Category Archives: Book Reviews

Beautiful Bad by Annie Ward

Maddie fell hard for Ian, British security detail, when she taught English in Bulgaria and her BFF Joanna was a humanitarian working in Macedonia before and during their civil war. He’s hard to pin down, even after she marries him despite Joanna’s inexplicable hostility toward him. He insists on moving from NYC to her small, Kansas hometown, though he spends much of his time in the Eastern bloc, working in a security business he started with his brother after leaving his government position. The story unfolds in layers as it goes back and forth in time and around the globe to explain the horrible murder. Ward does an excellent job evoking sympathy for Maddie, who appears to be on the receiving end of Ian’s PTSD. This novel portrays young American idealists who get caught up in tragedy, differences in maturity levels of best friends, and how lack of self-awareness contributes to obfuscation, as a mismatched romance leads to its horrifying conclusion. I was fortunate to receive this brilliant story from the publisher Park Row Books through NetGalley.

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

A time travel criminal shot Kin’s Temporal Corruption Bureau retrieval beacon, stranding him in 1996. In the two decades it took his colleagues from 2142 to find him, he built a life with a wife and daughter. Regulations force him back to the future, where he’s been missing for only weeks from his work and his fiancee. His inexplicable disappearance, and her mother’s death, sends his daughter spiraling downward. He breaches protocol, reaching out to her digitally, endangering both. Chen brilliantly maintains time travel integrity, with its possibilities and limitations, placing his main character in an organization enforcing law throughout time, with strict safety policies for agents preventing him from aiding his daughter. This is a family drama that just happens to have a time travel element—a well-written, speculative suspense novel. I was fortunate to receive a digital copy from the publisher Mira Books through NetGalley.

Wicked Girl by IV Olokita

The main character is a self-proclaimed misanthropic, remorseless pedophile. Yet Dear Reader is compelled by his story, so strange and vulgar, as he recounts how his life intertwined with the wicked girl of the title, Elsie, the girl he cannot forget. She’s one of those girls that brings out the desire in others to care for her and make her their own, frustrating John immensely in his attempts to analyze her. Dear Reader will also work on determining who are the puppets and who are the masters in this twisting tale of control and deceit. Olokita’s sparse writing style serves this story well, as the characters interact and relate in odd ways, each with a tenuous grasp on reality, and a skewed idea of truth. The punchline will send Dear Reader back to the beginning of the book to wrap up everything. Olokita is a unique voice whose works catapult readers through stories without investing them too deeply in the chaos. One wonders how the tone has changed in the translation from Hebrew. His novels are always interesting. I was given a digital copy of this story translated into English by the author for an honest review.

The Magic Feather Effect: The Science of Alternative Medicine and The Surprising Power of Belief by Melanie Warner

Acupuncture, chiropractic, tai chi, qi gong, and energy healing are investigated by an author with a background in journalism to determine their medical efficacy, contrasting and comparing to accepted western medical options. Speaking with patients and practitioners, at times receiving treatment, she considers the placebo effect on psychosomatic pain, and finds that western doctors are becoming more accepting of the mind / body connection. American hospitals are incorporating reiki into their recovery programs, and German hospitals are adding Psychosomatic Centers as part of their rehabilitation programs. Through observation, interviews, demonstrations, and studies, Warner does not prove or disprove effectiveness of various alternative treatments, but allows people to share their success stories, leaving dear reader open to the possibilities by the end of the book.

I received a digital copy of this enlightening book from the publisher Simon & Schuster through NetGalley. I highly recommend this book by a reputable journalist if you’re at all interested in alternative medicine for pain management or wellness in general, or learning more about our world.

Unstrung by Laura Spinella

New England Symphony violinist Olivia Klein Van Doren destroys her husband’s Porsche after he places her mother’s house in financial jeopardy. For her community work, she chooses to volunteer in the class of an inner city high school music teacher, who is the key to her secret, and a lifeline to someone from her past.

Spinella excels at complex characters—Olivia is less endearing than interesting, and yet elicits sympathy. She also presents a marriage of larger-than-life personas who have developed a unique, symbiotic relationship, which does not preclude financial disaster, and survives volatile behavior. The story hinges on Olivia’s ability to finally communicate her needs and be honest with loved ones. A novel by a talented writer inevitably includes a life lesson or two, and a huge takeaway from this one, beyond communication being key, is foregoing judgment on what appears to be obvious. Plus, it’s a good story! I won this novel in a giveaway on Facebook and fell more in love with this author.

Daughter of Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Moloka’i told the story of Rachel Utagawa, nee Kalama, who lived in the Kalaupapa lazaretto from age 7 when she was diagnosed with leprosy. This book follows her daughter Ruth’s life, from the moment she was taken away from Rachel and her husband Kenji, for her health’s sake. Dear Reader watches her adoptive parents choose her, the half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian 5-year-old at the orphanage, sees her come of age on a California farm, and witnesses her incarceration in the Japanese internment camps in the US during WWII, along with her parents, brothers, husband, and children. This novel connects with the first one when Ruth meets Rachel, in the same scene from Ruth’s perspective this time, a brilliant and heartening re-telling of an emotionally charged meeting.

