Reviews by BeckyH

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The Last Year of the War
by Susan Meissner
A must read (11/4/2018)
Well-written and well-researched, this book is one that should not be missed. Mariko and Elise, both American citizens, meet at an internment camp for aliens suspected of being Nazi or Japanese sympathizers because their fathers have been wrongly accused. Although one is German and one Japanese, they forge a friendship across the divide.
The teens and their families are believable and fully developed. The atmosphere of the camp in hot, dusty Texas has a climate that reflects both the weather and the resentment and resignation of those interned. Both families are involuntarily "repatriated" to countries under siege during the final terrifying days of the war.
The interning of American citizens is clearly shown as is the fear the war wreaks upon ordinary citizens in a war zone. In light of the current debates on immigration, this book sheds light on an aspect most American never consider – what happens to ordinary people caught in untenable situations.
Book groups will find much to ponder here. Parent/child book groups might find a companion book in a YA book by Monica Hesse. THE WAR OUTSIDE covers the same camp and some of the same incidents in a manner more appropriate for middle graders.
5 of 5 stars
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts
by Therese Anne Fowler
Money isn't eveything, but it helps (10/12/2018)
Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont was anything but a well- behaved woman. Left near-penniless as she approached marriageable age in the 1870’s, she set her aim for a wealthy man. William Vanderbilt, a younger son in the ultra-wealthy but socially ignored family, caught her eye, as she caught his. This fictionalized account of her life as a philanthropist, suffragette activist, society hostess and intelligent, opinionated woman is a bit too long, but is vastly entertaining.
Alva, her sisters, her children, her husbands, the Vanderbilts, the Astors and others of upper crust New York society are clearly, and unsparingly, drawn. The day to day life of Gilded Age society is the backdrop and conformingly repressive constraint her friends and “frenemies” endured. Told with clear eyed sympathy, the novel follows Alva from age 17 to her death in 1933.

Book groups will enjoy discussing the differences between women today and the women who found themselves painted, pampered, polished, packaged and utterly controlled by their fathers and husbands.
4 ½ of 5 stars
The Great Alone
by Kristin Hannah
a terrifying love story (10/3/2018)
Which would you rather do? Die by freezing, starving or being mauled to death by “Alaska” or die at the hands of your abusive, PTSD addled father?
Hannah has written a tense, terrifying love story. But is it a story of love for the beautiful wildness of Alaska or the wildly beautiful love of a father for his wife and daughter? Leni’s father has decided the family will move to Alaska where he will finally be happy. They are woefully unprepared for the rigors of homesteading in America’s last wilderness. Taken under the wings of Large Marge, a successful homesteader and formerly successful big city prosecutor, the family quickly learns to be relatively self-sufficient. Leni learns to love Alaska and the “wild” life style her father has decreed for the family. Unfortunately, Leni’s father is friend and compatriot with Mad Earl, a rabid anti-government survivalist. Matthew, a classmate of Leni’s, becomes her only friend.
The wildness of nature and the difficulties of surviving in Alaska during the 1970’s and 80’s is made excruciating clear. The terror of living with an out of control abuser suffering from PTSD after surviving as a POW in Viet Nam is also clear. The relationships between mother and daughter, mother and father, Leni and Matthew, father and Mad Earl, among others, are clear and determine the vector and velocity of the plot.
