Reviews by Beverly J. (Hoover, AL)

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The Personal Librarian
by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Rich, Colorful, and Glorious! (2/22/2021)
In 1905, Belle de Costa Greene is hired to her dream job, to be the personal librarian to financier to J.P. Morgan and curate his ever expanding rare manuscripts private collection. As trust builds between employee and employer, Belle's responsibilities to expand to representing Morgan at auctions. While Morgan's name opened the door for Belle in this all-male industry, it was Belle's keen eye, probing research, and shrewd negotiating that earns the respect of her colleagues.

But Belle is keeping a secret. She was born Belle Marion Greener and is an African American and so walks a tight rope as she balances her private life and protects her family and her career.

This biographical novel is beautifully, wisely, and masterfully told. The collaboration between the two authors is seamless as the reader gets immersed in the glamorous life that affords Belle's position and the trials and tribulations that agonized Belle has she passed for white, while being proud of her African American identity.

A graceful tale and the well-honed characters will earn a place in readers' heart.

I would be remorse if I did not mention that Belle's and her family's story is another example of the wastefulness of discrimination and prejudice.
Ruthie Fear: A Novel
by Maxim Loskutoff
Smart, Original and Completely Absorbing (7/6/2020)
A richly observed tale spiked with survival and violence, rough justice, and love.

The reader meets Ruthie Fear when she is six years old and follow her up until her early thirties as she battles her inner demons on what type of life does she want to live as her home in the Bitter Root Valley, Montana is battling its own demons of progress versus preserving the present.

The plotting is intricate, the characters are well drawn and the pace never lets up as there are natural and man-made disasters to provide the tensions between people as they attempt to survive and thrive.

This tale of the American West is complexly layered and provides no easy answers as I pondered what would I do in the various situations.

But, if for no other reason, read this book for the spectacular landscape writing.
American Dirt: A Novel
by Jeanine Cummins
Haunting, mesmerizing, unforgettable! (12/27/2019)
I am so very touched by American Dirt, a richly told timely and relevant contemporary story.

Cummings clear-eyed storytelling, compelling narrative and characterizations along with being expertly plotted had my heart racing in the many tense situations. While there are many situations where human darkness could reign, this is balanced by the goodness of within many others.

Like many tough issues that can happen in life I appreciated that this story was told with grace and hope.

A stunning story that presents its point without force but will leave each reader to examine their own humanity.
by Crissy Van Meter
A Mournful Tale (10/30/2019)
Van Meter's debut is a mournful novel on Evie's attempt to be self-truthful about her childhood through teen years into adulthood.

The format is both a strength and weakness of this story, The main sections of the book is names for the three days leading up to Evie's wedding, if her fiancé returns from being at sea, and the subchapters for each of these days contain in a nonlinear manner events in Evie's personal and working life. The strength is this format showcases the lyrical language and the interconnection of the unpredictability and love of Evie's personal relationships and the natural environmental her home Winter Island – when it is good it is very good and when it is bad it is horrific. The weakness is because of the nonlinear narrative events caused a spoiler or two a little too early and enforced for me the lack of character growth.

This tale deconstructs how human tell stories and decided on which version of events are remembered. As the pull of tides on the island are an essential force I will remember this story for the pull of family bonds and of an island on a soul.
The Shadow King: A Novel
by Maaza Mengiste
A Gem of a Story (8/12/2019)
The Shadow King is a richly textured and carefully constructed compelling must-needed work of historical fiction. As Fascist Italy invades Ethiopia in 1935, the men prepare to defend their country, but the women of Ethiopia will not be denied to preserve their country. Mengiste wrote this storyline to honor the women of Ethiopia who fought along side the men and are too often ignored in the history of wartime.

Pairing expressive language with well-drawn unforgettable characters the story grips the reader as we become involved in the intimate harrowing details of the characters against the broader background that is the history and politics of the time.

A richly rewarding reading experience this memorable work of historical fiction that provides a much needed Ethiopian point-of-view on one of the beginning points of WWII and equally needed what it means to be a woman at war.
Patsy: A Novel
by Nicole Dennis-Benn
A Gem of a Story (7/2/2019)
This sweeping tale is equal parts heart-wrenching, impactful and hopeful and highlights Dennis-Benn strong storytelling skills.

The unflinching portraits of the complex characters each of whom is looking to be comfortable within their skin is told with compassion and psychological acumen and provides a new view into the immigrant tale of those who migrated and those who are left behind at "home".

As the story expertly touches on self-discovery and identity in a meaningful way, the characters show us all of the intricacies of dreams, betrayals, colorism, motherhood, and sexuality especially when it crosses societal and cultural expectations.

While reading about Patsy and her ordeals was thought provoking, I was enthralled by Tru, Patsy's daughter, and her struggles as a young girl to understand her place in family and friends lives and her place in her community. As Patsy and Tru had similar dilemmas, Dennis-Benn seamlessly shows the changing generational/cultural attitudes making for a stunningly emotive effect.

