Book Reviews

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Reader Review: "The House on Vesper Sands"

 

by Peg A: I had been wanting to read this book and then was fortunate enough to win it in a book giveaway. That however does influence this review. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and hope to read more by Paraic O'Donnell. The plot is a mystery wrapped up in Victorian spiritualism. The character development and relationships are well done and will leave you wanting to continue reading all night through. Wrap yourself in a warm blanket with a nice beverage and settle in for a very enjoyable dark yet at times humorous story

Reader Review: "The Mystery of Mrs. Christie"

 

by Becky H (Chicago): Agatha Christie, renowned writer of mysteries, disappeared for 11 days in 1926. Although a country wide search was made, no one was able to find her until she turned up on day eleven claiming amnesia. What REALLY happened – no one knows. Marie Benedict makes an interesting and entirely fictional novel of the mystery. The result is a good yarn that Agatha herself would approve. My complaint - and it is a huge one – is the two different, and interwoven, timelines. I would just get involved in one timeline and the other would pop up with a different narrator and jump back or forward in time. When I finished the book, I knew why the author chose this conceit. However, there have been entirely too many novels recently with the same "jump around" timeline. It is annoying. Please stop. The characters are well developed. The plot is clever. The inclusion of true events lends credence to the tale. But still…. Those annoying time leaps. Book groups will have a field day trying to suss out the real story in their discussion.

Reader Review: "The House on Vesper Sands"

 

by toni brabender: Thank you to BrookBrowse.com for an ARC of this lovely book. "The House on Vesper Sands" by Paraic O'Donnell may just be one of the best books of 2021 and it is only January. What doesn't it offer? It is Victorian supernatural with Gothic qualities with just enough humor to balance some of the darker material. The duo of Cutter and Bliss may be the best duo of thief-takers since Sherlock and Holmes. The epilogue seems to hint that there could be a sequel and I so hope that there is. I think that Octavia will be a welcome addition to make this a trio. The dialog among them is witty, clever and at times laugh out loud funny. Although her role was much smaller in this book, I believe that she could play a larger part in future installments in the story but also in illuminating more of Cutter's personality. Each and every character is nuanced and multi-dimensional. Every word is pitch perfect whether it be caustic, tender, unsettling or funny. The descriptions of nighttime Victorian London provide a creepy atmosphere befitting the tale. I am in awe of the author's inventiveness. His creativity has created possibly the best mystery of the year or at least the most enjoyable mystery that I have read in quite some time.

Reader Review: "The Vanishing Half"

 

by Becky H (Chicago): Unsettling is the only word I can use to describe this book. Can a person vanish? To themselves? To their family? Can men vanish from society? the world? Can a person vanish and still be physically present? Can a town vanish? Can a person make themselves vanish – even to their own self? What are the repercussions to vanishing? Can a vanished person reappear? And the last question – not are Blacks racist, but what form does it take? At first, I thought this book was vaguely boring, then a third of the way in, I found it compelling. When I read the last page, I was disappointed. Few of my questions had been answered. And those answers simply produced other questions. Books groups will either love or hate this book, but a lively discussion will certainly result. My one complaint is the book doesn't have a conclusion; it just ends.

Reader Review: "The Forgetting Time"

 

by Ayanda Bhekingwe (South Africa): I have goosebumps! This novel is genuinely phenomenal. A mind-boggling fiction that has completely opened a new portal for me to explore and that's the idea of reincarnation. But the big question I wanted to ask was, Who is Noah's father? I assumed it was Anderson since well, they share the same name with the mystery Jeff that is supposedly Noah's father, but the description of Anderson seems to contradict my assumptions. The author describes Anderson as an older man through older Charlie's eyes (remember when they went to visit the real Tommy, not the first one they mistaken him for, that Charlie). So it cannot be Anderson. On that note, what happens to Anderson next? He floats away and that's it? That's how it ends? And Janie, I needed to know how her future turned out? Why didn't she try harder to reach out to Anderson. I felt robbed at the end because I wanted the novel to continue. I know it's ridiculous to obsess over this, but I can't help but wonder what happens next. Can Sharon please write a continuation of the book. But overall, it's worth the read. The best book I've read in a while.

