Little Souls by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5

Little Souls takes place in Denver, 1918. The Influenza has hit the population badly, and the men are still away at war. At 19, Lutie Hite is a carefree artist working in advertising for the local department store; her older, more careworn, sister Helen is a nurse. Through an interesting set of events they become responsible for Dorothy, the ten-year old daughter of their now deceased tenant. From these beginnings follows a fairly wild, often heartbreaking, but ultimately heartwarming ride.

I’m a big Sandra Dallas fan. Dallas writes Western historical fiction about strong women making it through adversity with fortitude, intelligence, and the help of their community. She always brings in the small details of life in that particular time and place to make everything ring true.

Her stories tend to the dramatic, but never go over the top and feel quite realistic for their time. She is even-handed about how people thought and behaved at the time — different characters have different opinions on everything from mask-wearing (ha!) to personal morality, and no opinion is presented as obviously better than the others. Religious feeling and participation was a big part of life in that place and time, and I liked how she treated it. While this in no way dominates the book, there were some beautiful passages about how individual characters felt about God that moved me, despite my not being religious myself.

This is a real page-turner — I’m afraid I annoyed my husband by reading on into the night…

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 26th, 2022.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

On the one hand, a wild adventure story. It is 1954 and 18-year old Emmet Watson is driven back to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile detention facility where he has served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left years ago, and his father just died; the bank is preparing to foreclose on the farm and all their belongings. He is now the guardian of his 8-year old brother, Billy. While they plan to drive to California to start a new life, two stowaways (Duchess and Woolly) from the facility have a different idea. And so it goes…

The writing is — of course — excellent. The narration alternates between Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly, with occasional chapters from a few others. Each character has a distinctive voice as they describe both events and their inner thought processes during the ten days covered. Billy is my favorite character — never a narrator he somehow becomes a focal point for all of the stories. He is earnest, innocent, smart as a whip, and somewhat beatific. Billy doesn’t go anywhere without his large red book — Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. This book — which mixes mythical with real-life heroes (all male by the way) in its A to Z collection — serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the action as Billy pores over the pages offering its inspiration to those he meets.

There are many layers to this book, and I don’t claim to understand them all. Well articulated moral themes as interpreted and internalized by our different players. I loved Sister Agnes’ Chains of Wrong doing lecture (which I include in the quotes below) — this book will keep book club discussions going forever. Interesting note: I loved Rules of Civility and yet tried twice to read A Gentleman of Moscow and could not get past about page 50. Lincoln Highway was impossible to put down. One more interesting note: I did find this book a little stressful which says more about me than about the book. It reminded me of the nightmares I sometimes have where I need to get to the airport but things keep happening and then while trying to address those things, other things keep happening, etc. There is an element of that in the pages that stressed me while I tried (in my head) to get our protagonists back on track. My advice for reading — just let it go and enjoy the ride.

A few good quotes:

“Rather, the comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

“Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.”

“One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the Chains of Wrongdoing. Boys, she would begin in her motherly way, in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that other have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.

“Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 19th, 2021.

The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Historical mystery)

Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Writing: 3.5/5

The Bombay Prince is the third title in the Perveen Mistry series. 1920s India — Perveen is Bombay’s first female solicitor. With prestigious legal training from Oxford, as a woman she is not eligible for a degree. This particular story takes place during the 1921-22 Indian visit of Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales. With Gandhi’s call for a hartal (boycott) and others anxious to show loyalty to the crown, a great deal of violence and turmoil ensures. And in the middle of this, the body of a young female student is found on the missionary college grounds.

While the pacing is a little slow for me, the writing is good and the characters and historical situation are well described and embroidered with detail. I learned a lot from the descriptions of different religious groups, practices, and attitudes towards independence, toward the British, and toward women. Individual characters representing foreign journalists, businessmen, servants, and others were all well-done and enlightening. I’ll plan to go back and read the first two.

Thank you to Soho Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 1st, 2021.

Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown (Non-Fiction History)

The acclaimed author of The Boys in the Boat (which I loved) tackles Japanese Americans in WWII — both those interned in camps following FDRs Executive Order 9066 and those who served in the military’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the single Japanese American unit, which also happened the most highly decorated.

