Reviews by Diane S.

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Waiting for Eden
by Elliot Ackerman
Waiting for Eden (10/7/2018)
Many moons ago, when I was a junior in high school I read a book for my contemporary history class, called, Johnny got his gun. Several years back I read a novel called, Never let you go, and I had such a strong, visceral reaction to those two books that they haunt me to this day. This book will join that list. In this slim, relatively short book, Ackerman has penned a powerful narrative on the horrible cost of war. Centering this story, that I'm sure is a reality for some, on only a few people, and limiting the setting to only what is necessary, he has created an insular novel, from which it is hard to look away. The narrative voice, a friend of Edens, takes us back and forth, but only as far as what the reader needs to kno. How Eden got here, and how his wife and daughter, Tangled their lives together. We also hear the inner thoughts of Eden as he lays in his bed.

Waiting, the many who wait, for news of their loved ones, for lives to restart, for healing, moments of grace, and of course waiting for death. The terribly, high costs of wars that seem to gain do little, but cost so much. The author also employed what I consider another masterful stroke, a repeating description of something that brings out the human side of Eden, making him personal and memorable to the reader. In the novel, She rides Shotgun, the author used a teddy bear that talked and emoted, I won't forget that detail and hence for me it made the book unforgettable. Here,the detail is not as innocuous or harmless as a teddy. I won't tell you what it is but it is equally if not more so memorable.

This is not a happy, little book, but a necessary one. A wake up call, a shock if you will to those of us lucky enough not to be waiting, not to be personally involved in the horrible effects or after effects of war. Those of us who can sit on our couches and just watch various scenes play out on the television. I won't forget this incredibly powerful and moving story.
A Ladder to the Sky: A Novel
by John Boyne
A ladder to the sky (9/25/2018)
Boynes, Hearts Invisible Furies turned out to be my favorite book of last year. In that one he gave me a character I absolutely loved, in this one he does the opposite. Here, he gives us a character, one loves to hate, a young man devoid of any redeeming characteristics. Maurice Swift, a man who thinks that anything he does is justified. Nothing is his fault.

Now I am the type of reader who enjoys being given a character who tugs at my heart, someone in which I can hope for cherish. But....I also say if you can't give me that, then give me some stellar prose, or a plot that is intriguing, pulls me into the story. And.....yes that is definitely the case here, this plot pulled me in, like watching a train wreck I couldn't pull away. Can beauty alone, present a blind that allows one to excuse another's actions? Do those who are extremely good looking have an unfair advantage, treated differently than those who do not? Apparently so. This is a book where it would be so easy to give away part of the plot, so I will stop here. The less said the better I this case.

Boyne, to me is an amazing writer. He writes so many different types of books, but though I have not yet read all of his, the ones I have, did not let me down. I look forward to seeing where he takes me next.
Vox
by Christina Dalcher
Vox (5/7/2018)
The Scarlet letter for the near future, but instead of a Puritan society and the red letter A, we have a society where the Christian right has prevailed. Women, even babies are fitted with a leather wristband that limits the words spoken in a day to a hundred. The first time you go over, one receives a small shock, strength of shock is increased with each transgression. 1984, only it is now, cameras are fitted in each house, front door, back door. Books are locked up, only able to be accessed by men. No jobs, home is their new responsibility, the duties of a wife and mother. The LGBT community fares even worse. This is the pure movement in the US and no one who transgresses is spared.

I found this chilling because I can actually see this happening, have seen men on TV who I can imagine loving just such a scenario. The importance of language, speech to show individuals we'll bring, forming personalities. How can you watch your young daughter not able to vocalize, tell you about her day? For Jean, it is torture, but a situation arises, and unwillingly Jean is temporarily reprieved, because the men in charge want something from her. Can she take advantage, make a difference? Well, that is the story, a quick moving one I was fascinated with. History has proven that with the wrong people in charge, anything and everything can happen. Can it happen here?
A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Place for us (4/6/2018)
Wow!! I am just blown away by the fact that this is a first novel, the story and theme are so universal. A Muslim Indian family in America, trying to maintain its own beliefs and culture, while facing modernity. This family, mother, father, two daughters, Hadia and Huda, and the youngest, a son Amar who never really feels he belongs. We come to know this family inside and out, the book starts with the marriage of Hadia and then goes back and forth, to various beginnings and endings. While their beliefs may not be mine, many of the problems between parents and siblings are indeed universal.