Reader Review: "Juliet"

 

by Elizabeth@Silver?sReviews: Julie saw Umberto at the back of the room as she was leaving the stage. She knew this wasn't going to be good news because he wasn't smiling like always. "Aunt Rose has died" were the words that tumbled out of his mouth. As sad as Julie was, she also knew there would be something even more distressing....she had to face her twin sister Janice. Janice was four minutes younger than Julie, but she always upstaged her no matter what, and there was always conflict when Janice arrived on the scene.

It was pouring down rain the day they buried Aunt Rose. As soon as she was buried and they were leaving the gravesite, Janice demanded to see the will right then. The attorney did have the will and showed it to both girls, but nothing had been left to Julie...everything was left to Janice.

Julie was devastated, but then Umberto said he had something that her mother had left for her....a key, a passport, and a letter. The letter wanted Julie to go to Italy, but Julie knew she couldn't go to Italy because she had been thrown out of the country when she was 18. Umberto had another means to get her to the country she was born in and to carry out her mother's wishes that Aunt Rose kept secret until she had passed away. Julie had no desire to go to Italy, but Umberto insisted...who couldn't resist a trip to Italy...mama mia :)

Julie Jacobs aka as Giulietta Tolomei was on the plane to Italy the next day and met Eva Maria, an Italian citizen. She informed Giulietta that she knew her family and that her family and Giulietta's family were rivals back in the Middle Ages. Eva Marie took her under her wing and insisted that her grandson show Giulietta the town of Siena and keep her safe.

The next day Giulietta went to the bank with her key. The bank manager had known Giulietta's father, and he took Giulietta to the safety deposit box with the matching key. What Giulietta found was her family and frightening and wonderful adventures. The key, the box her mother left her, and the story of Romeo and Juliet is the novel's main theme with lots of mystery and intrigue surrounding them.

This book is outstanding...the storyline, the descriptions, the characters, and Italy.

I loved how the book went back and forth from the 1300's to present day using the story of Romeo and Juliet as the main plot and how the main characters unraveled family and life-long mysteries....you will love the present-day characters Julie and Janice Jacobs also known as Giulietta and Giannozza Talomei.

I couldn't put it down. I loved "being in Italy" again, and could just see the buildings and all the quaintness of the country and the city of Siena. The web page Random House set up for the book adds to your interest because the pictures go along with the pages of the book.

I can't see how it wouldn't be liked...it is a book you won't want to miss. It has something for everyone...history, romance, mystery, betrayal, life in the 1300's in Italy, ancestors, middle-age family feuds, suspense, and a great author. Ms. Fortier did a superb job with her novel.

It is absolutely wonderful right up to the last page. You will not want it to end. What an extraordinary novel. ENJOY!!

Reader Review: "Life After Life"

 

by BuffaloGirlKS (Wright, Kansas): Revolving around the life of an upper class English woman from her birth and death (and subsequent numerous alternative births and deaths) on a cold winter night through both World Wars, this book portrays English society and an individual woman's life in an unusual premise. In reading other reviews, some found it difficult to follow and choppy. Perhaps because I listened to the audiobook, I had no difficulty with this. The book's greatest point for me was Isabel's victimization and her acceptance of it which started with her no importance as far as her mother was concerned. Her boys were clearly her favorites. Isabel's older sister and her father did show her love and compassion, but her mother's coldness seemed to suppress Isabel. The brutality that She suffered at the hands of her husband illustrated the hopelessness of women in that situation at that time. Those scenes literally made me gasp.

I have seen that there are sequels to this book and I do intend to read them.

Reader Review: "Caste"

 

by PatCarole (Boston): I finally finished Caste this morning -- 6 weeks after starting it. (This included a midway break during which I read Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell.) Caste is an important study of where the United States stands in 2020 with regard to race and how we got here. I loved the comparisons to India and the Third Reich which lent a perspective to the continuous racial divide existing in the U.S. Wilkerson's exquisite writing style is what allows the reader to persevere in reading this long book with too much repetition on a very tough subject. I am glad that I read Caste but I only enjoyed parts of it. I think the author could have made her point -- which is an important one -- with fewer words. Perhaps this would have given appeal to a wider audience.

Reader Review: "The Sun Down Motel"

 

by Roberta (Los Ranchos): This is the first book of Simone St James that I have read and I loved it. It's like Bates Motel on steroids. I grew up in a town that had many roadside hotels just like the one on the cover of the book. I never thought of them as being haunted, but that's what I will think now whenever I see one.