Be prepared to be amazed by this bold, powerful and reflective read.
A People's History of Heaven
by Mathangi Subramanian
Beautiful, emotionally evocative storytelling (3/25/2019)
I so enjoy when a story drags me to where they want me to be as these five fearsome girls sneak their way into your heart. Raised in a Bangalore slum, each character gets to provide their backstory that centers around lives defined around by femaleness and class structure as they fight for their future, adventures, and just to be. The unnamed first person plural narrative voice showcases the ingenuity and solidarity of the characters in the unconditional acceptance of each other and each just want to live their best life.

This lithe tale while explore our humanity is as profound as it is entertaining.

Female power shines brightly!
House of Stone
by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Powerful, exquisitely affecting, blisteringly honest (1/19/2019)
House of Stone is an impressive debut that examines the integration and recreation of personal and national identities through the lens of one "family" from the dissolution of Rhodesia, the birth of Zimbabwe, and what being a nation entails.

It is through the lens of the hopeful wily protagonist Zamani and his obsessive need to immerse himself into the family history of his landlords in order to re-create his "his-story" that makes this storyline so poignant.
While the violence is brutal it is well-balanced by the lively luminous prose as Tshuma deftly weaves the historical and personal into a seamless chronicle and provides a testament to the "culture of enforced amnesia."

At the end, I was so appreciative of how cleverly this story not only engaged me into the lives of these compelling characters, provided a thought-provoking history lessons but left me with an extraordinary reading experience of a place and time that is more universal than not.
The Kinship of Secrets
by Eugenia Kim
The Bonds That Bind Us (11/18/2018)
This captivating and poignant story opens at the start of the Korean War and thwarts the dreams of two sisters; one who lives in the United States with their parents and the other sister who was left behind in Korea. This deeply moving story is told in alternate chapters by the sisters as each describes their upbringing of separation necessitated by the political climate and economic difficulties. As a consummate storyteller, Kim, makes the story historically informative as we understand the heart and sacrifices made by the family.