As they struggle to find their place in the larger world, the children also struggle to find their place in the family. Living up to parental expectations, or in Amar's case the struggle to find his place anywhere at all. Trying to carve a path between cultural and religious beliefs and the lessening of this expectation to fit with the place they now find themselves. The story of this family in all its totality is both moving and insightful. The barriers to acceptance by children and parents after 9/11, when all Muslims were viewed with suspicion and in many cases outright hate. By showing us the commonalities in their family and our own, this young author has shown us that we may in fact may not be so different.

The last part of the book focuses on the father's point of view alone. How he thought, what went wrong and what he wished he had done differently. It is full of anguish and remorse, and we clearly see for the first time what this Muslim, husband, father has gone through, from his own childhood to the way he tried to instill family values and religious beliefs in his children. It does end on a note of positivity, sadness yes, but hopefully as well. This is an outstanding piece of fiction, in my opinion, I quite frankly fell hard for this family, with all its flaws and things mistakenly done out of love. I wasn't ready to leave them at books end, and I believe if you read, or at least I hope, that you will see some of the same values, if not the religious beliefs, that we try to instill in our own families.

This is also the first book published under the Sarah Jessica Parker imprint of Random House, and it is a wonderful beginning. ARC from BookBrowse and Random House.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure
by Shoba Narayan
The Milk Lady (12/20/2017)
Moving back to India, after twenty years in the states, the first thing Shoba encounters is a woman with a cow, in the elevator of the apartment building in which she and her family are moving. This is her first introduction to Sarala who will soon be her introduction to all things cow.

Who would ever think a book about cows, their urine and dung, their milk and the benefits from drinking it straight from said cow, to be so fascinating? Yet,I was, I loved this story, loved the people in it, and loved reading about the vibrant and colorful country of India. The importance of cows in the Indian culture, and how this came to be. The many uses of cow urine and dung. So much about their culture, their traditions, and the importance of family. So yes, it is about cows, but it encompasses so much more.

Loved the friendly tone, like the writer is talking to you, explaining to you. Not at all snooty, just wanting to learn, understand, and embrace all that she can. Also explains some of the differences between those who hold with the old traditions, and the young people who now want to be modern. Generational gap. So friendship, family, and cows. Loved it!
As Bright as Heaven
by Susan Meissner
As bright as Heaven (10/22/2017)
1918, Philadelphia, a city with many opportunities, a city that the Bright family, Pauline, Thomas and their three daughters move to for just that purpose. Thomas's elderly, childless uncle wants them to live in his large house, and for Thomas to train and takeover his mortuary business. Leaving Quakertown behind, this is what the family looks forward to, a new and better life, especially after the tragedy of a terrific loss.

I fell in love with this family, and we hear individually from each of them in alternating chapters. Things look promising for them but then the Spanish flu comes to call, an unwelcome Spector that causes further loss. Such a winning combination of characters, history and a first hand look at the devastation of War. The Spanish flu hit Philadelphia extremely hard, the hardest in the nation and caused untold hardship and heartache for many. The Bright family will lose much but also gain a baby in an unusual manner, and this child will keep the family moving forward.

We watch as the girls grow, but there is a secret one is keeping that will come back to haunt. Prohibition is also instated at this time so we also are treated to a look at some of the results of this act. This is a wonderfully told story, rich in family, love, and history. So many details make this book stand out, details for n the mortuary business and in everyday lives. Sorrows and hurts, joys and happiness. An immersive story that tugs at the heart.
The Atlas of Forgotten Places
by Jenny D. Williams
Atlas of forgotten places (7/15/2017)
Sabine had been an aid worker in various parts of Africa for over fourteen years, but now in her forties she is working in her native Germany. Her niece Lily, following in her footsteps has been working in Uganda, at a center that helps victims that had been taken by Joseph Kony, trying to help them reintegrate into life out of captivity. When she goes missing in Uganda, Sabine returns to try to retrace her nieces footsteps, and bring her home.

With two people she meets in Uganda we follow Sabine from Uganda to the Congo, Garamba National Park and into the heart of one of Kony's camps. This is an intense look at a country being torn apart by various factions, and a story that had me in it's grip almost from the beginning. I kept telling myself, it is only a story, but in fact it is and it isn't. Although the characters are the authors invention, many of the situations and danger they find themselves in are fact. The kidnappings, the killings, the gold mine and the ivory poaching are also all fact. I am a big lover of elephants and there are some sad moments , and astonishing ones concerning these great but empathic animals.