It's a combination thriller, mystery and ghost book. It was a perfect distraction (much needed these days). I'm going to read more from this author.

Reader Review: "The Dutch House"

 

by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): The Dutch House is the seventh novel by NYT best-selling American author, Ann Patchett. It had been Danny's childhood home. Cyril Conroy had bought the incredible Dutch House, there in small-town Pennsylvania, in 1946 for his young family: his wife Elna, and five-year-old Maeve. It was just as the last Van Hoebeek, the original owners, had left it: furnishings, fittings, even clothing. Danny was born a few years later, and lived there until his step-mother threw him out at fifteen.

Danny's mom had left when he was three; he was eight when Andrea Smith first came on the scene, but he and Maeve dismissed any idea of permanence. Andrea persisted, though; Andrea was fascinated with every detail of The Dutch House and Van Hoebeek family, who had made their fortune in packaged cigarettes.

Had Maeve and Danny paid more attention, they might have seen the signs, they might have predicted, but not prevented, it: just three years after she had first stood in front of the Van Hoebeek portraits in the drawing room, Andrea married Cyril, and took up residence in The Dutch House with her daughters. No longer were they the comfortable Conroy trio, lovingly cared for by Sandy and Jocelyn.

Danny had counted on following his canny father into real estate and construction; instead, Maeve insisted he study medicine at Columbia: their father's trust, grudgingly dispensed by Andrea, was covering the not-inconsiderable cost. And on visits home, the siblings would park on Van Hoebeek Street, regard The Dutch House, and fume over their stolen inheritance, their self-made father's fortune.

Maeve, aware Cyril's humble beginnings, was the most resentful; Danny had "never been in the position of getting my head around what I'd been given. I only understood what I'd lost." Not until a career had been gained and discarded, and a marriage and children made, some twenty-seven years after they had been ejected from The Dutch House, did Maeve and Danny finally acknowledge what their obsession had done to them: "We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we'd kept it going for so long"

While Danny's wife seems resentful of his close relationship with his sister, it is not until a certain, somewhat familiar old woman turns up at Maeve's hospital bed that he realises: "I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn't miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen… 'Danny!' she would call up to me. 'Breakfast. Move yourself.'"

This is very much a character-driven story, and it clearly demonstrates Patchett's literary skill: her characters are interesting and allowed to grow and develop, to display insight and utter wise words. The bond between the siblings is so well portrayed, it's impossible not to feel for them. Like Anne Tyler, Patchett manages to make the lives of fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things worth reading about.

Patchett's prose is wonderful: "The madder Maeve got, the more thoughtful she became. In this way she reminded me of our father – every word she spoke came individually wrapped" and "Her wrist looked like ten pencils bundles together". And that striking cover? It neatly ties the whole thing together, beginning and end. What a wonderful read!!

Reader Review: "Educated"

 

by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): "Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. 'If the lines are cut, we'll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,' he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we'd be communicating with."

Educated is a memoir by New York Times best-selling author, Tara Westover. Born into a Mormon family, Westover is raised in Buck Peak, Idaho by a father who has morphed from serious, physically impressive and independent-minded young man, to a man with (undiagnosed) bipolar disorder and paranoia about the Government and the Medical Establishment, who are clearly "Agents of the Devil". Formal education results in getting "brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies".

Her mother is a talented herbalist and an unregistered midwife, who initially believes in educating her children but acquiesces to her husband's demands for practical skills. Their father instils in his family a deep mistrust of phones, doctors, any type of government documentation or registration, and his determination to be prepared for when the Feds come to get them; the threat of the coming Days of Abomination require the family to bottle fruit and put up preserves, and each prepare "head for the hills" bags.

When the third of her older brothers abandons the family, to go to college (against his father's will), ten-year-old Tara is drafted into working in her father's junkyard, where safety is left to God: "I tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, 'Don't throw them here! I'm here!' Dad looked up, surprised. He'd forgotten I was there. When he saw the blood, he walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. 'Don't worry, honey,' he said. 'God is here, working right alongside us. He won't let anything hurt you. But if you are hurt, then that is His will.'"