Brennert traverses the nuances of racism, fear of contagion, and human rights as he tells of the horror of being found out as a victim of leprosy in late 19th / early 20th century Hawai’i, and the dread of a child separated from her family to live with strangers. As with especially well-written historical fiction, the setting of Hawai’i / Moloka’i becomes its own character, showing Hawai’i’s children growing up surfing, the US stealing the islands from the last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, and the evolution of the lazaretto. Brennert touches upon Hawai’ian and Japanese honor, race relations and the lack of internment camps for Japanese in Hawai’i. He digs deep into Hawai’ian folklore, with a supporting character who is a native healer, how the “separating sickness” destroys families, and how friendship blends into family.

I was fortunate to receive a copy of this beautiful novel from St. Martin’s Press. I highly recommend reading Moloka’i for full immersion into the multi-generational story.

Forget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser

Liza witnesses, via Skype, a masked man entering her friend’s home while her friend is upstairs tending to a child. She drives all night to make sure she’s okay after her friend doesn’t answer the phone, but Molly, the friend, dismisses the idea that a man came into her house, and she break’s Liza’s heart. Returning home to a life-changing event sends Liza back to her hometown, where no investigation is proceeding for the mystery man. Strawser digs deep into the fears of a married couple in multitudes of trouble, the evolution of friendship, and a reluctant return to one’s roots. She brilliantly intertwines the consequences of the characters’ actions as they rush headlong into premature conclusions. This novel is a great look into love resurrected and the ability to access romantic love after a trauma. Strawser is a talented storyteller. I was fortunate to receive a copy of this wonderful book from the publisher Macmillan through NetGalley.

Family by J. California Cooper

From a cosmopolitan family are beget descendants who are stolen for slavery in the American South, bringing dear reader to Fammy, who begets Clora by a black man because she wanted a black baby for her own, after enduring her master’s rapes and the selling of her children. She takes her life, as does Clora, when she envisions the future of her daughter Always. Yet Clora persists as a spiritual entity, watching her family throughout their lives. This is the story of Always, unable to follow her siblings in their escape by passing for white, who rises above her veneer of subjugation, fully prepared to live free after emancipation. Clora witnesses her family branch out again across the globe.

Cooper explicitly presents the vicarious existence of slaves, and the various ways that could procure a safer passage, as well as the intricately convoluted familial connections betwixt white masters / mistresses and slaves. The hint of dialect bumps through both races, showing the blending of cultures based on proximity, and religion also bleeds across the barriers, represented by Clora’s routine references to the Christian God. This novel offers a valuable lesson in how the foundation for systemic racism was laid and on what our country was built, in spite of the whitewashed American dream. Read it with a careful eye toward the small references and unspoken understandings between characters.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman


Daphne Maritch inherits the yearbook that the class of 1969 dedicated to her mother, their teacher. Attending every class reunion of that year’s class, her mom dashed off judgment calls in that yearbook, while alienating her family further. Daphne has no use for it and tosses it in recycling, only to discover her neighbor has rescued it and has documentary plans for it, focusing on her mother’s life. In her attempt to repossess it, Daphne learns exactly how much she didn’t know about her mother, and how much better her father knows her than she realized. Secrets explode, Daphne explodes…romance ensues.

Lipman creates a character whose complexity makes her less endearing than interesting, leading dear reader to enjoy her ups and downs from outside the emotions, yet still root for her as she makes terrible life decisions. Choices made by all family members in the past reverberate in the presence, causing confusion and offering challenging choices. The integrity of the characters remains resolute as they fluffercate over “9/10 of the law” and “right to know.” This is an absolutely FUN story, whipping back and forth in allegiances, and up and down in storyline. I was fortunate to receive a copy of this fabulous book from the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through a Goodreads giveaway.

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

A sleeping sickness befalls the little college town of Santa Lora, CA, starting with Mei’s roommate Kara, prompting a quarantine of their dorm. Quickly overwhelmed, the hospital sets up the children who succumb in the public library. The patients wake up in random order with time span and chronology confusion, or they never wake up—dying or coming to consciousness days, weeks, months after succumbing. Mei becomes part of the relief effort by those immune to the illness. Thompson Walker brilliantly moves in and out of the epidemic containment through cordon sanitaire and the sleepers’ astonishingly realistic dreams. Graphic descriptions of virtual long lives lived for decades and anomalies that persist after awakening draw the reader into the deep wells of grief and confusion of those who wake to a lesser reality. The frustrated anger and desperation of family and friends prevented from contacting loved ones is credibly shown by such irrational actions as climbing the quarantine fence and rushing the police. The author references other such unusual occurrences, and how conspiracy theories can easily form from a frightening epidemic never diagnosed by doctors. It brings to mind the sleepy sickness brought on by the Spanish flu epidemic of the early 20th century, whose victims remained catatonic for decades. I was fortunate to receive a copy of this well-written, wonderfully told novel from the publisher Random House through a Goodreads giveaway.