Review of “Free Men” by Katy Simpson Smith

25817488

Though Free Men is the story of a slave, an orphan, and Creek Indian, it is not so much a story about being a slave, orphan, or Indian. At its essence, it’s really a very poignant story of relationships, injustice, loyalty, and how we perceive ourselves.

It’s 1788 and the unlikely trio of Bob (escaped slave), Cat (a misunderstood, fragile, and traumatized white man), and Istillicha (a Creek Indian who has been wronged by his tribe and his love interest) form a bond after their lives intersect by sheer coincidence. When what was supposed to be a robbery turns into the brutal murder of several men, the French tracker Le Clerc is dispatched to find them and bring them to justice.  As they travel along together with no clear plan, we learn so much about them and their previous lives that we gain a solid understanding of who they are and how they came to be that way.

The characters were very well-developed and  described in a way that had me thinking I knew and understood them well. As with any good story, however, there are some things one just doesn’t see coming.

Katy Simpson Smith gives us a beautifully written story to reminds us that friendships and loyalty are not always based on the things we have come to expect, sometimes the most permanent love is based on mutual respect and friendship rather than wild romantic notions, and justice is frequently imperfect.

My rating: 4 stars

Thanks to HarperCollins Publishers via Edelweiss for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “The Girl from the Train” by Irma Joubert

23637023

The Girl from the Train provides something a bit different than many of the WWII novels I’ve read in the recent past. In terms of geography, the settings are primarily Poland and South Africa. While both lands are richly described, I felt I learned a lot about the terrain and culture of South Africa during the period. I appreciated the details that made it very obvious that the author had thoroughly researched the war as it related to the specific people and places described in the book. The story itself contains many smaller stories and themes that are seamlessly woven in throughout the book.

I found the characters to be likable enough but perhaps too perfect. Based on the description of the book, I hadn’t expected it to be so romance-heavy. I appreciate that there are lots of people out there who really love to read romance but it’s just not my thing. I think the book could have had the same good ending without quite as much love drama.

While I can say I’m glad I read this book, and I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite WWII novels. Two that come to mind that I’d recommend if you are interested in reading about that period are The Paris Architect and The True Story of Hansel and Gretel.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson via NetGalley for providing me with a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

 

 

 

Review of “I’ll See You in Paris” by Michelle Gable

cover75550-medium

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Beginning at a their horse farm in Virginia, then alternating between 1970’s and 1990’s Paris and England, I’ll See You in Paris is the story of a mother and daughter reconciling the past with their present. Though it is narrated in alternating time periods, and there are many twists and turns in the plot, the author makes the transitions smooth and easy to follow.

Annie Haley is a young woman who is not going to let anything stop her from finding out the truth about the missing Duchess of Marlborough – or herself. Her mother Laurel has been hiding many things, including her paternity, from her. While in Banbury, England to settle an estate her mother recently revealed she had inherited, Annie sets out to link the missing pieces together. She finds help in Gus, a regular at the local pub. They strike up an unlikely friendship and that’s when things become very, very interesting.

The story is told with a nice balance of seriousness and humor. The characters are well-drawn and all likable in their own way. That goes for the fictional characters as well as the Duchess herself. Though I admittedly didn’t know was a ‘real’ person until the end of the book.But it makes perfect sense. Some of this stuff you really couldn’t make up…

Michelle Gable does an equally great job describing the setting and locations. Reading this book certainly made me want to get on the next flight to London so I could make my way to Banbury, bike to the George and Dragon, and have a pint with Gus! Followed by a trip to Paris, of course.

My rating: 4 stars

 

 

Review of “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” by Melanie Benjamin

cover68090-medium

Thanks to Random House Publishing Group Ballantine via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin gives us a delicious glimpse into the lives of the “original ” Housewives of NYC.  In the 1950’s, these ladies – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, CZ Guest, Pamela Churchill – and the company they kept worked very hard to maintain the illusion that is consistent perfection. They were the beautiful, glamorous swans of Truman Capote.

Babe Paley was in a class by herself. Tall, elegant, a fashion icon, held in the highest social regard of her peers… But all of that, her many homes, and boatloads of money could not keep her husband’s attention or quell her insecurities. Perhaps that was one of the things that bonded her so tightly to Truman. He was, himself, a fabulous public persona with his own set of deeply rooted issues and insecurities. They seemed to love and understand one another on a wonderfully deep level and were each other’s constant confidant.

For years the group carried on with a terrific friendship and jet-setting lifestyle. Truman was on top of the world after the publication of In cold Blood and threw a magnificent party that remains one of the most famous in history. (There is an entire non-fiction book devoted to the party. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/60481.Party_of_the_Century)

After he reached is professional pinnacle with the publication and accolades of In Cold Blood, however, Truman’s life devolved into a bit of a drinking, drugging mess. He was having difficulty writing and, sadly, betrayed his swans by publishing very intimate details of their lives in magazine articles that barely attempted to conceal their identity. And so that was end of the friendships. The end of an era, really. Truman became a social outcast.

