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Reviews by Becky H

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Bad Animals: A Novel
by Sarah Braunstein
a disturbing read (1/9/2024)
I have given BAD ANIMALS a couple days to "sit with me" before writing this review. I'm still not sure how I feel about the book. It was well written, the story was mostly engaging; but I didn't like any of the main characters. I can't decide if Maeve was just a total innocent caught up in circumstances beyond her control or she was a jaded and cynical psychopath who attempted to destroy a child. Or maybe the child was the psychopath who attempted to destroy the adult Maeve. I am certain Harrison was a cynical "user" of people for his own enjoyment and financial gain. Poor Jack was caught in the middle of Harrison and Maeve's shenanigan's and the ultimate loser. The other librarians were simply there for the author's ability to tell the story.
So, would I recommend this book to another reader? Maybe? Maybe not? Would I have finished the book if I wasn't writing a review? NO, I would have given it maybe 100 pages instead of my usual 50 before dropping it, but I wouldn't have finished it. But maybe would I have, if only to find out what ultimately happened to Libby, the only character I cared about.
So, 4 stars for writing. 2 stars for story.
3 stars for the total book.
Last Summer on State Street: A Novel
by Toya Wolfe
A book you need to read (1/9/2024)
I live in Chicago and for several years drove past the Robert Taylor Homes every day on my way to work and back to my home on the North Side. Those Homes were a source of fear, and yet also hope for both the people who lived there and the people who just drove by. Wolfe gathers those fears and hope and writes a story of hope, desperation, resilience, fear and joy.
FeFe is a girl on the cusp of womanhood with a protective mother and a brother who loves her and their mother, but is caught up in the gangs, drugs, violence and sex that is rampant in the Taylor homes. FeFe’s friends include girls who will “make it out” and some who will be caught by the violence and despair. FeFe is fortunate to have a teacher willing to extend herself for her students, a mother who teaches her self-respect and respect and concern for others.
You NEED to read this book. When you do, you may feel the guilt of privilege. Remember that every child deserves the privilege of hope, respect and love.
Daughters of Shandong
by Eve J. Chung
"Worthless" girls are powerful (11/16/2023)
"Girls are nothing more than wives for other people's sons." And so begins the story of Hai, her mother and her sisters. When the communist revolution comes to their area, the girls and their mom are left behind by their wealthy landowning family with only a vague promise to return for them.
Enemies of the communists because of the family's wealth and importance, the girls and their mother are evicted with no money or food as enemies of the people. Hai, the eldest daughter not yet a teen, narrates this compelling, barely fictionalized account of the journey by foot through China toward Taiwan. The girls come alive on the pages as their harrowing tale is told.
Chung relates the story of her grandmother with deftness and empathy. Although filled with danger, poverty, and continuing disasters, the story offers hope, resilience, love and the power of faith and kindness. Readers will learn much about the Communist takeover of China and the ravages war brings to a peasant population. Book groups will have many topics for discussion from foot binding to the importance of education. I highly recommend this book.
Devil Makes Three: A Novel
by Ben Fountain
Devil Makes Three (10/22/2023)
I very much disliked this book. It was too long by at least 100 pages. It was too disjointed as time, place, and characters jumped from page to page, even paragraph to paragraph with not even a line break to give the reader a clue to the jump. There was too much incomprehensible talk among the characters about Haitian politics and too many untranslated French words, phrases and sentences for this German speaking American. I knew little about Haitian politics before I read this book and I am still in the dark. I often felt I needed to stop reading and consult Wikipedia’s version of Haitian history.

Parts of the book were interesting and well written. One blurb writer called this book “a fast, riveting read. A gripping thriller…” he must have read a different book. This book was a struggle to get through the first hundred pages before the characters and plot started to become clear. I would have enjoyed a 300 page book of Matt and Alix’s treasure hunting adventures much more.
I found Audrey/Shelly simply too confusing to like or dislike or to follow her part in the story. Matt had an interesting ethical dilemma. Alix apparently had no problems in the ethical field at all. His sister chose and was in that way my favorite character.