Girl in the Blue Coat
by Monica Hesse
THE GIRL IN THE BLUE COAT by Monica Hesse (8/7/2018)
A young woman living in Holland during the Nazi Occupation is forced into smuggling and utilizing the Black Market in order to feed her family and friends. One of her “regulars” asks her to find “the girl in the blue coat” and that is where the mystery begins. Secrets, betrayals, lost friendships, disappearances, dead lovers and danger on all sides makes this a compelling and tense read. Everyday life in an occupied city is made real and horrific.
Although billed as Young Adult, this novel will appeal to anyone interested in WWII and the resistance, especially in Holland.
5 of 5 stars
The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel
by Eleanor Henderson
Too long, but worthwhile (maybe) (7/25/2018)
Oh my, incest, moonshine, sharecropping, KKK, lynching, twins (one white, one black), chain gangs and everything else bad about 1920’s Georgia. It is all here along with a meandering timeline, numerous plots and sub-plots and the “N” word. If this sounds exhausting – it is. There is just soooo much going on in this 540 page tome that it is WORK to read it.
There is an interesting and valuable story here. The characters include a moonshining sharecropper with a problematic background, a teenaged daughter and a teenaged live-in black “maid.” Juke (the sharecropper/moonshiner) hires a black male farmhand. The farmhand has a relationship with both daughter and maid. Daughter has a relationship with the farm owner’s son that ends badly. Both teens are pregnant. The farmhand is lynched and dragged down the twelve-mile straight roadway to the delight (for a time) of the entire town. The son is accused of the murder and disappears – and that is just the beginning section of the book.
The characters are clearly drawn. The time and place are well defined. The situations are believable. But the whole thing is sooo long and the time meanders from before to after and back again with no clear delineation. The final resolutions are clear and satisfying. Dates at the start of each event would be helpful. A little (a lot?) of editing would help.
3 stars for length and confusing timeline
The Weight of Ink
by Rachel Kadish
Good, but too long (7/14/2018)
This somewhat disturbing tale is the story of a young Jewish girl living in exile in Holland (Amterdam) in 1660 when tragedy forces her to live with an aging Rabbi in England. Ester’s own father, also a rabbi, had encouraged Ester’s education in defiance of community norms. In England, Ester continues her education and is employed as scribe to her protector rabbi. Unbeknown to her employer, she embarks on a philosophical correspondence with a number of renowned philosophers including Benedict Spinoza. The interwoven twentieth century tale concerns an aging professor who finds her letters and is determined to publish them.
The characters are skillfully defined and brought to life on the pages. The political climates of Jewish diaspora and England between Cromwell and the renewed monarchy are clear. The tension between the rival philosophies is palpable. Although VERY long, the well-researched story holds one’s attention. Ester is a likable, although obstinate and often misguided, personage. Her plight will resonant with today’s feminist sympathizers.
4 of 5 stars because of the 600 page length.
Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan
Salt Houses (6/14/2018)
The meaning of the title is noted three fourth of the way through the book when the family patriarch, Atef, reminisces, “the houses glitter whitely…like structures made of salt before a tidal wave sweeps them away.” His family – 4 generations – leave behind houses as war follows them from Palestine, to Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Boston, Manhattan and back to Lebanon. One of the daughters in trying to identify her heritage is at a loss. Is she Palestinian – she has never lived there. Is she Lebanese or Arab or Kuwaiti or…