I so enjoyed Kim’s first book and I was just as enthralled with this well-crafted warm-hearted book. It gave me a new understanding of the strength and resilience of families affected by displacement.
America for Beginners
by Leah Franqui
Engaging and Riveting! (4/26/2018)
A charmingly heartrending story that will soothe your soul as three strangers on a road trip across America find themselves discovering there is more to the journey than just the tourist sites. One of the most appealing aspects of this storyline is the engaging and sympathetic characters who each had lost something that set then on their paths to figuring out their American Dream. This a beautifully executed debut novel where the dissimilar group of characters showcases the similarities among people as individuals and as members of the human race. A rich rewarding read for those looking an insightful and big-hearted tale.
Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
by Mario Giordano
Lively, Smart, and Dynamic (2/3/2018)
A gutsy protagonist, Auntie Poldi, who has experienced the vicissitudes of life and has a passion for cocktails and virile men in uniforms has "retired" to Sicily to drink wine and admire the scenery until a young reliable handyman disappears. As Poldi sets out to get her man, literally and figuratively, the reader is taken on several adventures that take on some challenging and deadly turns. While it took me a while to find my reading form for this novel, it was the landscape and history of Sicily, the witty dialogue, the mythological references, and Poldi's eccentric personality that kept me turning the pages.
This atmospheric novel is the first book in a series captured me with its promises of another Poldi adventure to come. Readers looking for a fresh take on mysteries, especially cozies, will delight and relish this book.
by Rodrigo Hasbún (author), Sophie Hughes (translator)
A Gem of a Story (10/29/2017)
This is a stunning gem of a spare novel that delivers a punch through a turning of a phrase and the emotional intensity of the multiple narrators. I was attracted to this book by its photograph-like cover and the anticipation of reading a story set primarily in Bolivar. While the storyline is steeped in politics hovering in the background, it is the emotional turbulence of the characters as revealed by the narrators about themselves and other characters that had me intrigued as I read this this book in one sitting. Inspired by the lives of the Ertl family after the fled to Bolivia to start over after the collapse of Nazi Germany, the tumultuous times in Bolivia fueled the dynamics the unsettled family into unexpected directions apart from each other. A powerful testament to the times and expectations told with precision and poise that grabs the reader from start to finish. Looking forward to reading more by Rodrigo Hasbun.
Never Coming Back
by Alison McGhee
Well-written and completely absorbing! (10/22/2017)
A compassionate and unflinching deeply moving testament to the bond between mothers and daughters enduring life's curve balls. Clara Winter knows her mother, Tamar, loves her despite not always understanding her taciturn mother's staunchly independent behavior. Clara's adult life is plagued by questions she believes only her mother can answer. But now her mother has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and as time is running out for the resolutions to these issues, Clara begins to wonder if she really knows who her mother is. This storyline is brilliant and piercing as Clara seeks to provide as much comfort to her mother and explores who is her mother and in turn who she is. A standout in both craft and theme I was absorbed by the sensitive exploration of the effects of Alzheimer's on the patient and their family and friends, and by the atmospheric writing of the small Adirondack towns. Keep a tissue handy as this is a heartfelt story!
My Last Lament
by James William Brown
Pleasant Historical Fiction (5/2/2017)
A pleasant historical fiction storyline set mainly in occupied and post-WWII Greece recollects the life of a professional lamenter, Aliki and the two people she counts as her family, Stelios and Takis. The strength of this story for me were the details of the Greek cultural practices against a turbulent and unpredictable time. Although there are some dramatic and twisty moments to keep the story moving at times the characters seemed a little too simplistic to me and bogged down the pace. I enjoyed the format of Aliki recording her life on cassette tapes as this connected the oral storytelling tradition that Aliki informs the readers of the puppet shows and dirge-poems regarding the deceased. This lovely story will appeal to fans of cultural history and WWII stories with a different twist.
The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Enchanting (3/25/2017)
A graceful ingeniously written historical fiction set in the 1890s Victorian England that delightfully simmers with suspense, and defying the known sensibilities of the times. The mystery of the reappearance of an elusive beast, a cerebrally-minded young widow, and a compassionate vicar are the drivers that lead the reader into the conversations of science & progress vs superstition & belief. While the beginning was a little slow for me, the intertwined complexities of the relationships made this an addictive read for me. The beautiful cover foreshadows the awesome descriptive language of the landscape, along with the stellar storytelling drawing the reader into the world in which these characters live makes for an entertaining read.
Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them
by Gina Kolata
Profoundly Compelling! (11/30/2016)
Once I started reading this profoundly compelling book I could not put the book down. Kudos to the author's writing skill to effectively write an intimate story about a family's search to find the truth balanced against the medical/scientific communities diligence and passion to leave no stone unturned. Keep a box of tissues handy this book will touch your heart, mind and spirit.
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko
by Scott Stambach
Heartfelt and Rewarding (8/4/2016)
I love when a book just touches my heart in unexpected ways. The narrator, Ivan Isaenko soars off the pages in this exquisitely written warm-hearted debut. Seventeen year-old Ivan has only lived in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus with severe physical disabilities and deformities due to being born shortly after Chernobyl disaster. Ivan has a smart brain, snarky attitude, and mischievous nature which allow him to survive the monotony of his life that is until 16 year-old Polina enters the hospital. The author conveys the raw realities with dignity and the disobedient vitality of those often invisible to us. While there are teary moments, it is the heartwarming moments and the "normalness" of Ivan and Polina that shows the strength of humanity to make lemonade when given lemons. Kudos to the author for such an impressively rich and rewarding read.
Amour Provence
by Constance Leisure
A Slice of Life (4/29/2016)
A delightful yet thoughtful novel about the meaning of family, commitment, love, loss and search for self. The story is set of interconnecting vignettes of various characters that illustrates small French village life from WWII to the present. The author does an exceptional job of evoking the landscape and expectations, both of which can be harsh, on those living in small villages. But it the little acts of unknown kindness, secrets, and longings that make this novel heartwarming. Beautifully written and just like real life makes this the perfect story to savor.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue
by Melanie Benjamin
All that Glitters Is Not Gold (11/5/2015)
Dazzling with glamour, entertaining with gossipy deeds, provocative with emotional profundity, and gritty with the trappings of a society that valued group expectations this voyeuristic tale titillates and satisfies the reader. While reading this book I was drawn back to a time before social media when a pastime was reading the monthly magazines to see what the rich and famous were up to. I was drawn into the glamorous world of New York in the 1950s – 1970s when a closed group of women, known as "the swans" let an unlikely person into their confidence. Just when the gossipy tone gets to be a little too much the author expertly turns the plot in another direction that exposes the faults in the façade.

I recommend this book for readers looking for a pleasurable page-turning read.
Ruby: A Novel
by Cynthia Bond
Impressive Debut (11/18/2014)
Bond’s impressive debut flourishing with exquisite language nails the complexities of the heart and survival in this deeply affecting tale. It is the 1940s in East Texas and young Ruby is plagued with a beauty tempting men to unspeakable evils; escaping to New York, never fully escaping her past, she returns to her home. As the town and its inhabitants languish in Ruby’s tumultuous situations, keeping its own secrets close to the chest, Ephram, an outcast himself, reaches out to Ruby in love. The piney woods of East Texas set the mood of the time and place evoking mystical elements that both cower and protect. Concepts of victims victimizing, unimaginable resiliency of the human spirit, and evil lurking makes this an amazing page turner. As it has been often said it is the job of a writer to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, and Bond has shed light on those we often want to push aside. I recommend this book for fans of Sugar and those who like well-crafted language with a dark undertone.
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