4 stars for the writing: 3 stars for the plot and length.
Above the Salt: A Novel
by Katherine Vaz
An enduring and endearing love story (9/15/2023)
After a slow start, due primarily to the detailed, short and apparently unconnected vignettes, I got into the rhythm of this detailed tale of one family persecuted for beliefs and forced to leave their homeland for America. John, the main character, starves with his mother for her religious beliefs when she is jailed. Although soon released, John is forever scarred by this episode.
John, continues to America where he continues to grow successful gardens (beautiful writing here) meet various people, including Abraham Lincoln, and reconnects with Mary, a former neighbor, in the enduring and endearing love story.
Although a bit too long (where have all the editors gone?) this is a well written, engaging story with real events and persons seamlessly woven in. Well worth the time spent wading through the initial disconnectedness to a classic tale of family, endurance, pride, hard work, serendipity and love.
4 ½ stars
Peach Blossom Spring: A Novel
by Melissa Fu
China from 1938 - 2000 (7/19/2023)
The turmoil in China from 1938 to 1998 is the background for this family tale. Meilin, a young wife and mother, loses her husband to the Japanese invasion and then must flee with her 4 year-old son when the marauding Japanese attack her family’s village. The book continues with mother and son as World War Two, the communist uprising, the Nationalist movement and other calamities affect them. Renshu, the son, quickly becomes the focal character in this richly descriptive and harrowing tale.
Fu’s character study of Renshu as he progresses through life, first in China and then the United States, education, then marriage and a family of his own, makes the book believable and engrossing. A scroll depicting various folk tales is the link for each episode in his life.
After a slow start the book is compelling reading. The scholarship is impeccable. China comes alive as Renshu and his mother contend with the vicissitudes of life in a country racked by turmoil.
4 of 5 stars
Remarkably Bright Creatures: A Novel
by Shelby Van Pelt
a surprisingly delightful read (7/16/2023)
I was prepared to dismiss this book as entirely ridiculous after my self-appointed requirement of 75 pages; however, what I discovered was a perfectly delightful, well written and tender character study.
The story concerns a 70-year-old woman stuck in grief for a teenaged son lost to an early death, a 30-year-old man-child stuck in anger at a mother who abandoned him at age 9 and an aging octopus stuck in a too small “prison” longing for the vast ocean he can hear outside the aquarium. One supporting character I enjoyed was the busybody owner of the grocery store who inserts himself into everyone else’s business.
To tell you more would spoil this novel. Read it for yourself and be delighted. I hope the author writes another tale for us to enjoy.
5 of 5 stars for a surprisingly good novel with an unusual collection of characters and a first-time author.
Only the Beautiful
by Susan Meissner
a Must Read (5/15/2023)
This two-pronged story tells of the young vinedresser’s daughter, Roseanne, who is orphaned and then turned into a maid/servant by her supposed guardians. The inter twining story tells of Roseanne’s “aunt” who has shown her great kindness and love, but is far away in Europe facing her own devils when Roseanne’s parents die.
These two stories are dependent on each other as they tell of man’s inhumanity to man and also great love and resilience. Meissner is able to show both good and characters in all their faults, but also their humanity. She has done her research on vine dressing, wine making and on Europe in the years preceding and during Hitler’s rise. Meissners’ great ability to empathize with her characters and cause them to grow and change in the course of the story makes the novel radiant with life.
Book groups will have many topics to discuss – meaning of family, child abuse, discrimination, grief, adoption, exploitation of minors, mental health, abusive laws, sterilizations, love, empathy and more.
King of the Armadillos
by Wendy Chin-Tanner
Hanson's dIsease and teenagers (4/29/2023)
I had a hard time putting this book down. I needed to find out what happened to Victor, his family and his friends in the 1950’s. Chin-Tanner made them real people and I was invested in them from the first pages of this coming-of-age novel. Victor, a 15-year-old Chinese immigrant boy living with his father, brother and his father’s live-in girlfriend in New York City, discovers he has Hanson’s Disease (leprosy, a slur) and must be confined to the National Hospital in Carville, Louisiana until he is cured. At Carville, for the first time, Victor is able to make his own friends and decisions and discovers he has talents and capabilities he was unable to foster in the confines of his brother’s shadow.
As an educator I was able to visit Carville in the late 1960’s. Chin-Tanner got the atmosphere, fear and hope of the place exactly right. She wrote expressively of being a teenager in a state of anxiety and dread with great empathy and reality. The alternate plot of the family left behind in New York was equally fascinating. The oppressive climate of hot, humid Louisiana in the summer was clear.
Altogether this is a great book well worth your time. You will learn a lot about Hanson’s Disease and Carville, teenagers and their path to adulthood. KING OF THE ARMADILLOS is full of love, despair, hope, friendship, betrayal, passion, talent, family, and much more. Book groups will find a plethora of topics to discuss.
The Nazi Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill
by Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch
Scary, and real (4/19/2023)
The plot to kill the three leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union at the Tehran Conference (World War II) was led by an untrained, unskilled and abandoned “spy” who had been sent to Tehran very early in the war. His only orders were to gather information and set up a “team” of Nazi sympathizers who might be called upon later. Then Russia entered the war on the Allied side and Franz Mayr was simply abandoned by his Nazi controllers until late in the war when Mayr was able to reestablish contact with the Nazi regime.