And that is the essence of this tale. What is our heritage? Is it the place of our birth, where we live NOW, where we lived before, how do we define ourselves?
Alyan describes loss and heartache in beautiful prose. Her characters live and breathe. The sense of place is palpable. Although this tale is specifically Palestinian, the rootlessness of the refugee is timeless and placeless.

You will need the family tree at the beginning of the book to keep the generations straight. The time and place notations at the beginning of each chapter help the reader keep track of the family’s migrations and the time frame of the various wars and tragedies from just before the 6 Day War through the current Middle East uprisings.

Lots for book groups to discuss here.
Varina
by Charles Frazier
I should have loved it! (5/30/2018)
The person is eminently interesting – the wife of the Confederate President. The era is interesting – the decades before, during, and after the American Civil War. The episodes are fascinating – a Southern white woman raising an enslaved child as her own: the escape of fugitives in a devastated land: the marriage of a 17 year old to a 40 year old. So why didn’t I like it?

The episodes are just that – episodes that jump from decade to decade with no cohesion. The story is not a story – there is no plot. The tempo and pacing are erratic at best.

BUT… the writing is wonderful. The conclusions are insightful. The characters are real and well presented.

YOU might like it. I didn’t.
Music of the Ghosts
by Vaddey Ratner
Lovely writing (4/2/2018)
Oh my goodness! What to say about this book. First the good. The writing is lyrical. Some phrases are exquisite. The word usage is wonderful. Then there is the story. I am SOOOOO confused. I tried very hard to like this book, but just couldn’t do it. The Old Musician and his reminisces wander all over-- future, past, present -- all in present tense.
Somewhere around page 200, the story began to make sense. If you can make that far -- this tale of Cambodia and Khmer Rouge, death, love, life, hate, perseverance, family, faith -- becomes full of life and forces one to engage its loveliness and its heartbreak.
Teera and the Old Musician enter your heart and mind and take up residence. They stay with you long after you have read the last page.
Still, only 3 of 5 stars for the slow start, the initial confusion, the ethereal sentences.
The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Mystery of 1920s Bombay
by Sujata Massey
Murder and India (3/14/2018)
If you like historical fiction, especially India in early 20th century, and learning about different cultures and ways of life, you will like this book. While it is a murder mystery, it is also an exploration of the various cultures active in India from 1915 to 1922. The heroine is a young woman Parisi (Zoroastrian) who has trained to be a solicitor (lawyer) at Oxford and is working in her father’s firm when three widows, Muslims who live in Purda or complete seclusion from men, need a lawyer. A murder occurs, and Perveen, the untried female lawyer, is the only one who can enter the widows’ seclusion.
The situation of women of all faiths becomes integral to the plot, as do marriage customs, inheritance, family practices, the law, the role of the English in India, Indian independence, class strictures and even education and employment for women. While the plot moves slowly, the descriptions of a way of life unknown to most Americans, keeps the reader interested and reading. Besides a murder, there are also two kidnappings, financial shenanigans, jewelry theft, families in crisis, and other plot devices to keep interest high.
The noises, smells and flavors of Bombay and Calcutta set the scene. Clearly drawn characters and lively writing add to a tale well worth spending time with tea, curry and Perveen as she navigates the path forward with three widows who are clearly not sisters of the heart.
4 of 5 stars
Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
Thought provoking (3/13/2018)
I haven’t read any Piccoult for a while (a little tired of the “disease of the month” rut she seemed to be in), so I had avoided this book also. But I kept hearing really good things about it. People who didn’t read Piccoult LOVED it. So, I gave it a shot.
All those good things I heard were true. This is a good book! The tale revolves around an African-American nurse. She is a good nurse with a sterling reputation until she is Labor and Delivery nurse to the wife of a white supremacist. This IS a Piccoult book, so, of course, something terrible happens to the baby. Now the tale becomes sympathetic (yes, sympathetic) portrayals of a white, racist, perfectly awful man, his white racist, perfectly awful wife and a here-to-for unbiased, wonderful person African-American nurse and her honor roll student , off to Yale son.
You will learn more medical jargon than you ever wanted to know and, maybe, discover a few of your own biases and prejudices. This is a good story, well told, that will keep you wondering about yourself until the final pages.
5 of 5 stars
French Exit
by Patrick deWitt
Don't waste your time (2/6/2018)
I just couldn't get interested in this book or the characters in it; Frances, a middle aged widow, and her son, Malcolm. While clearly drawn, neither was likeable or very interesting. Their situation (about to become bankrupt) and their reactions were also not interesting. I finished the book all the while wondering why I kept reading. I can't in good conscience recommend this book. Frances is a snide, snobbish and selfish person. Malcolm is a man/child who has no ambition and no desire to do anything including attend to his long suffering fiancé. The entourage they acquire is made up of misfits and ne'er-do-wells. The conclusion is a relief.
Come Sundown
by Nora Roberts
COME SUNDOWN by Nora Roberts (1/23/2018)
The only other Nora Roberts (J D Robb) book I have read is her dystopian YEAR ONE. This is a stand-alone thriller.
The Bodine Ranch and Resort are both run by a close knit family. Bodine Longbow, the eldest daughter is the focus of the book and the COO of the family enterprise. She is clearly drawn and multidimensional as is Callen Skinner, a new hire and old acquaintance. Alice, Bodine’s aunt, who has been missing for years is an integral part of the plot as is Sundown, a highly trained and intelligent horse.
When young women start disappearing and then are found murdered in the close vicinity of the ranch, the plot becomes apparent. There are plenty of red herrings, plot twists, love interests and Ranch/Resort complications to keep the reader interested in this 450 page novel. Roberts is a master of the thriller/love story genre and it shows in this outing.
5 of 5 stars for a convincing thriller with likeable characters, interesting locale and pleasing secondary plots.
The Immortalists: A Novel
by Chloe Benjamin
If you knew when you would die????? (1/12/2018)
THE IMMORTALISTS follows four children throughout their lives. The children visit a woman who tells them their death date. That knowledge compels each of the young people to follow a different pathway through life. A gay boy who is uncertain of his sexuality and self-worth, a girl who may be suffering from a mental illness and infatuated by magic, a girl who is intellectually brilliant but socially inept and a boy who is the family’s “golden child” intent on doing everything perfectly make up this group of siblings.

Each one’s story is told in succession with little interaction between the siblings until each one’s death. Each story is compelling on its own. The characters are well developed. Each life story has a clear beginning, middle and end. The place and time each sibling’s story covers is detailed and distinct.

