I truly didn’t care if Ralph was murdered or it was just a horrible mistake. Marc, the doctor who made the mistake or committed the murder, was an especially unlikeable person. He was selfish and narcissistic to the extreme. Ralph wasn’t much better. They were both lecherous towards the other’s wife within minutes of meeting (apparently not an unusual happening).

There was supposed to be humor somewhere in this book, but it hadn’t occurred by page 100 (out of 385). Marc didn’t like camping and I didn’t like Marc so I guess we are even. Skip this one.
The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra
by Helen Rappaport
The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport (4/20/2014)
History and Russian buffs will love this history of the last Tsar and his family. Although the title seems to indicate the book will revolve around the four Romanov daughters more than half of the book is spent with their mother Alexandra and her ills, their brother Alexie who suffers from Hemophilia and the influence of Rasputin. Perhaps because the girls were so sheltered from the public little actual “news” is available to write about them, their lives, their schooling and private lives. The book reads quickly and is interesting, especially as it relates the family to their English and German relatives.

If you are hoping to read the bloody details of the family’s end, you will need to find another book as this one ends with their banishment from public and royal life. You will, however, discover a family that cherishes normality and each other.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera (4/12/2014)
I enjoyed the writing which was clear and moving. The descriptions of the island were wonderful, not just the physical beauty but the smells of food, people and nature. I felt like I really knew the characters. I hope the final edition has a "cast of characters" as it was difficult to keep the various families and generations straight, especially as they were seemingly unrelated as the narrative moved from generation to generation and Sinhala to Tamil and back again. I learned a vast amount about the Sri Lankan history of civil violence.
Book groups will find themselves discussing discrimination, arranged marriage, ethnic differences, education, parental desires for their children, the life of the immigrant in a new land, jealousy between siblings, soldier versus terrorist, the effect of violence on people and culture, and the sense of smell. Some groups may find the descriptions of sexuality (including violent rape) disturbing.
The Weight of Blood
by Laura McHugh
THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Laura McHugh (2/25/2014)
THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD concerns what happens when family loyalty blinds one member to the oddities, questions and inconsistencies of another member; when love for a brother leads one to cover up misdeeds in the name of family and to continue for years never admitting the half truths that abound.
This thriller by Laura McHugh starts out mildly unsettling and ratchets up as the pages turn. Carl and Clete are brothers who both fall for the same girl, Lila, an orphan who comes to the Ozarks for work and finds love. After marrying Carl, Lila has a daughter Lucy, who is loved by both her father and her uncle. In short order a town girl disappears and her body is found dismembered and stuffed in a tree. Lila, considered an outsider and perhaps a witch, disappears soon after. The story continues 16 years later with Lila’s daughter and increasing tension between the brothers and in the town.
McHugh does a good job with tension and atmosphere, characterization and ordinariness as the story deepens into horror. Some readers may be disturbed by the subtext of white slavery. Book groups will discuss family secrets, loyalty, the pull of neighborliness, mental handicaps, privacy and small town morals topics for discussion.
4 of 5 stars
The Secret of Magic
by Deborah Johnson
The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson (2/22/2014)
This is a wonderful book! The book jacket does not do it justice. I almost didn’t buy it. Then I started reading and couldn’t put it down. The writing reminds me of THE HELP or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or IN COLD BLOOD or even MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL – all great books.
A black war hero is returning home to Mississippi after WWII when he is beaten to death and dumped in the river. The story concerns the hero’s father and the two women – one white, one black – who want to see justice served in a segregated Jim Crow South. The characters in this book are real people (fictional) who are shown in both their goodness and their fear, their needs and their disappointments, their triumphs and their failures. The town of Revere, Mississippi, is as much a character as the people who populate the town - the District Attorney, the sheriff, the white lawyer and the black lawyer, the erstwhile lover and his wife and son, the maybe murderess and the ever present sense of fear and “place.”
The story is riveting. You will not be disappointed. Book group will a wealth of topics to discuss.
5 of 5 stars
The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
THE INVENTION OF WINGS by Sue Monk Kidd (2/6/2014)
Kidd’s retelling of the Grimke sisters and their fight for equality for women and the abolition of slavery is told with sympathy and fact. Although much of the story is fiction, Kidd manages to remain true to the real life story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke in the days and decades before the Civil War. A number of “big names” appear in the sisters’ ongoing struggle to be heard in a male dominated South and respected in a male dominated North.
The tale loses some momentum in the middle, possibly because the sisters’ actual lives also stalled in their middle years. The addition of the totally fictional characters of Charlotte and Hetty carry the story well, giving the slave side of Southern life. The horrors of slavery are graphically depicted.
I can recommend this book without reservation for anyone interested in Southern life, abolition, women’s rights, and the life style and treatment of women in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina. Also interesting is the role of the church (in many permutations) in the condoning of slavery and the treatment of women.
5 of 5 stars
The Kitchen House: A Novel
by Kathleen Grissom
THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom (1/15/2014)
In an interesting twist on the pre-Civil War story of slavery, Grissom presents us with an Irish child orphaned on the ocean crossing and delivered into the life of an indentured servant. Because Lavinia is only 6 years old as the tale begins, she is handed over to the “house slaves” to raise by the master of the house. Belle, who ultimately becomes Lavinia’s “mother/sister,” is the master’s illegitimate daughter and receives many privileges because of this relationship. Promised her freedom by the master, Belle unhappily comes under the eye of the master’s son who is unduly influenced by the evil overseer.
Grissom has written an engrossing tale of life of “house slave, “field slave” and bullied and frightened wife. The characters are clearly written, the scenes are believable, the secrets are many. The plot will grab your interest from the first page and keep you reading to the final page. Grissom has a clear vision of plantation life, family relationships, and the fear engendered by powerlessness. The tempo of the story gains momentum as the characters reveal their lies, secrets, loves, hopes and fears as Lavinia grows from child to adult.
5 of 5 stars
City of the Sun
by Juliana Maio
CITY OF THE SUN by Juliana Maio (1/7/2014)
This book started as a good, well thought out war time spy thriller with a little romance thrown in. Then three fourth of the way through a couple of needless hot and heavy sex scenes appeared that seemed out of character for Maya and unnecessary for the story line. Then the ending just got unbelievable. It seemed as though the author ran out of steam and did a quick and dirty ending with coincidence and unreal situations abounding.
The characters – Maya, a Jewish refugee trying to get to Palestine with her scientist brother; Mickey, an American newspaperman turned spy; Kesner, a German spy looking for the brother, and a host of minor characters - were well fleshed out with clear voices and actions. A number of historical persons and organizations played minor parts (Anwar Sadat, King Farouk, the Muslim Brotherhood) appearing realistically as needed for the plot. Cairo in 1941, festering with a desire for independence and drowning in refugees and foreign soldiers, was a great setting for the story line. It is too bad the ending was so unsatisfying.
I enjoyed the book as a whole but not the ending.

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