The characters were well done, as was the writing. An authors nite is included which provided additional information and suggestion for further reading. The greed of man knows no bounds.
The Secrets She Keeps: A Novel
by Michael Robotham
The Secrets she keeps (7/14/2017)
Two young women, pregnant at the same time but a huge difference in their personal lives. Meghan appears to have it all, a loving husband, two small children. Agatha sees her from afar, envies her life because the father of her baby doesn't want to be involved and is now serving in the military. At this point I was thinking I knew exactly where this was going, a common enough theme, predictable, but in this authors capable hands though some of what I thought would happen did, the way it happens is more than just predictable.

I have read this author for quite a long time and I love the way he portrays his characters. They are multifaceted and one can tell that he cares for them. In this one he turns things topsy turvy because the one i should feel sympathetic for is not the one I did. Like a hat trick, he shows people are not ever one thing and that looks and thoughts can be deceiving. What one understand on the surface may not be all of it, always their is more to the story. Takes real talent to do this and this author it in spades.
Wonder Valley
by Ivy Pochoda
Wonder Valley (7/13/2017)
A man is running down the Hollywood freeway, he is completely nude, seemingly without a care in the world. As the cars sit in the usual crawling traffic, another man, a man on impulse will leave his car sitting in traffic and take off running, following the naked man. This is the beginning of this novel, which will take us from the streets of Los Angeles, to skid row and out to a desert commune with a divergent group of characters.

They are lost souls, trying to escape either something the have done, or do not understand where their lives took a wrong turn, hopeful still that they can turn it around. Gritty and powerful story telling at its best. Street people and the fierce way they guard their spots, try to look out for each there. A commune run by a man who says he has answers, a healer of the psyche, a married man with two twin teenage sons. Two drifters, with a capacity for violence and a man who can't escape a past mistake. All will come together, their stories converge in strange ways. All want to survive, to thrive though all will not be given the chance.

For those squeamish about the killing of chickens, though they are killed for food, I suggest skimming chapter four. Other than that I found this book to be wonderfully written, a dark yet hopeful street read. It reminded me in tone and feeling of the book, Gold Fame Citrus, though this is contemporary and not post apocalyptic.
The Gypsy Moth Summer
by Julia Fierro
Gypsy, moth summer (5/5/2017)
Let me start with what I liked. The setting, the gardens, plants, mazes, flowers all beautifully described. Liked the character Julian, his son Brooks and young daughter. The chapters narrated but Julian were my favorite. Killed the young teen, Mandy but the rest of those outrageous, catty girls were just maddening.

This book tries to cover too much, adds in almost everything someone could find unappealing, objectionable. Animal cruelty, profanity, drug use and alcohol abuse, sexual situations, racial prejudice, an abused wife, entitled, wealthy, obnoxious people and Probably more that I can't think of right now. To be honest, if I wasn't committed to reviewing this book I would have put it down much earlier, and in fact could have done without reading chapter nine at all. As it was, I skimmed the last third of the book and put it down with a great feeling of relief.

The writing is good, this book just wasn't for me but as I always say, the subject matter may not hold the same trigger for you. Possibly you may see something in this that I didn't.
If We Were Villains
by M L. Rio
If we were villiana (3/18/2017)
4.5. A small elite school, a theater program that is only about Shakespeare, seven friends, seniors, together from the beginning, strong, intense friendships formed. Oliver, our narrator, one of the seven, just released from spending tempers in prison. How did something so special, so promising, go so wrong?

A novel of love, obsession, friendship passion and betrayal. Spending all their on and off time together, this little theater group becomes more important to each other than their real families, than the real world. Shakespeare takes over their lives, the plays they perform, always having to be on, the intense study, rehearsals, they even speak to each other in Shakespearean quotes. The author, and this her first book, does a fantastic job incorporating these quotes, fitting them into the context of the plot, often providing clues and foreshadowing into what has happened. Their obsessions with each other, and Shakespeare lead to dangerous breaks in reality. The plays begin to mimic life and these young people begin to fall apart, deconstruct with horrifying results. We learn so much about these characters, not only from the roles they play but in how they treat each other, how they behave when their loyalty is tested.

Not you typical thriller, more character studies but suspenseful nonetheless. It is not necessary to have a full understanding of Shakespeare's plays but necessary I think to be willing to read many quotes and speeches. I loved every minute of it, thought it was brilliantly done was thoroughly captivated by the players and curious to how it would end. A very special, well thought out, and executed debut novel.
The Barrowfields
by Phillip Lewis
The Barrowfields (2/18/2017)
As soon as I started reading I was intrigued and pulled into the story. The house, this gorgeous, spooky sounding house, a house with a tragic past, now home to a young Henry, his sister Threnody, mom and dad, Henry the elder. A man in love with literature, music, wanting desperately to write an outstanding novel, put meaningful words on paper. The gorgeous sounding library, with a huge amount of books, a house with nooks and crannies to get lost in, sitting on top of a mountain in a small Appalachian town. House envy, house lust. A house that will soon hold an inordinate amount of sadness, tragedy. Gothic tones, characteristics abound. The Barrowfields, a place where nothing grows, nothing thrives.

