Book Reviews

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Reader Review: "The Forest of Vanishing Stars"

 

by Cindy Roesel (North Miami Beach): Bestselling author, Kristin Harmel shares another message of hope within the darkness of WWII in her new novel, The Forest of Vanishing Stars (GalleryBooks).

"The forest knew no difference between race, religion or gender."

In 1922, two year-old Inge Juttner, daughter of a Nazi Commander is stolen as she sleeps by an old woman called Jerusza. She renames Inge Yona. She lives in the forest for twenty years under Jerusza's control. She is educated in how to survive and live well in the forest in all seasons and from books, Jerusza steals from towns, but Yona never meets another person. She is raised not to trust people and to stay safe in the forest. Jerusza dies, but not before instilling in Yona's mind that dark days are ahead.

Yona meets a group of Jews escaping from the ghettos and realizes her destiny is to help them live and survive. The escapees don't have any of the skills to survive the winter and they become her family.

"Home is not a place, but the people you choose to love."

Soon the group is growing and Yona fears for all of their lives.

The Forest of Vanishing Stars is based on true events. Kristin has done a great deal of research and she shares her sources with readers at the end of the book in "Author's Notes." In 2020, Kristin interviewed Aron (Bell) Bielski who was one of the Jews who survived the Nazis by living in the forest. Aron's entire family was killed and to this day he suffers from survivor's guilt.

The Forest of Vanishing Stars has everything you could hope for in a novel. It's brilliantly written, suspenseful, has some romance, along emotions of fear, pain and love. It is also very hopeful. The light will always be stronger than darkness.

Reader Review: "The Sympathizer"

 

by John Otim (Uganda/Nigeria): In the last days as they prepared to evacuate and return home, as personified by Claude, a veteran senior CIA operative in Saigon, the Americans were as cool as can be. Outwardly that is. The atmosphere in the embassy told a different story. There tempers were raw and the scenes were ugly. Among the South Vietnamese officials still in Saigon, matters were even worse. You get all of these just in brief first chapter. Which was all I could get access to as a poor third world academic. Even from this obviously very limited sample, I can say without fear, that this is a really good story, skillfully crafted and told.

Reader Review: "The Other Passenger"

 

by Gerrie (Carmel, IN): Reading Candlish's The Other Passenger is comparable to watching a long far off train making its way to a collapsed trestle over a 1,000 ft drop, you know disaster is coming but you are powerless to stop it. There are twists within twists and an ending worth the wait. There were times in the last two hundred pages where I stopped to catch my breath, wishing the end would come sooner, almost as if I just couldn't take the stress of the process anymore and I had to know the outcome that second. The pacing reminded me of the steady slow single drip from a rooftop after a lull in the rain, then proceeding to a faster drip as the rain picks up and culminating in a full torrent as the storm blows in. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys being held in suspense.

Reader Review: "A Peculiar Combination"

 

by Gabi: As fate brings them together, a spirited thief and a straight-laced Major become unlikely allies in war-time England as they join forces to thwart an attempt to deliver critical documents into the Germans' hands. Intrigue, murder, and a sprinkling of romance, combined with engaging "good guys" and a handful of suspects, are the perfect ingredients for this entertaining WW2 mystery.

The first in a new series —- I am already eagerly anticipating the next Electra McDonnell series!!!

4.5 stars "light" read (easy straightforward read, not overly graphic violence)

Reader Review: "The Personal Librarian"

 

by Gabi: A fascinating story of the life of Belle da Costa Greene (née Belle Marion Greener), J P Morgan's trusted personal librarian, partner-in-art, and confidant. The book follows Belle as she, a colored woman passing as white, learns to navigate among a male-dominated art world and mingle with high society across continents as an influential representative of J P Morgan (and later his son) and his John Pierpont Morgan Library. While her path brought Belle professional success, influence, acclaim and rewards, it didn't come without high risks, personal sacrifices, the burden of familial responsibilities and loneliness as told in this compelling novel.

"I wonder sometimes if the sacrifice I made to have this success is worth it." (Belle in a conversation with her father)

As a side note - this book will be an excellent read for book clubs! There are many potential topics for engaging discussion.

Reader Review: "The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World"

 

by Cassandra W (Alameda, CA): This is a beautiful meditation on life, love and loss. Read it, you won't be disappointed.