I really loved that so much of this book is based in historical fact including the story of Ann Woodward. I was inspired to read more about all of them. The book is told in such a way that I felt sorry for almost everyone – including Truman. The author did such a fantastic job of conveying so many facets to and nuances of the character’s personalities it was impossible not to relate to each in some way.

My rating 4.5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

Review of “The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

24611425

Having never read Geraldine Brooks, and being rusty at best when it came to the story of David, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to really appreciate this book. Fortunately, the author did such a fantastic job of weaving in all of the relevant back stories and personal histories of the characters that I didn’t feel I had to use so much of my brain that the book became less than pleasurable. (I do like to learn and use my brain but if a migraine headache is avoidable, that is preferable.)

As for David, I hadn’t realized what a contradiction he was as a person and king. The author did well in relating his constant conflict between ruthlessness and benevolence, making us very aware that he was, in fact, a very flawed human being. Who know what his life would have been like without the good council of Natan, the profit or Avigail, his second wife… For such a powerful ruler, he certainly seemed unable to navigate the complex politics and relationships of the throne though he prevailed on the battlefield. I found myself frustrated and angry with his lack of discipline toward his sons. Also, and not uncommon for a book written about this period, I found myself disgusted by the treatment of women.

Natan, on the other hand, was the perfect prophet and voice of reason for David and his inner circle. I enjoyed the way he worked both his prophetic visions and human insight into advice and planning meant for the greater good of David as well as the kingdom.

I did find that changing some of the names to the more authentic Hebrew versions made for a bit more confusion at the beginning of the book. I would also caution that there are scenes of rape and violence that are, though not gratuitous, vividly depicted.

Overall, I thought The Secret Chord was a great book and I would happily read this author again in the future.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Review of “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

15790842

What can I say? This book was amazing. I really wanted to read this when it was first released but somehow didn’t get around to it. I even wondered if it could live up to the hype. It did! I read the first several chapters wondering if things were going to come together and I would finally be able to understand what was going on. These numerous deaths did take a bit of getting used to. After that, it was impossible to put down. I loved the author’s very matter-of-fact sensibility in describing Ursula’s many adventures in life and death. There was no over-dramatization which made for a very easy and believable read. The characters and their relationships were perfectly intertwined. But what I really loved was the way the author told the story of the war from unique and different perspectives. This book really does make you consider how one little change of events can alter the history of a person. Or the world.

My rating: 5 stars

“Coal River” by Ellen Marie Wiseman

25406912

I would like to thank Kensington Books via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book.

Our heroine, Emma Malloy, finds herself orphaned after her parents die in a NYC fire. Her misanthropic Aunt Ida and Uncle Otis send her a train ticket so that she can move to their Coal River, PA home. She is haunted by the past as she arrives to the place where her younger brother drowned in the river years before. Before long, though, she becomes saddened and outraged by the working conditions of the breaker boys and the unfairness of the coal mining system. Emma, however, is not afraid to challenge the system and those running it at all costs. She risks everything to help the miners and their families and bring an end to the child labor and unfair and illegal conditions at the mine.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Though I found it to be well-written and a very quick read, there was something lacking in the story that I find it hard to put my finger on. Perhaps Emma was just a little too fearless. Unrealistically so. The ending was also a bit unrealistic. Things wrapped up in too convenient a package.

I did love learning about the history of mining and it seems the author did a very good job in researching the subject and being completely believable in terms of the living and working conditions of the miners.

I hadn’t read either of the author’s previous novels so I really had no expectations (other than having read the reviews, of course) when I started this one. Though I can’t give it a glowing review, I would certainly read other books by this author in the future.

My rating: 3 stars

“Whistling Women” by Kelly Romo

25703896

Thanks to Lake Union Publishing via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Summary:

Whistling Women is the story of sisters Wavey and Addie, and how their lives are torn apart and finally reconciled after too many years estranged. The majority of the story takes places during the 1935 World’s Fair in San Diego, CA. Wavey has, with limited success, moved on with her life and has been raising her two daughters in San Diego for many years since the sisters have separated. Addie has been living in at The Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony, north of San Francisco for 15 years when she learns she must travel to San Diego to become part of the nudist exhibition at the Fair. There their lives become entwined once again, largely due to the determination of Rumor, one of Wavey’s teenage daughters, to reunite them.

My thoughts:

While I was expecting this book to be more typical historical fiction, I found that it read more like chic-lit than historical or literary fiction. I was hoping to learn more about nudist colonies in the 1930’s, 1930’s San Diego, etc., but there was no real focus on those areas making me wonder how much research had been done in writing this book. The story itself was quite predicable. Very early in the book, Addie is outed as a murderer, and within about a page of a certain character being introduced, it is readily apparent who will come to be her “victim”. The characters were also difficult for me to like/relate to. Addie wasn’t as strong a woman as I’d hoped. Wavey was unlikable on a number of levels. Mary was too wishy-washy. Rumor, the most likable, was bratty and self-centered. That I could understand as being part of the “troubled teen” package, but I lost all respect for her when she had the opportunity to be a strong young lady and “do the right thing” but chose to protect an evil person.  Some parts of the story lacked resolution all together, and other resolutions left me feeling frustrated or unsatisfied.

My rating: 2 stars