While dealing with — let’s face it — some deeply depressing and disturbing topics — Brown makes it clear from the start that this is the story of Victors, not Victims. And that is how the story reads. This is the story of how a diverse group of people (not everyone in a single ethnic group is the same, even as they are treated as the same!) faced adversity and made the best of it. Through extensive research and first person interviews, Brown follows three primary characters who each ended up in the 442nd: Kats Miho from Hawaii, Rudy Tokiwa from Salinas (within California’s Exclusion Zone) and Fred Shiosaki from Hillyard, WA (outside Washington’s Exclusion Zone). An additional thread follows Gordon Hirabayashi as he makes his way through the courts protesting the unconstitutionality of interning American citizens based on their ethnicity. The character set expands to include their families, friends, and comrades-at-arms while the story extends from Pearl Harbor to incarceration to military draft to battle to returns home to legislation (finally) apologizing to the community and paying (some) restitution to survivors.

It is a massive undertaking but Brown’s style makes it appear effortless (like Fred Astaire’s dancing). He gets to the essence of every thought and action. Through personal interviews and letters, we gain access to the actual (not fictionalized) thoughts, discussions, and noticed details of those involved. Often these brought tears to my eyes. Reading first-person accounts is so very different than what I or a novelist imagines in any situation. Facts and figures, as well as historical context, are inserted at just the right moments.

I found the book fascinating from start to finish. While I was aware of the broad strokes of the treatment of Japanese Americans during the war, I was not aware of the many, many, tiny strokes that comprised it. I give this book a strong five star rating and highly recommend but if I were to point out a couple of negatives (which it appears I’m about to do) it would be that he does sometimes descend into hyperbole — for example when describing a situation, such as the conditions initial Japanese immigrants found in the late 1800s, from his own perspective rather an individual’s recollection and report. He also inserts anecdotes — all but one negative — about the treatment of Japanese Americans by neighbors without including any positive anecdotes (there must be some) or giving any kind of statistics on how broad those negative behaviors actually were.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

A Cup of Silver Linings by Karen Hawkins


Writing: 3/3 Plot: 3/3 Characters: 4/5

A second installment of what promises to continue the fun, lightly magical, tales of Dove Pond. This episode focuses on Ava Dove, the sixth of the seven Dove sisters, whose semi-magical herbal teas — carefully concocted for each individual client — are starting to go wonky. Meanwhile, buttoned-up grandmother Ellen is brought to town for the funeral of her long-estranged daughter Julie and runs into trouble trying to convince Julie’s daughter Kristen to leave Dove Pond for a fabulous new life in Raleigh. Sarah Dove — daughter seven — is back as well, continuing to listen (literally) to books as they tell her who needs to read them (yes, I would be so happy to pay for that talent!). Simple but appealing characters and a light touch of mostly playful magic that is more an extension of the person’s character — this feels like a combination of Alice Hoffman and Fannie Flagg to me. A nice feel good book.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2021.

All Together Now by Matthew Norman (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

In a kind of modern-day Big Chill, four far-flung high school friends are brought together for one last blow out weekend. Billionaire Robbie Malcolm is dying of cancer and asks his oldest friends to come for one last get together. Cat Miller — Hollywood producer — has just quit her job and ended her lesbian relationship with the married star of her show; Wade Stephens — “inexplicably good at useless things” — is flat broke as he watches his second novel go through a long string of rejections; and Blaire McKenzie Harden — married with children — is wondering how on earth she ended up owning a minivan. For each, it becomes a time of reflection about friendships, parenthood, relationships, and the inevitable effects of time marching on without consent.

As an aside, l Iearned about an interesting financial scheme called viatical settlement — where someone buys the insurance policy from someone who is dying for less than its value. I honestly didn’t understand what was so despicable about it — it allows someone access to money before their death and they pay for the privilege. There was some discussion about rich people, how they got their wealth, whether or not they could be good people, etc. but not at the depth it deserved. That was one aspect of the book that fell into stereotyped treads and wasn’t really developed on either side.

I liked Norman’s last book — The Last Couple Standing. He is good at writing realistic relationships and presenting multiple character viewpoints well and that comes out here as well. For this book, I didn’t really love the “billionaire facilitation” aspect of this story, though it served its purpose and didn’t sink into too much Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Overall an easy and enjoyable read.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 15th, 2021.

Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

1941, Oahu: Daisy Wilder — high school drop out, gifted horse trainer, and sole support for her widowed and non-functioning mother — is out diving for supper when the world changes. It’s December 7th and it’s Pearl Harbor. She feels the vibration of hundreds of Japanese planes in the sea.

This book is an ode to female friendship, love, and … learning the intricacies of the then brand new weapon — RADAR. Daisy becomes a newly minted WARD (Women’s Air Raid Defense) and dives into learning everything there is to know to be able to support the war effort in this capacity. While there is romance, what I liked about this book is that it really follows Daisy’s growth and development through multiple facets in her life. Fully half of the book is focused on her war work — what she learns, what she experiences, what gets in her way and how she overcomes obstacles. Often in a romance the heroine has a kind of pretend career with no depth while she goes after her personal hunk. In this book she tackles everything you should be tackling in your twenties — meaningful work, good friends, and a life partner. I was impressed by the (not dull, not dry, not boring) descriptions of the organization and implementation of the war work — using radar to spot planes and ships, vectoring in pilots in trouble, and traffic filtering. Really pretty fascinating and not at all typical women’s fiction fare.

To be honest the writing was OK but not great. There are a lot of cliches, some characters are extremely shallow (the “bad” guys), and some of the action was choppy. However, the story was engrossing, I liked the portrayal of most characters, and I really enjoyed myself while reading it!

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Loved this book! Motherless Esme grows up in the Scriptorium — OED prime editor James Murray’s repurposed garden shed — playing under the table as her father and other lexicographers labor over entries for the decades long effort that will result in the magnificent Oxford English Dictionary.

As she grows older and becomes more involved in the work, Esme begins to notice patterns in the words that are excluded and the definitions that lean away from certain interpretations. She begins to collect words — women’s words, bawdy words, words spoken but never written from the poor and illiterate. Her awakening to the world around her via the medium of the constituent pieces of the English is simultaneously subtle and stunning. Spanning and encompassing the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, it is a phenomenal coming-of-age story with intellectual and emotional growth circumscribed on the story.

Excellent writing with detailed and fascinating descriptions of the process of compiling a dictionary from scratch including solicitation, editing, typesetting, and printing. Wonderful characters including Esme, her Da, the individual lexicographers, her Godmother Edith (also a contributor / editor), and the Murray’s maid Lizzie who serves as a kind of mother figure. While Esme is fictional, many of the other named characters are not, and Williams does a skilled job at weaving Esme and her ideas into an historically accurate narrative.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 6th, 2021.

All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss (Literary Fiction / YA)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

All the Little Hopes is a double coming-of-age story set in a North Carolina tobacco farming community from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Thirteen-year old Lucy Brown lives with her family on a tobacco and honey producing farm when she meets Allie Bert Tucker (Bert) who was shipped away from her Asheville mountain home when her mother died. The story alternates between their voices as they rapidly move from strangers to best friends to family. Lucy worships Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective; Bert wants more than the “puny life” she was headed towards back home. They both get what they want when a German POW camp provides labor nearby and men — not the nicest of men — start disappearing.

The story is firmly embedded in factual events and surroundings — WWII on the home front with a beeswax contract with the government; cheap labor from a nearby POW camp and community misgivings; an entire world of German glass marbles and the ubiquity of earned marble skills; purple honey with potentially healing properties; and Shape Note Singing (look it up — it’s cool) as examples. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, segregation, and attitudes are matter-of-factly included without being the focus on the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is billed as Literary Fiction but could easily serve as YA. It’s a small and local story painted on a big and global canvas that gives insight into young lives maturing under the auspices of war, propaganda, and local culture. Great characters and an intriguing plot as told from the perspective of youngsters who were forced to gather information piecemeal and fit it into their own emerging mesh of internal knowledge.

Some good quotes:

“I don’t tell Bert that sometimes I wonder if Irene’s heart is too small. She isn’t very amiable, and she’s stingy with kind words, like she’s scared she’s going to run out. It must be tiresome being Irene.”

“It’s got bits and pieces that glue me together when I’m coming apart.”

“It ain’t nice to shine a light on the ugly, but the ugly came home with Whiz and sits in our front yard.”

“We’ve crossed some invisible line into the land of beguile, and I feel a power I never knew before.”

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.