Then the tone changes, the pace changes, and Henry escaping sorrow, things he doesn't understand, goes off to college, leaving his younger sister behind. The sister he read to, sang to, was basically a father stand in. A sister to which he made many promises. Less gothic, typical college experiences, drinking, parties, a girl he falls for and he becomes embroiled in someone else's life, problems, father issues. Not sure how I felt about this part, the change of story. Going away was necessary for Henry in that he grew as a person, made him able to return home and deal with the tragedy of the past. But, think to much was brought into this part, was like a detour that I felt parts of didn't fit.

Eventually he returns home, with girl in tow, moves back into "my" house, don't I wish. His family no longer lives there but he reconnects, comes to harsh realizations, and we find out the full extent of the story. Sad, tragic but I loved this book, the writing wonderful, the story of Henry and the complicated roles of fathers. Loved all the literary talk and the different composers and music mentioned. This is in my opinion a brilliant debut of a novelist with some major talent.
Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them
by Gina Kolata
Mercies in disguise (11/17/2016)
Having a neurological disease is challenging, I live with one, but having a neurological disease that no one can diagnose, that has no treatment, no cure is terrifying. Having the symptoms of both Parkinson disease and Alzheimer, the inflicted slowly degenerate until death mercifully claims them. This is the disease confronting the Baxley family, a disease that has existed for generations but only when their father is inflicted do the two physician sons become aware of this fact. Setting out to find answers this is the story of a family unsure of their future, devastated by what has gone before.

Eventually an answer will be found and a test form the gene necessary to activate this fatal disease and then in the younger generation the question becomes, does one take the test and live with the fear of a death sentence or does one live their life never knowing until or if they are afflicted. This is the dilemma the younger generation, including Amanda, now in her late twenties, her father dying, must decide.

The book chronicles the discovery of this illness, the men behind it and the doctors who discover how to test for this very rare gene. These chapters are interspersed between chapters of the family. A wonderful family, whom one comes to know and care about, a family that has shared much happiness and much sadness. Although they all choose different paths, some of the decisions causing breaks in the family, they all come together in support, caring and a great deal of love and hope. The author does a wonderful job showing us the joy and heartbreak, following this family, chronicling their decisions, their doubts, their fears. That further sufferers of this or other neurological diseases may understand that they are so much more than what they are afflicted with, that life can still full, that making everyday count is perhaps bigger than the disease itself. I thank them for sharing their story with me, it was truly inspirational.
North of Crazy: A Memoir
by Neltje
North of crazy (6/15/2016)
Didn't like this one too much, at least not the first half. My favorite parts were about the natural settings in Wyoming. Despite her wealth her life was certainly not ideal, but many people's aren't. The writing was good, especially in the second half, very descriptive. Still, not a favorite of mine.
Heat and Light
by Jennifer Haigh
Heat and Light (5/22/2016)
Long time readers of this author knows that she doesn't shy away from difficult subjects, instead she tackles them head on. In this one she return to Bakerton, Pennsylvania whose glory days are gone. One know for their Bakerton coal, the town is now in its death throes. Many had left, stores and businesses are dying and then seemingly from nowhere they are given an opportunity. Natural gas companies come to town and all they have to do is sign on the dotted line. Instant money to allow drilling, paid by the acre, easy money or so they think. Just sign, don't read the contract, just so happy for a way our of debt, a way to get ahead.

Fracking, fossil fuels, our endless demand for cheaper energy. Many of these characters are familiar from her previous books set in this town. But now we see the human cost of fracking, costs on characters that are now in over their head. We see the greed of the companies out to make a buck, not caring what it does to the environment or the people. Extensive research, much is learned about this horrible practice, Colorado and Wyoming have now been mostly cracked out. Three mile island and its devastation are referred to, its consequences horrific. Environmental illnesses and injuries, things we don't understand. All encompassed by the people of Beaverton, people trying to live their lives, some great characters, some hard to like, but this personal touch makes it all very real. Supporters, lawyers, protesters, all sides. People who have owned farms for years, now at risk.

At times Haigh came awfully close to being preachy, but sometimes that is what it takes to relate a subject so important. There is one part, near the end that I wished she had left out. Felt it wasn't necessary to the plot and really didn't fit but other than that this was a very good story. A very important one.