Reader Review: "Daughters Of Smoke & Fire"

 

by Rebecca G (Havertown, pa): Ava Homa's book is one of the most important books I've read in a long time. Probably most people don't know the history of the Kurds. I didn't realize that their country was divided after World War I between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The result of this was Kurdish men became second class citizens, oppressed, suppressed, often imprisoned and murdered at the whim of sadistic leaders. Women were considered subhuman, brutalized, often abandoned, often raped but always under extreme restrictions. Ms. Homa describes many of these brutalities and they are difficult to read. The story revolves around the family Samas, particularly their daughter, Leila. Her father is a broken man after being unjustly imprisoned, her mother lives in misery and commits acts that are unspeakable in their culture and her brother, Chia becomes more and more determined to do what he can to save his people. No matter what she does, Leila is unable to break free of her severe restrictions and spends her life despondent to the point of suicide. But when her brother is labeled a martyr she spreads his words and places her own life in danger. This is an incredible book about despair, brutality, hopelessness but it becomes a book of redemption and hopefulness.

Reader Review: "The Forest of Vanishing Stars"

 

by anita: I really got into the book and could not put it down. My resistance was...oh no another war book. But this was different and Yona proved to be an incredible character. A different take on the war presented by a most unusual woman who could and would take chances on her life and many others. An outstanding read!

Reader Review: "The Terror"

 

by Ann (Haw River, NC): I've now read this book 14 times since I discovered it. I keep going back again and again. The ice and cold give the setting such a sense of permanent isolation--nobody is coming for them-- that haunts me every time. The fact that the story is based on truth also gives it a haunting quality. Who knows what these men really went through? Simmons makes you feel as if you're aboard the ship itself. I also have such sympathy for Crozier. He had a difficult place among the English as an Irishman, and his alcoholism made him unapproachable and very misunderstood. The battle with his demons made him a better commander and a better man as well, and I think his men respected him more after his victory over the bottle. He truly had their best interests at heart. I just wanted to shake Sir John and the others when Crozier tried to warn them of the coming pack ice. Crozier's belief that King William Land was an island was also rebuffed, and Crozier was treated as if he didn't know what he was talking about. I think he was a much better captain than Sir John, and if they had listened to Crozier and acted, they would not have lost their ships and hence, their men and their own lives. This book is an excellent example of merging a true story with a fictional horror. I'm sure I will continue to enjoy it for many years to come. I recommend it to anyone who loves a thrilling story that is difficult to put down.

Reader Review: "Saving Fish From Drowning"

 

by Tan Fan (New Brunswick Canada): Amy Tan is a master storyteller and wordsmith. The growing Cecil B. DeMille cast of characters inspired me to keep a Who's Who cheat sheet, which worked very well for me. The mixture of humour and brutal reality was deftly handled by the author, and was in complete harmony with the voice of the engaging narrator. I loved this book and highly recommend it.

Reader Review: "The Forest of Vanishing Stars"

 

by Betty Taylor (Macon GA): I love Ms. Harmel's books and think this may be her best so far. Her newest book is a story of hope, courage, bravery, survival, and love. It is also a story of determining who we are inside and how to become that person.

Yona was born to a German family and named Inge. But when she was two years old, she was stolen from her parents by a woman named Jerusza and renamed Yona. Living in the forest, Jerusza taught Yona valuable survival skills. These skills would be the key to Yona's survival and her ability to save other lives.

As the Nazis gained ground in Poland, thousands of Jews fled to the deep forests of Eastern Europe to escape their clutches. When Yona encounters some of these Jews, she feels she must help them survive. But because she has been isolated deep in the forest throughout her life, she has no social skills. All this leads to a fascinating story of underground bunkers, danger, hardships, trust, conflict, and betrayal. But through it all, Yona learns how to open her heart to others. And when Yona comes face-to-face with her past, her world is turned upside down.

Ms. Harmel did intense research so she could tell the story of the real-life Jews who lived this story. The writing was so vivid that I felt an emotional connection with the characters. I could feel their fear, their hunger, their shivering in the harsh winters, and the solace that came from looking up at the stars from deep within the forest.

I highly recommend this stunning book to all historical fiction fans.

Reader Review: "The Dutch House"

 

by Juliana: The novel is both the story of a family, the Conroys, and of the house which the family acquired after unexpected financial success. Originally belonging to the Dutch family of the VanHoebeeks, the house has a traditional flair and is imbued with the personality of its original owners, markedly dominated by the portraits of the master and mistress of the house. But this is mostly the story of Maeve Conroy as told by her younger brother, Danny, born a few years after the house was purchased. Symbolically, Maeve's portrait is commissioned and painted as she becomes the dominant figure in the siblings' lives and an indelible one in the household. More than a sister, Maeve is also the substitute for the mother who leaves them when Danny was three and Maeve ten, and then the substitute for their father, who dies after bringing to the house another wife with two daughters. With the help of a cook and a housekeeper, Maeve sees her brother through illnesses and schools. However, the siblings choose careers that they truly love and feel drawn towards rather than those for which they study. Maeve is also a key player in Danny's love life and then in the financial planning of his new family. All this while, the two gravitate around the Dutch house, living in it and making their first memories without and with a step-mother, then observing it from a distance, as their paths take them away after their father's death and then one more time returning to it under completely different circumstances. It is Danny who tells the story of this house changing hands and influencing lives, so the story bears a tone of deep brotherly affection mixed with amazement at the ability of his sister to steer their lives, with nostalgia at the stability of family life and the melancholy of hardship. It is a splendidly told story, captivating and endearing though quite heart-wrenching.

