Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Heart of Aleppo: A Story of the Syrian Civil War by Ammar Habib—pub date July 27, 2018

“May 30, 2011

  • Protesters are galvanized by newly published images of the mutilated body of Hamza Ali al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy from Darʿā who was tortured to death while in police custody. Photos of Khatib are distributed at protests, and the images become a potent symbol of the regime’s brutality.”–https://www.britannica.com/event/Syrian-Civil-War/Uprising-in-Syria-2011

“That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, a 13-year-old, was killed after having been brutally tortured.”—https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-civil-war-explained-160505084119966.html

Thirteen-year-old Zaid and his friends, siblings Fatima and Salman, leave innocence behind when their parents send them away at rumors of rebel attacks. The teenagers discover that nowhere is safe, as they are besieged repeatedly by rebels, and learn that the military cannot be trusted—they are alone. Strangers sacrifice their lives; strangers betray them; strangers ask for help…evoking survival instincts and humanity’s courage in the darkest hours. They are children, separated from their parents, who must fear multiple, murderous factions and their own government, kids who days ago were living normal teenage lives, as any teenager in any country.

Habib’s portrayal of Syrian teens on the run from death, as well as their daily lives before the war, was supplemented by his friendships with native Syrians and interviews with Syrian refugees for accuracy. His hope is to bring more awareness to the world of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians who desire only the freedom he enjoys.

Here are a couple sites to learn about the war—how it started and why it’s ongoing:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Civil_War#Documentaries

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868

Here you can learn about the current situation and how you can help:

http://time.com/5159869/war-syria-entered-dangerous-new-phase/

https://syria.liveuamap.com/

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Amber comes to from a coma, but realizes that she is not awake, only aware. While in her hospital bed, she hears her husband and sister discuss mysterious happenings related to her car accident. Flashbacks to a week before bring the reader up to date slowly through an unreliable narrator. Journal entries from childhood fill in blanks and spew a haze of ambiguity regarding the sisters, until the reader is delightfully confused and enlightened repeatedly, like the proverbial roller coaster ride. Feeney plops out a big, ole’ shocker at the end—twice!—that makes the reader go, “Hmm…” It’s a fun read and worth the time to try to figure out what’s going on between the sisters, and if anyone is trustworthy, or if all of them are constantly scheming. The journal is brilliantly done, without revealing anything. Much murder and mayhem ensue, beyond the family, a deliciously wicked family. I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy from the publisher of this fantastic novel.

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi

Eve’s mom, Brady’s wife, killed herself, imbuing them both with an onslaught of guilt, but also forcing them to examine and restructure their relationship. Fabiaschi drizzles clues to a twist that leaves the reader sitting back watching these beloved characters come to terms with the information. She lays out the complexities of familial dynamics and how suicide exposes cracks in the foundation of relationships. The chaos and isolation of innocence lost is portrayed well for teenage Eve. The best part of this book is the point of view told by Madeline, or Maddy to her friends and family, the mom who died before the opening chapter narrated by her. I love how real the emotions of the characters feel and how the perspectives of each play off the others. All three members of this family keep returning from their various emotions and misunderstandings to the love they have for each other, and it all reads true.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman—pub date June 5, 2018

Erin’s fiancee loses his investment banking job just before they marry, causing ripples throughout the wedding planning due to his loss of income. They go ahead and hold the big wedding and go on their intended honeymoon in Tahiti, keeping their hopes up for his future employment. While scuba-diving on honeymoon, they discover a plane wreck in the ocean. A more experienced scuba diver, Erin’s new husband Mark retrieves a dufflebag of money from the wreckage. Despite good intentions, they end up smuggling it home where they begin an ongoing debate on what to do with it, even as they hide it in their home. Mark seeks opportunities while Erin continues her documentary on the before and after of three convicts released from prison: a young girl who turns to terrorism, a middle-aged woman who helped her terminally-ill mother die with dignity, and a professional criminal.

Every character is fully fleshed out, with complex motives and emotions, and behavioral integrity. Steadman skillfully leads the reader in a carefully laid out zig-zagging path, following Erin’s ever-shifting perspective with each new piece of information. She carefully weaves in Erin’s new-found colleagues, showing the balancing strategy of the average person faced with the chance to “get away with it,” as the possibilities of advantageous connections enable her to do just that while maintaining that she is a good person and “not a criminal.” The ending circles back to the opening, of Erin digging a grave for her husband, for a highly satisfying conclusion. I was fortunate to receive an early copy from the publisher of this page-turner—a must-read for fans of psychological and crime thrillers.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael begin a lifelong friendship after Michael’s mother dies and he comes to live with his grandmother Mabel, both boys sharing the affection of Mabel and Ellis’ mother Dora. The delicacy of their first love romance shatters as Ellis yields to society’s mores after a turning point in France, and even Michael understands that Annie is “the one.” Loving Annie draws Michael into their orbit, expanding her idea of family to include him and his grandmother. Although readers are familiar with the horrific stories of gay men succumbing to AIDS, Winman carefully portrays Michael’s unique perspective on his friends’ deaths—he returns to France where he grieves for all that he’s lost in his life. The first half of the book focuses on Ellis after all of his losses leave him off-kilter, wondering what to do with himself. The second half flashes back through Michael’s journals, a candid look at a man whose fulfilled expectations disappoint. This is a gorgeous story of how love grows to include those who might be estranged by circumstances. I was fortunate to receive a copy through a Goodreads giveaway.