Readalike, Secret Wisdom of the earth.
If I Forget You
by Thomas Christopher Greene
If I forget you (5/1/2016)
A common enough plot, Henry and Margo meet in college, fall in love. Henry is from the working class, Margo from the very wealthy. Something happens and they are forced to separate. Seeing each other twenty years later, many truths come to light. So what happens next?

This book has some beautiful lines, beautiful thoughts. Margo thinks of how well Henry knows her because he knew her when she was young, knew the inside of her not just the façade she presents to others, the façade she uses to get through her days. Other insightful thoughts are littered throughout this story. It is very well told, alternating between the past and the present, between the thoughts of Margo and Henry. So mentally this was a very good book, but I never felt an emotional connection, the heart was missing. The tone almost seemed clinical, matter of fact and I felt as if I was experiencing it from a distance.

So while I enjoyed this story, enjoyed the prose. I just didn't love it like I did book:The Headmaster's Wife.
The Best Place on Earth: Stories
by Ayelet Tsabari
Best place on earth (4/11/2016)
Another great grouping of short stories, the first story, Tikkan, absolutely blew me away and it kept going from there. Set in Israel these stories feature people coming from other countries in the Middle East and some from even farther away. In one story a group of caregivers have come from the Philippines and are in the country illegally. All are trying to adjust to new countries, new homes, trying to find their place many times among suicide bombers and a country at war. All these stories and their characters are interesting, I think there was only one story I did not care for, and the writing is top notch. Incredibly well done.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel
by Dominic Smith
The Last Painting of Sara (3/29/2016)
1600s, Holland, Sara is the first woman admitted to the artist's guild. Her husband was a painter of landscapes, but at that time woman were expected to paint only still life's. After a terrible tragedy changes the fabric of their family, Sara paints a landscape. This painting will affect the fortunes of others down the centuries.

Late 1950's Ellie Shipley is a young woman working on her thesis of Dutch woman painters, she is also working as a cleaner and restorer. She is asked to do something that will come back to haunt her in the near future and culminate in a near disaster decades later.

Martin de Groot, inherited wealth also the owner of several Dutch paintings done by woman and passed down in his family from generation to generation. A discovery he makes will have a profound effect on himself and Ellie.

Like a finished painting all these layers will come together in a final, touching and brilliant uncovering.

Wonderful story, fantastic prose, descriptive, impassioned, even the alternating storylines are used to draw the reader in, heading for a amazing dénouement. Learned so much about art, forgeries, the art world on general and the life of women painters in early times. The character of Sara is actually a composite of all early women Dutch painters, as the author so nicely explains. Shows how one decision can effect our lives in unexpected ways. For me this book was absolutely brilliant.
The Book of Memory
by Petina Gappah
Book of Memory (3/3/2016)
Interesting premise for this well written book. Memory is an albino black, convicted of the murder of the white man who raised her. Given the death sentence she waits, incarcerated in the maximum security prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is our narrator and this is her story.

This is not a quick read, nor is it a fast moving story. Rather it is the story of a young woman and how she got from there, a home with siblings and a mentally ill mother and a father she adored, to here, awaiting death.

Life in the prison, the other women serving time with her, the constant political unrest in this country and how it affects the women in the prison, her life with her adopted father and lastly, his death. A book that take patience, with a twist at the end, when all answers are finally revealed. The ending is not definitive but I felt it did the book justice. Also highlights the unreliability of memory and how our memories of childhood are incomplete or not correctly understood.

A good if slower read.
Sweetgirl
by Travis Mulhauser
Sweetgirl (2/10/2016)
The first thing I noticed about this book was how wonderfully it was written, the words and the plot just flowed aimlessly. Nothing was forced, it was all as natural as a story being told to one person by another. Another thing was the location, grit lit in Northern Michigan. Love it! The characters, Percy and Portis are both very memorable characters. Percy, sixteen years old with way to much responsibility for one so young, trying to take care of her mother who is hooked on drugs and alcohol. Portis, a man who despite his addictions is a stand up guy, one who is there in pinch, always available to help Percy. He really tries to help her, and will pay heavily.

This is an adventure story but also a character study. Drugs, addictions, the harm and sorrow they cause to others and to themselves. So incredibly powerful that even though they wish they were different, could change, that the rough circumstances they find themselves in could be alleviated,they are unable to get out from under the drugs spell. There are bad guys in this novel certainly, but bad guys who it seems wish they weren't.

The book ends on a very hopeful note, that Percy might manage to escape the dire future that seems to beckon and have a fulfilling life. This is a novel about caring, doing the right thing and the hardships and brutality reality of addictions. Brilliant.
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