Where there are injuries, be they penetrative wounds or third-degree burns, the injured drag themselves to be treated with rescue remedy and herbals by their mother. "Mother always said that medical drugs are a special kind of poison, one that never leaves your body but rots you slowly from the inside for the rest of your life. She told me if I took a drug now, even if I didn't have children for a decade, they would be deformed."

As an adolescent, large in her life is a judgemental brother who revels in physical and mental cruelty, while an absent brother encourages Tara to take a qualifying exam for Brigham Young College, despite having never been to school. After she excels in academia, the former becomes the cause of a major rift in the family; the latter never fails to support. While her father allows Tara to audition for musicals (love or pride?), his reaction to her decision to go to college is disapproval: "The Lord has called me to testify," he said. "He is displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man's knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming" When she wins a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, he reminds her to credit her (non-existent) home schooling; as she boards the plane for England, his main concern is that he will be unable to bring her home to safety "when the End comes".

Once she has gained academic qualifications, she comes to realise: "My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs."

It's said that truth is often stranger than fiction; sometimes, what Westover described is so shocking, it is blackly funny: Having had a major motor vehicle accident during an all-night drive, causing his family multiple injuries, the following year, her father insists on another late-night interstate drive: "'Shouldn't we drive slower?' Mother asks. Dad grins. 'I'm not driving faster than our angels can fly.' The van is still accelerating. To fifty, then to sixty" with the inevitable, identical result.

Westover's book will leave some readers incredulous that such families exist in modern times, and may beg the question: Given that public education is freely available, and that most would consider the provision of basic education the responsibility of every parent, and the right of every child, then is preventing one's child from gaining this not child abuse? What Westover has achieved is nothing short of inspirational. A stunning read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House.

Reader Review: "The Exiles"

 

by Becky H (Chicago): Evangeline, a young governess, is arrested on a false charge and "transported" to Australia. Her lover does not rescue her and she bears his child on the ship. In the 1840's Britain sent thousands of "undesirables" to exile in Australia. Baker's book tells the story of jailing and transport from the viewpoint of an educated young woman fallen on hard times and her child. Even after transport, the exiles were still jailed and then "rented out" during the day in what amounted to slave labor until their sentences were served. The hardships of jail life and transport are set forth in detail. A parallel story is the true experience of Mathinah, a young Aboriginal woman taken from her ancestral home and "adopted" by the British governor and his wife. Hers is a sad tale sympathetically told by Baker. This finely detailed and riveting book tells a little known side of British "transport," a cost saving solution that also sent thousands of criminals to the present day state of Georgia. Beautifully written and well researched, this book deserves your time.

Reader Review: "The Mountains Sing"

 

by Babs: I was overcome with emotion at how profoundly moving I found The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Lyrical prose filled with images that will forever change how I view lives so vastly different than my own. I always viewed the tragedy of the Vietnam war through the lens of American losses...until now. The compelling multi-generational story of the Tran family is beautifully written with two unforgettable heroines, Huong Tran and her grandmother Died Lan and spans from 1920-1970's. I highly recommend what has turned out to be my favorite read in 2020. Actually, I am getting ready to reread so I can facilitate this novel in our Zoom book club in November.

Reader Review: "All the Devils Are Here"

 

by Vivian H (Winchester, VA): Armand & Reine-Marie find murder, intrigue, heartache and betrayal while in Paris awaiting the birth of Annie's & Jean -Guy's second child. While I missed the eclectic residents of Three Pines, this book did not disappoint. The reader is gifted with insights into the Chief Inspector' past, including the fraught relationship with his son Daniel. There are convoluted plot developments that seem forced or improbable. However, these are easily overlooked when compared to the coziness and familiarity of spending a few delicious hours with my favorite Québécois.

Reader Review: "Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead"

 

by Margot P (Mandeville, LA): I went back and forth between 4 or 5 stars but decided on 5 as I have never quite read anything like this. It is comedic, tragic, mysterious, weird but very engrossing and beautifully written. I totally did not see the ending coming as I was so caught up in the magical and astronomical aspects of the book. Janina is a truly memorable character.

Reader Review: "Caste"

 

by CarolT: Wilkerson's easy to read prose kept me reading, but the topic kept me up nights. Everything she says is true. So, when I wonder about a "lower caste" person's promotion, am I wondering because she really isn't as qualified as other candidates, or because she's lower caste? And what, exactly, can I do to improve things? Is just the fact that I stop to think enough?

