Book Review: Girl in the Rearview Mirror by Kelsey Rae Dimberg

Girl in the Rearview Mirror
Kelsey Rae Dimberg

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you watched my most recent episode of Read React Decide, you know that I selected Girl in the Rearview Mirror, after reading random passages from five random books. Despite an earlier retraction about not being able to go paperless when I read, I really did go paperless for this book. Even though I hold the hard cover version in my video, I downloaded the eBook on my Kindle. And because I was on vacation, I took zero notes. I did not want to lug around a notebook and pen. That’s not a vacation!

The author describes Girl in the Rearview Mirror, her debut, as a noir mystery with adjustments, but I felt it was more of a psychological thriller. There are no hard-boiled detectives (the “detective” is a young nanny, Finn, who tries to unravel a mystery) and it’s set in Phoenix, Arizona, not exactly gritty. I only realized she calls it noir fiction after I read it, so that was not on my mind at all.

Because I did not take notes, this will be a more casual review. Be sure to check out my follow-up video at the bottom of this post, which is a supplement to what I say here. I’m doing something new on YouTube, re-reading the passage that made me choose the book and then talking about a really funny coincidence with that.

On to the book. The story opens at a political rally, during Senator Jim Martin’s campaign for re-election. Image is everything to the Martins and the senator’s perfect-looking family surrounds him, including Philip Martin who is expected to one day step into his father’s shoes. For now, Philip focuses on his restaurant and other real estate investments. With his wife, Marina, who runs a museum, and Amabel, their adorable four-year old daughter, they look just right for the part.

Finn’s protective instinct kicks in when Amabel gasps and points to a stranger with bright red hair and exclaims, “That girl—she’s following me!” An upsetting meeting with the stranger a few days later convinces Finn she must learn all she can to protect Amabel.

A couple substories frame the plot. First, there is Philip, the second son who can’t live up to his late older brother, James’s legacy. James died a hero’s death in Iraq. Philip, meantime tries to forget a scandal that ended his college football career.

Finn also struggles with the past and the title refers to events she tried to leave behind when she left home for college. She explains, “By the time I arrived at school, I realized I could start over. I introduced myself as Finn, my middle name, and it stuck. Within months, my first name sounded foreign. Natalie was the girl in the rearview mirror.” Now she has a great gig as a nanny for a wealthy and powerful family. And her boyfriend, Bryant, who runs Jim Martin’s campaign, completes the picture.

When she meets the red-headed women, Finn agrees to deliver a message to Philip. Sounds easy, but Philip avoids Finn who discovers a tangled mess. Soon, she finds herself in danger and wonders if Bryant is her enemy.

I enjoyed this book which explores the always-interesting theme of truth versus public persona. Readers who don’t like politics may initially be put off by the political storyline, however, once Finn begins her investigation, the adversarial element between political parties moves to the background. The story is much more about how politicians smooth out their pasts and present shiny images than it is about Republicans and Democrats.

A series of twists leads to an ending I did not imagine and ties in nicely with how image is everything to politicians. I was glad to have a lighter read while on vacation. The book was easy to pick up between activities and I recommend it to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers.

Check out my video here:

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Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Alexander McCall Smith

Rating: 5 out of 5.

If you haven’t read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and you’re looking for a nice, heart-warming mystery, I highly recommend this book, the first in a series of twenty-two novels, set in Botswana, Africa. I read it when it was first published in 1998 and have just re-read it for my mystery book club at work.

When Mma (pronounced “Ma”) Precious Ramotswe’s father, Obed lay on his deathbed, he told her to sell his cattle and buy a business to support herself. He’d suggested a butchery or a bottle store, but instead, Precious sets up the only women’s detective agency in all of Botswana. Precious is thirty-four when she hangs up a brightly-colored shingle outside her newly-acquired office. She buys two desks and two chairs, connects a telephone and hires a secretary. And Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, eager to help, donates an old typewriter from his nearby business.

The lawyer who handles the sale of her father’s cattle is skeptical. “It’s easy to lose money in business,” he warns her. “Especially when you don’t know anything about what you’re doing…And anyway, can women be detectives?”