The Nazi Conspiracy was part history and part spy thriller. I discovered that Roosevelt and Stalin tried to cut Churchill out of one conference and Churchill and Roosevelt tried to keep Stalin out of another! Churchill was not enthusiastic about D-Day and Stalin wanted it to happen much earlier in the war. Meltzer was able to convey the differing personalities and needs of the three world leaders and a spy story along with a vast trove of back story in an entertaining and truthful way.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The NAZI CONSPIRACY. I would recommend it to anyone interested in history or a thrilling spy story. Although Meltzer conveyed a vast amount of information, the book never lost my interest and seemed to follow a clear path to its conclusion.
The Light in the Ruins
by Chris Bohjalian
Murder, love revenge, whaqt is not to like (4/19/2023)
This a mesmerizing story of love, war, murder, betrayal, politics, desire, despair, forgiveness and revenge. A noble Italian family is devastated by events during World War II. Their beloved villa, surrounded by centuries old olive and grape orchards, and a depository of Etruscan artifacts, becomes a meeting place for treasure seeking Germans. At the same time a partisan group seeks refuge in the Etruscan burial vaults. Ten years later someone begins murdering the remaining Rosatis one by one.

Bahjalian is a master of character, place and plot. They come together in this thrilling detective tale to surround the reader with Italy in the waning days of the war, a family trying without success to maintain their traditions and young people coming of age in a time of great turmoil.
Book Groups will find a wealth of material for discussion.
Iron Curtain: A Love Story
by Vesna Goldsworthy
An intriguing and timely novel (1/26/2023)
IRON CURTAIN is a delight to read. It has humor, pathos, tension, fear, love, loyalty, tragedy, responsibility, faithfulness and patriotism. Milena and Jason, as well as all the supporting characters, are well drawn, and accurate. The descriptions of the two countries reflect the notions of how each country sees itself and the other. The book covers the differences between perception and reality, especially as it relates to how communist countries view the west and vice versa.
My daughter lived for several years in a former Soviet Republic. I completely understand Milena's decisions. The notion of freedom has varying degrees of reality: freedom from want, from decision making, to choose, to make mistakes, and others. Where and what is "home" is also a point that is covered well by this book.
One of my favorite characters was Clarissa. She had depths of character that slowly emerged as the book progressed.
IRON CURTAIN would make a great book for discussion groups. I highly recommend it, even with its slow start.
5 of 5 stars
Scatterlings: A Novel
by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe
Great descriptions and Native tales, but ultimately frustrating (10/24/2022)
I SO wanted to like this book. The premise of the story, a racially blended family caught in the prejudice and cruelty of the Immorality Act in South Africa, is fascinating. Abram, a White, is condemned by the beloved children born to him and his Native (Black) wife, Alisa. What to do? What to do? If he stays, he will have his property confiscated, and his children taken away. If he goes, he leaves behind the work of generations on his estate and he himself and his family will become stateless. His wife makes a terrible choice and that is where the tale begins.
Unfortunately, the writing style made me constantly feel as though I had missed a paragraph, or page, or even chapter, of the plot. I was constantly trying to put inferences and comments together to make sense of the story. It was very frustrating to try to follow the story line when I felt I was missing vital information.
I quite enjoyed the "tales" of the Native people imbedded in the story. The descriptions of the land and people were delightful, making the reader a part of Africa. All in all, worth my time, but very frustrating. I would not recommend this title to my book group.
Killers of a Certain Age
by Deanna Raybourn
Killing for hire can be fun (9/19/2022)
This is a fun romp through assassinations – although these are assassins with scruples – they only kill those who deserve to die to make the world a better place. That is-- until someone puts a hit on them!
Four women assassins who have spent their whole lives working for “the good of humanity” have reached retirement age only to discover they themselves have been targeted. Will they become victims or will their “advanced age and unique skills” actually work to their advantage? This mystery is almost a cozy with a bit of humor thrown in. The flashbacks are interesting and give a portrait of each woman. The situations are believable – sort of. Although a bit long (nearly 350 pages) it held my interest. The plot is detailed and intricate. Thoroughly enjoyable.
5 of 5 stars
The Immortal King Rao: A Novel
by Vauhini Vara
Ultimately Unsatisfying (4/6/2022)
I thought this was going to be an Indian dalit makes good in the tech world, creates a new world order that turns on him and he responds with more techie intrigue book.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a wide ranging but superficial family drama with a vast cast of characters that jumped from past to present to near past to middle past and back to present with jarring regularity. Oh, yes, there is some techie stuff thrown in but it is an obvious afterthought to the family drama.