The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

Scottie married Michael and they moved to Siena, Italy, both bringing secrets and gathering more, so that they appear to be a happily married couple, he selling American tractors to Italians and she his adoring housewife. Showing Italians the American Dream fulfills a larger agenda for Michael, while Scottie tries to look behind the curtain and see his true self. She seems to have a lot more freedom than expected for a woman in the mid-50s, and Italian men are portrayed as oversexed political creatures. Homosexuality is handled in a sensitive, if somewhat stereotypical, manner considering the times—adultery is inexplicably given more tolerance. When the couple open up and confess all, they become a team, and Michael learns that political secrets are larger than his own agenda, gobsmacked by his own company. This is a great historical fiction, with Siennese culture, the fallout from being overshadowed by Florence, and the political turmoil of Communism versus pro-Western leaders vividly portrayed. It shows the complexities of the world players’ motives and relationships, and how this plays out in the individual lives of the Italian people.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful book from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

The diversity in these stories is impressive, from girls facing internal and external religious challenges, to girls pretending to be something they’re not to make their way in a man’s world. These are tales of young women refusing to be a product of their time, yearning to be free of society’s mores. The authors refrain from a black and white picture, with a young Mormon girl questioning her religion, yet continuing to fight her community’s detractors. Secrets abound, as an orphaned girl lives life as a boy to take care of herself, and a young boy trades his secret of being a transgender with a Hispanic girl putting in tremendous effort to pass as white for Hollywood. One story had magical elements that didn’t seem to contribute to the plot, but as a whole, this book offers up a dozen girls as unintentional heroines who fought against patriarchy, misogyny, and other obstacles they intended to overcome.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful book through NetGalley.

A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin

Anna “Bencke” Grieve’s life changed after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination. In fear for their lives as Jews, her mother, a privileged servant, asked her employers Count and Countess Chernovski to take Bencke and her older sister Esther with them to Canada. The Chernovski’s later adopt them, believing their parents to be dead. Bencke does her best to care for Esther, who suffers episodes from traumatic memories that incapacitate her at times, as she herself tries to fit her eccentric personality into Countess Chernovski’s picture perfect household. Decades later, Anna receives a phone call from the Winnipeg police informing her that her sister has committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. She heads to Canada seeking the truth. The story alternates between this investigation and a backstory of a life fully lived, from Anna’s forced relocation to NYC, to circumstances causing her to be deported to Russia during WWI. In the investigation, Anna learns her sister’s secrets and must live with them now.

Chisvin brings history to life in Anna’s story, as dear reader sees her torn from her family as a child after her country’s leader is killed and Jews are blamed, and as an activist for women’s rights alongside Margaret Sanger. She becomes a part of the melting pot that is NYC, falls into the fear of Americans who deport her in the war, and witnesses the disorder of Russia as essentially an outsider. Chisvin brings closure to Anna in her mixed emotions of finally being free of her sister as it breaks her heart. The last line of the book is brilliant in its imagery of this closure.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this beautiful story from the publisher through NetGalley.

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

Karina’s musical talent surpasses her boyfriend Richard’s, but she sacrifices her dream to their marriage and child, and then falls in love with jazz, a genre abhorrent to Richard. He builds his career as an international classical pianist, his inflating ego one of many factors in their divorce. He attempts to hide the onset of ALS from his fans, his agent, and Karina. Due to circumstances and finances, Richard moves back in with Karina, who takes over his care with the help of home health aides. In the year that robs Richard of his body, he at last opens up emotionally to his estranged daughter, and eventually he and Karina find a kind of peace.

Beyond being a graphic, heart-wrenching depiction of a man succumbing to a fatal disease, this story shows how women accommodate men and lose themselves, accepting a smaller life. It’s also a homily to home health aides who make the effort to maintain the dignity of their clients. The rolling flow of the writing is interrupted only by the excessive use of analogies, whole paragraphs at times. In Author Notes, Genova offers a peek into her research and sources for an accurate representation of living with ALS. The details are so vivid, if she’d written in first person, this novel would have read like a memoir.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful story from the publisher through NetGalley.

Birds of Wonder by Cynthia Robinson

Detective Jesca Ashton has always had a challenging relationship with her mother Beatrice, which does not improve after Beatrice finds her star actress dead on the property of a local lawyer, with whom Jes had a “drive-by.” Jes has held close a secret about her father since her teens that tarnished the memories of her ornithology professor father, who had buffered her childhood from her picture perfect mother. Now she must investigate for murder someone she has known intimately through an adulterous one night stand. The case comes too close to home and Jes makes life-altering decsions.

Robinson fully explores those implicated in the young girl’s death before their questioning by Jes and her colleagues, so they come to life as individuals and not mere suspects. The girl’s friends, twins Connor and Megan, are shown from various perspectives in all the complexities of children in foster care. Unfortunately, Connor’s story abruptly stops on his way to California—even a quick summary of his introduction to this next stage of his life would have sufficed to satisfy a reader invested in his character. Also left unexplored is the beloved father fallen, as Jes jumps to conclusions on circumstantial evidence, with hints that not all was as it seemed. Even with these minor frustrations, this story ends on a note of hope.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful story through NetGalley.