Reader Review: "The Exiles"

 

by Sonia Francis (Freehold NJ): After reading A Piece Of The World, Christina Baker Kline did not disappoint with her research on the Australian Aborigines, the penal colony and the way the British in the 1800's felt about the Aborigines, albeit , negatively. Actually they thought that they were a nuisance.

My thoughts go to the indigenous people world over who were exploited and raped of their culture and ethnicity. I have always wanted to know more about Australia' penal colony and it was quite an enlightening read I experienced in The Exile.This episode in 19th century Australia and Britain exposes the plight of three women whose lives are bound together aboard " The Medea" to Van Diemens Land, the penal colony.

I enjoyed reading about the bond built by these women , their stories, hardships, and challenges.

Stories are everywhere : from the Native American Indians in the United States who were slaughtered and trampled on, the Africans brought to American shores, the Burmese of Myanmar- change the names and the stories are the same of being colonized and left to fend alone.

I loved this book because it made me want to to read more atrocities suffered under British rule. This was an unapologetic reveal about the past and how history cannot be forgotten.

Reader Review: "Vampires in the Lemon Grove"

 

by Alexia (Perú): For such a young writer, Karen Russell has shown imagination and a freshness of writing that separates her from her peers. Since receiving her MFA in fiction from Columbia, Russell received the "5 Under 35" award in 2009 from the National Book Foundation, was named on The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list, and was a Pulitzer Prize fiction finalist for her novel Swamplandia!, alongside David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson. Her newest book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is a book of short stories set in a variety of locales that was published by Knopf in February. Full disclosure: Swamplandia! was not my favorite. The novel's characters and plot had Russell's distinctive magical realism, but the fantasy became tedious at a point, stretching the reader too far, which does not happen at all in her shorter works. Russell really shines in her short stories. In the stories, her lyrical imagination is showcased in beautiful ways that let you lose yourself in the words. No matter how inventive the story, it surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief because of Russell's craft in these short spaces.

In the title story, two vampires who have been together for hundreds of years suddenly face a problem when one of them develops a fear of flying. The relationship between the two vampires and the way they interact in the world is intricately described, with lines like "…You small mortals don't realize the power of your stories." A disturbing piece entitled "Reeling for the Empire" weaves the story of women transformed into silkworms and held captive in a factory, who discover personal agency and the power of their relationships in their attempts to transform and free themselves. As the main character Kitsune says, "…In truth there is no model for what will happen to us next. We'll have to wait and learn what we've become when we get out."

Perhaps the most haunting tale in Russell's collection is "The New Veterans," a story about a tattooed war veteran visiting a massage therapist. As the two work together, the therapist begins to realize the tattoos come to life on the Vet's body, and are malleable under her hands. Questions of healing, hurt, memory and honor are all explored in this love story of a different sort.

The approaches of these eight stories are so different from each other and have such lives of their own that this is a book that almost defies description, in the best way possible. Who else could tell a story about a massage therapist working on a war veteran whose tattoos come alive and change the lives of those involved, or make your heart hurt for a vampire? The way Russell can manipulate fantastical images and make them almost mundane is a gift, and one that makes you carry the characters around in your head, long after you've turned the last page.

Reader Review: "Burial Rites"

 

by Sandi W. (Illinois): I like historical fiction in general, but I really liked this story. Add mystery on top of historical fiction and that made it all the better. This was based on a true story, and even some names and places are actual, while others were changed for privacy reasons and the story was filled in where no actual fact could be found.

It is 1829 in Iceland. A woman is sent to be housed with a family, that doesn't want her, while she waits her execution. She is to be executed for murdering her previous master. Her crime and trial is based on the stories of others. While working as free labor for this host family she is visited multiple times by a young priest and it is through his visits that her side of the story is told.

You know going in that Agnes dies. She is the last person to be beheaded in Iceland. But it is her story that captivates. How she got into the position to be charged with killing two men, how she survived the loneliness and cruel treatment of her host family, and how she withstood her trip to the gallows.

The writing is impeccable and transfers you to that North Iceland homestead Agnes has been assigned to. You feel her loneliness. You empathize with the family forced to harbor a criminal. You await the execution right along with Agnes, as you finally hear her side of the story. It is very easy to lose yourself in this harrowing story, as you feel the pending doom and commiserate with Agnes.

 

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