Her answer? “Women are the ones who know what’s going on. They are the ones with the eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

Precious may not have prior experience, but she’s a woman with excellent hunches and a sense of justice.

It doesn’t take long for her services to be in demand. She shrewdly uncovers imposters, cheaters, and swindlers and uses clever charm to teach them lessons they won’t forget. One case, however, about a missing boy, dogs her, and uncovers the dark side of witchcraft and human sacrifice in Botswana.

As she solves each case, we get to know Precious and learn about her past, including a short-lived marriage and a painful loss. We also learn about her father’s life in the South African diamond mines. Above all, readers understand the deep love and pride she has for Botswana, a country which, in 1885, was established as a protectorate by the United Kingdom and in 1966 became an independent republic.

This charming story is also not without a little romance, which the author sets up nicely to continue in the next book.

In our continuous quest to find great new books, we lose sight of the great ones we’ve missed. Even though I read it in 1998, I’d forgotten all about how much I enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to catching up on the rest. Have you read this series? Have you watched the BBC series which first aired in 2008? Leave a comment and tell me what you think!

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Book Review: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Love Marriage
Monica Ali

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I could not stop reading this book in which two families struggle to understand themselves and their relationships with each other. Set in London, Yasmin Ghorami is a doctor-in-training and her fiancé, Joe Sangster, is a practicing obstetrician. The story begins as Yasmin and Joe bring their parents together for the first time. Yasmin worries about the cultural divide between her parents, Anisah and Shaokat, and Joe’s mother, Harriet, an upper class liberal and outspoken feminist and writer. And Joe can only hope that Harriet will behave around Yasmin’s Muslim parents. Their dinner together unfolds nicely, but soon Harriet has taken over the wedding preparations, with Anisah’s full and enthusiastic approval, and much to Yasmin’s shock at the idea of a now-large and complicated religious ceremony. Readers may think they are settling in for a bit of a romantic comedy, but will soon discover a host of serious and complicated problems. Ali’s characters must undergo important and often painful transformations before they can find happiness.

The first problem: Joe and Yasmin. Joe tells her he wants to settle down, but he has secrets and must work through complex issues about sex and his unusually close relationship with Harriet. Yasmin loves Joe, but is there enough passion? Her limited dating experience is of no help. I like the way the author shows how the couple’s genuine love and affection for each other makes this problem all-the-more painful.

The second problem: Shaokat’s stubborn pride. Yasmin’s father became a doctor against all odds, but at a cost. Now, above everything, he wants Yasmin and her brother, Arif to succeed and his intense expectations work against him. Although Yasmin is on her way, she questions whether she really wants to be a doctor. Arif, unemployed and angry, locks horns with Shaokat who berates him about his lack of motivation. I was incredibly drawn into these simmering conflicts between fathers and their adult children. There are some powerful scenes between Shaokat and his children.

The third problem: Anisah and Shaokat’s marriage. Anisah seems satisfied in her role as wife, mother and homemaker, but when she meets Harriet, she sees a wider world and a chance at happiness she never considered. She shocks her family when she grabs it and Yasmin will learn hard truths about her parents’ early days.

I think the best part of the book is how what seems to be a simple story develops and reveals complex problems within and between its characters. All of Ali’s characters undergo major, often painful transformations. I liked how the author made me feel like I was getting to know the characters, just as if I had met them for the first time, and how my early impressions of them changed over time. Likewise, was my understanding of their relationships with each other, something you don’t understand until you know a person longer. The author does an especially great job portraying the Ghorami family, Arif in particular, and the unique problems they face as Muslims in London. I thought Arif’s transformation was one of the most interesting storylines in the book.

Love Marriage portrays a specific culture and relates it to how everyone experiences similar personal and family conflicts. This is both an entertaining and serious book and I recommend it to all readers who like stories about family and marriage.

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Youngblood Hawke playlist on Spotify!