Reader Review: "The Forest of Vanishing Stars"

 

by Elizabeth@Silver'sReviews: Yona was kidnapped out of her crib at a very young age and forced to live in the forest with a woman named Jerusza. Jerusza felt it her duty to take Yona from her German parents.

Yona knew nothing other than living off the land, surviving in the forest, and stealing things from stores and people in the villages.

When Jerusza died at 102 years of age, Yona was alone but able to survive because of her skills.

When Yona meets a group of Jewish folks who had escaped the ghetto, she felt it her duty to help them survive.

THE FOREST OF VANISHING STARS takes us with Yona through her years with Jerusza and her harrowing, frightening, and dangerous time with the group as we see them learn the ways of the forest, live with fear, hide from the Nazis, and learn to trust each other.

When she is betrayed by the group, she leaves them and has to again make decisions on her own.

Ms. Harmel again did meticulous research and portrayed the plight of the characters with such authenticity that you were right there with them suffering through all the horrible conditions they had to endure.

This book is a beautiful tribute to the human spirit, to perseverance, and to finding the qualities a person possesses for empathy, kindness, and making choices.

Another FIVE star but very heartbreaking gem from Kristin Harmel. 5/5

This book was given to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Reader Review: "Freeze Frame"

 

by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): Freeze Frame is the fourth book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. When Enzo arrives on Ile de Grois to investigate a fourth cold case from Roger Raffin's book, he is dismayed to see that, due to a local press headline, the whole town is watching him. Thibaud Verjean, the man who was tried, and acquitted, of the murder of English tropical medicine professor, Adam Killian almost two decades earlier, accosts Enzo as he steps off the ferry, taunting him to try to prove his guilt where others have failed.

The gendarme in charge, Richard Gueguen warns Enzo that officially he isn't permitted to offer any assistance, but is just as eager as anyone else to see the case solved: he was a trainee in Grois at the time it happened. The only genuine welcome is from Jane Killian, who hopes he can resolve the matter. On Adam's instruction, given moments before her father-in-law was shot dead, she has ensured that nothing has been moved or removed from his study.

Adam's intention was for his son, Peter to interpret the instruction he left behind and complete the task he had begun, but Jane's husband died in Africa mere days later. As a forensic expert, this sort of case is right up his alley, but when Enzo examines the scene, what he finds is a diary entry, post-it notes, an inverted poem and a shopping list, all too cryptic to understand. Clearly, he needs to think like Peter. Puzzling, too, is why anyone would want to murder a dying man: Adam would soon have been dead of lung cancer.

At a loss with Killian's study, Enzo checks out significant spots on the island, talks to witnesses at Verjean's trial and Killian's physician. Apart from several nasty encounters with Verjean, though, he learns little. His scientific expertise is not helping, he is at a loss. Meanwhile, he is plagued by a black cat, freezing cold weather and a nightly strip-tease trying to tempt him.

When he (finally!) more closely examines the clues Killian left, he has a minor breakthrough that sends him off to Paris and Morocco. Before he manages to solve the case he is, however, distracted by what his erstwhile lover Charlotte Roux reveals. His paranoia sees him rolling in icy wet grass; poor judgement gets him beaten up, almost killed and his tires slashed.

Without doubt, this is the best of the Enzo books thus far. May lays a trail of clues for the astute reader to follow; some are very subtle, some quite blatant; enough that the reader will fix on the likely killer well before the reveal, only to find they are quite wrong. Addictive crime fiction.

Reader Review: "Ariadne"

 