The techie part was interesting. Can you turn your mind into a computer and then pass it on to another? What an intriguing idea. I wish more of the book revolved around this idea. I was disappointed.

There were too many characters, many of whom make only brief appearances before disappearing. The time jumps occurred without warning. The characters, even King and his daughter, Athena, were not fully fleshed out. The story of how a dalit family became land owners was interesting but was glossed over. Ultimately unsatisfying.
Band of Sisters: A Novel
by Lauren Willig
Society girls and daring do (3/29/2022)
Powerfully written and exhaustively researched, this lightly fictionalized account of the Smith College Relief Unit that assisted French villages decimated by Germany during WWI is an exciting tale of daring do. The Smith Unit, made up of recent graduates of Smith College, were young women mostly brought up to be wealthy, pampered society darlings. They were inspired by a visionary speech and formed a unit that soon found them living in filthy, bombed out buildings and working in dangerous, frontline areas of France.
Willig used the Smith College archives to find the families (and occasionally the women themselves) of the Unit. She had access to letters and diaries written by the women as they toiled in France. The book uses these intimate writings to flesh out the women and tell of their deeds as the women lived them. The women and villagers come alive on the page.
A wonderful book well worth your time.
5 of 5 stars
Black Widows: A Novel
by Cate Quinn
Three wives, three reasons to kill (3/15/2022)
Blake Nelson wanted to be left alone with his three wives in wilds of Utah. Unfortunately, someone wanted him dead. One of his wives? Perhaps. They all had reason to hate him. But did they have enough reason to kill? Rachel, first wife, obedient to a fault. Hated by the other wives who are forced to accede to her demands. Tina, the OTHER wife, beautiful and straight from rehab. NOT a dutiful Morman wife. Emily, the third wife, young, TOO young, terrified and Catholic. Which one killed him? The police are determined to find out. But rumors about another wife are flying about. Are there more suspects?

Each widow is deftly drawn. The forbidding landscape is a brooding presence. The mother-in-law is malevolent. A tense and exciting tale that will keep you turning pages well into the night.
The Paris Bookseller
by Kerri Maher
interesting, but a bit long (11/3/2021)
I was half way through this book before I realized it is essentially an accurate and lengthy biography of Sylvia Beach and her English language bookshop. Beach and her Paris shop, "Shakespeare and Company", hosted many of the writers and thinkers of the early half of the 20th century. She came to fame with her publication of James Joyce's Ulysses when no one else would publish it. In fact, America had declared it pornography and prevented it from being published or sold in the US. The novel also covers her relationship with Adrienne Monnier and Monnier's French language bookshop. Both women were sponsors of American, French and British writers.

The novel is well researched and well written but gets bogged down in the details. Joyce, Ulysses, Hemingway and Pound by themselves along with Beach could have made a fascinating tale that moved more quickly and kept the reader's interest from flagging. Still, the history alone makes the book worth reading. Personally, I could have done with a hundred fewer pages.
The Man Who Died Twice: Thursday Murder Club Mysteries #2
by Richard Osman
Lots of fun....and murder (11/3/2021)
THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE by Richard Osman
This second outing for the Thursday Murder Club is just as much fun as the first. We learn a bit more about each of four members, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim as they meet Elizabeth’s ex-husband, also a former (or current?) member of MI5. The fun begins with 20 million in stolen (or not?) diamonds, continues with an attack on Ibrahim, a murder and several more murders. Will Elizabeth and company be able to outwit the Mafia, international thieves, hired killers, renegade officers and other assorted baddies while the laughs keep coming?
Osman keeps the group moving while continuing the gentle humor and advancing the intricate plot. He has a good feel for folks in their seventies who do not feel “over the hill”, but are active and engaged. His plot will keep you wondering until the last pages. Altogether a fun read that will keep you engaged.
5 0f 5 stars
Honor
by Thrity Umrigar
A tale of conflicts (9/1/2021)
India, a land of contradictions, is front and center in this novel of HONOR and how it can be used to hurt and even kill. Two women share the spotlight, Meena, dreadfully maimed by her brothers because she has brought dishonor to their family, and Smita, an American journalist who has her own reasons for avoiding India and all it has meant to her family and who is charged to write Meena's story.
This book was difficult to read and yet necessary to understanding the conflicting and conflicted women and men is this novel. The modern India of large cities and modern conveniences is balanced by the India of small villages where tribal leaders hold sway over men and women who live in primitive conditions. Muslim India is balanced by Hindu India, two "peaceful" faiths that bring about horrors beyond imagining when they come into conflict.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand the conflicts in India and by extension the conflicts in many parts of the world where men and women, Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, orthodox and liberal, come into conflict.
Well written and sympathetic, HONOR earns 5 of 5 stars.

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