An intriguing, well written, and aware novel delineating the difference between belief and science, reality and fantasy. The choices each sibling makes will resonate long after you finish reading.
The Stars Are Fire
by Anita Shreve
Disappointing (12/14/2017)
I picked up this book because I thought it was historical fiction about the devastating fire in the Northeast during October of 1947. It is, but first you have to get through the bad sex (there is more bad sex later in the book, too). The fire is only peripheral to the book. It is really about a young mother finding herself, standing up for herself and her children and finally finding her true love. If that is the book you want to read, this one is well written, the characters are interesting and speak and act like real people. There is a bit about the fire that is quite terrifying and a bit about the damage fire can cause to a human being.
The psychology part is also well written. I’m not quite sure about how the title fits the story. I’m still disappointed there is not more about the fire. Oh well, it was a decent read.
Eternal Life
by Dara Horn
Eternal Life -- Not all it is cracked up to be (11/7/2017)
So – was this a good book? It asks so many questions and doesn’t give many answers. The clear take away is: Be careful what you ask for – you might get it!
What would it be like to never die? To always return as an eighteen year old when one “life” is ended? What if this was punishment for sin? How many times can a person reinvent themselves and adapt to changing values, science, language, culture, etc, etc. Those are some of the questions this novel tries to answer. Rachel, a complex character born in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, lives in the pages of this book for centuries as does her co-sinner and lover. A basic knowledge of Bible history and a smattering of knowledge of the Jewish faith will help the reader grasp the nuances of the tale. When we meet Rachel in this current age, Rachel is desperate to die – permanently.
The book is well written, the characters are strong and sympathetic, the situation – well – that is a problem. First, the God who loves people, and is the God Rachel knows, wouldn’t condemn a penitent to an eternal punishment. The premise the plot is based on is false. Second, the probability of one person finding another in ancient times, or even in modern times, is minimal. So Rachel and Elazar would be unlikely to keep meeting. However, the questions the book asks are important to ponder.
So – suspend belief and enjoy the writing and the characters. It is fiction after all!
4 of 5 stars
Cutting For Stone
by Abraham Verghese
interesting on many levels (10/2/2017)
Although long (perhaps a bit too long), this tale of brothers holds your attention. When an Italian nun, woefully unprepared for a mission in Africa, turns up at a medical mission in Ethiopia, she is welcomed because of her skill with patients and her ability to serve as nurse to a highly skilled but disconnected surgeon. After she gives birth unexpectedly to twin boys, the story switches to the boys, raised at the mission, and the “family” at the mission that raises them to adulthood.
World War II and the civil war that later divides Ethiopia into political factions serve as the background for this fascinating tale of medicine, natives, doctors, politicians and family. Secrets and intrigue abound and are satisfyingly brought to a conclusion as the two boys search for their birth father and fulfilling lives in the midst of great love and great upheaval.
5 of 5 stars
LaRose
by Louise Erdrich
disappointing (10/2/2017)
I really wanted to like this book but I just couldn’t sustain an interest in these characters or their story. Perhaps it was the jumps from past to present or present to indigenous tale or family to family, I just didn’t care.
The whole premise of giving away a child (and then taking him back - sort of) just didn’t seem believable. Emmaline never really seemed to be a “real” person, just a non-entity. LaRose was too good to be true. Nola was too submerged in grief to be interesting. Maggie was my favorite character and the most believable. I couldn’t understand why anyone would believe anything Romeo said.
I have read other books by Erdrich and liked them. This one was just a disappointment.
3 of 5 stars for good writing, poor story
Y is for Yesterday: A Kinsey Millhone Novel
by Sue Grafton
5 stars for longevity and deft plotting (8/31/2017)
Grafton reaches back into Kinsey’s past for this thriller so you know she will survive. Two concurrent plots make up the story line. Ned, a serial killer who wants Kinsey dead, is one, the other is the 10 year old death of a popular teen whose murder was solved – or was it? The book bounces from one plot to the other, so for me the momentum was lost. But I like Grafton’s heroine, so that was okay.
Grafton shows that although the end of the series and the end of alphabet approach, there are still stories and plots to tell. She has lost none of her story telling skill and the plots are still intriguing. So for Kinsey fans this one is win, win.
What will be the “Z” title????? And how will the series conclude? Are the only questions remaining.
5 of 5 stars for longevity and continuing deft plotting
The Hidden Light of Northern Fires
by Daren Wang
lots of potential (8/19/2017)
There are at least four stories in this one novel. Mary and Joe are the two characters that are the most clearly and realistically drawn. You may need a “cast of characters” to keep all the individuals, families and alliances straight. Several plots seem a bit far-fetched. Here are three instances.– Southern Dad admitting after years and on his death bed that two of his slaves are his children and disinheriting the white brother: a slave girl in a brothel for 4 years just walking away with no residual mental damage: a Northern soldier given the option of just walking away from his unit and commission by his commanding officer.
The story line is intriguing and holds your interest. The love story is well written and believable. The ending is a bit too “pat” and comes out of nowhere. The author shows great promise in his writing skill. I look forward to seeing his next tale. My copy is an advance readers’ edition and there are many grammatical and typo errors.
3 of 5 stars

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