by Juliana: In Jennifer Saint's novel we learn that Ariadne, the princess of Crete, grew up with a ruthless, greedy father, King Minos, with stories of vengeful gods who punish women for the sins of the men in their lives and with her half-brother, the Minotaur, the monster who roams the Labyrinth under their palace of Knossos, feeding yearly on human sacrifice from the defeated city of Athens. Her only solace is her younger sister, Phaedra, a far more rebellious and fearless nature than herself, who still needs to wait for the right moment to escape the paternal grip. The choice Ariadne makes when the prince of Athens, Theseus, comes to Crete to kill the Minotaur will set her life on a course undoubtedly different from what her father had decided for her. Her choice will also change the life of her sister, and their destines will unwind parallel to each other until a dramatic later encounter. But while Greek mythology glorifies the accomplishments of the man hero Theseus, Saint spins the narrative from the point of view of the heroines, with Ariadne actively seeking her place in this story of heroism and refusing as much as possible to be controlled by the men around her. Also, halfway through the novel, Saint highlights Phaedra as a mighty heroine in her own right, giving her first-person narrator privileges. Phaedra's story re-intersects with Ariadne's at a key moment to reflect on how momentary loss can turn into long-term gain and unforeseen success can prove to be draining and only deceptively satisfying. Just like Miller in Circe, because of the nature of the material she works with, Saint frequently reflects through her characters on destiny, divinity and human agency, but she adds insightful reflections on the immortality of art and the heroes and values immortalized. Saint questions traditional characters, values and the patriarchal society which nurtured them, offering a subversive narrative which brings to the front alternative, sounder values and heroines. Ariadne is merciless of the way patriarchal families and societies work and in its exploration of the multifaceted women roles and relationships hints at a better world governed by matriarchal values. Unfortunately, it is crushed by the order in place, leaving us wonder at how different or not the transformations in gender roles and relationships are in today's society, so many years later. The book has a brilliant motto and prologue, a solid and enticing narrative structure based substantially on the interweaving of first-person narrators. Saint uses an appropriately ornate style, brimming with introspective questions and complex noun-phrases, with imagery perfectly reflective of the age it describes. It is a great novel to read and reflect upon.

Reader Review: "The Lost Man"

 

by Techeditor (Romeo, Michigan): Jane Harper's THE LOST MAN is one of the best mystery/suspense novels I have ever read. If you read and loved THE DRY, one of her previous books, you'll love THE LOST MAN. If you haven't read THE DRY, you'll want to after you read THE LOST MAN.

Nathan, the eldest of three brothers, discovers the body of Cameron, another one of the brothers, in the outback desert. There begins the mystery: how did he end up in this predicament when his car is loaded with supplies to sustain him? Was this suicide or was it murder? If murder, who had cause to hate him this much?

You would expect that a Harper book would take place in Australia. But her descriptions of the outback, in particular, where the brothers and the rest of the family live and work, made me actually see its vastness and feel the desolation, danger, and heat they dealt with.

Here is a book you won't want to end. When I got there, it felt too soon.

Reader Review: "Luck of the Titanic"

 

by Sakshi Singh (Uttar Pradesh): Luck of the Titanic is the Titanic story I wish we all knew. Move over Rose and Jack, make way for Val and Jamie. Never once did I ever imagine to be able to see someone who looked like me in a historical fiction about the Titanic. I didn't even realize that people who looked like me were aboard in the first place! It was a whole new experience to see people like me exist at all before modern day. Historical fiction so often, especially about events we hear about often like the Titanic, has never felt relatable in the least to me. Until this. This book brought me that. It told me that even in historical fiction, we can see diversity. People who look like me.

Quick summary: Luck of the Titanic is a historical fiction that works to tell the story of the six Titanic survivors of Chinese descent. It follows twin siblings, Valora and Jamie Luck, two twin British-Chinese acrobats traveling aboard the Titanic's maiden voyage, which was the same time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Determined to make it to America, Valora brews a plan that will allow them to get into America before the ship makes it across the Atlantic.

I can absolutely say right off the bat that my favorite part was that this book kept me guessing. I read this with Saima, and we both kept guessing what would happen wrong. I say that this is my favorite part because it was very impressive that a book about a major historical event, one that is so famous we all know the story, ends up being surprising at all. I was very impressed with that alone that made my experience of the book go up a ton!

Reader Review: "We Are Not from Here"

 

by Tanu Panwar (Ghaziabad): We Are Not From Here astonishes even as it conveys harsh realities. Torres Sanchez's prose alternately chills and sings as it brings primal human experiences—life and death, despair and hunger, fear and hope—to the page in brilliant relief. The choice to employ first-person narration, commonplace in young adult literature, is particularly effective here and adds immediacy to the threats that seem to lie in wait around every corner. Elements of magical realism elevate the teens' journey to epic, mythic heights. It all makes for a stunning, visceral and deeply moving read.

Reader Review: "Whereabouts"

 

by Margot P (Mandeville, LA): While Whereabouts is a novel in the technical sense, it's really just slices of life in a year of a floundering 40ish Italian woman in an unnamed city. The writing is gorgeous, especially considering it was translated from Italian to English by Lahiri. The intimate portrayal of the protagonist is very similar to those of Ferrante's characters in her last two novels: solitary, capable women who are unable to make lasting human connections largely in part as results from damages inflicted upon them by their parents. I especially enjoyed the chapter where she visits her mother and the final one on the train where her life is symbolically contrasted with those of a group of happy foreign travelers.

 

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