Hi Everyone,

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that my all-time favorite book is Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk. It’s the story of a young author from the coal mines of Kentucky who arrives in New York and becomes a hugely successful and prolific novelist. Publishers, agents, Broadway producers, filmmakers, real estate developers and, of course, women, all want a piece of this larger-than-life, good-natured and ambitious personality. Hawke’s goal all along is to make enough money so that he can really get down to business and write his most serious work, something he calls his American Comedy. You can read more about Youngblood Hawke here and watch my YouTube video here.

Book Club Mom’s favorite book

Today I’m sharing a Spotify playlist of songs I selected to complement your reading experience! Even if you’re not on Spotify, you can still see the songs I selected. I had fun putting it together and hope you’ll check it out!

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Books to relax with on Labor Day

It’s Labor Day in the U.S., and a perfect time to relax with a book! Here are five I enjoyed. Maybe you will too!

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman – I thoroughly enjoyed this story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on an island off Western Australia. They discover a boat that has washed ashore, carrying a dead man and a crying baby and their decisions on that day shape the rest of their lives.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – If you have ever wondered about the reclusive life of Emily Dickinson, you will enjoy this biographical novel about Dickinson and the accompanying fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – Associate Genetics Professor Don Tillman is an awkward single guy. He’s thirty-nine, has only a few friends, and is looking for a partner, what he calls the “Wife Problem.” I laughed all the way through this story!

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – Can a house be a character in a book? Tyler’s twentieth novel incorporates the author’s favorite themes of family and relationships into a story about the family home where three generations have lived.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – A.J. Fikry is a prickly young widower and owner of a small island bookstore. Business is bad and his favorite book rep has been replaced by the quirky Amelia Loman. He’s lost, but at least he still has his rare edition of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Until it’s stolen. A charming tale about love, friendship and family.

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In case you missed them! BCM post recap August 2022

Hey Everyone,

In case you missed them, here’s a quick look at Book Club Mom’s posts in August.

I read five books this month, one up from my normal four.

Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan – 5 stars. I’ve always liked survival stories and became totally engrossed in Steven Callahan’s first-hand account of how he survived for more than two months, alone in the North Atlantic.

Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards – 4.5 stars. This Young Adult thriller is just as good or better than many of the adult thrillers I’ve recently read!

Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe – 4 stars. I was immediately affected when I listened to the audiobook of Toya Wolfe’s debut novel (published June 2022) about four young girls who live in the projects in Chicago and even more so when I learned that the author grew up in these projects.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex – 4 stars. This is a slow-burn atmospheric psychological drama that looks at the effects of isolation and separation.

The Party by Robyn Harding – 3.5 stars. About a month ago, I was getting a haircut and my stylist, knowing I have a book blog and work in a library, recommended this book, about a sweet sixteen party that went terribly wrong. I find books like this hard to resist and I wasn’t disappointed.

I made two YouTube videos and in one of them, I play the piano for you. I’m busy practicing and have a few more pieces that are almost ready to go.

RETRACTION!! Paperless announcement no good!

Book Club Mom is playing Bach!

I introduced two indie authors this month. Make sure you stop by
and read about their books and writing experiences!

Jacqueline Church Simonds

Jacqui Murray

Miscellaneous posts

First Novels by Famous Authors

BCM’s Touchy Topic Discussion: Should book bloggers rate books with stars or just review them?

Book on my radar: The Measure by Nikki Erlick

Grammar check: inbetween, in between, in-between or just plain between?

Book Club Mom’s Blog WOES and Other Obsessions

Thank you to these superstar commenters!

I hope you all had a great month. On to the next book!

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Book Review: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were
Imbolo Mbue

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Here’s an example of a book that got a lot of hype, but fell short for me. So get ready for a mini rant! I highlighted How Beautiful We Were last December after I watched a livestream of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times. Because of the praise, the novel made my list of books I wanted to read. I mean, look at the cover! It’s beautiful, although I’m also sharing the alternate cover below, which does not appeal to me.

What other hype did it get? In addition to The New York Times’ praise, How Beautiful We Were was named one of the ten best books of the year by People, The Washington Post, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, The Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Ms. magazine, BookPage and Kirkus Reviews. NPR also gave the book high marks: “Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel’s end, has it firmly held in her hand.”

Alternate cover – not appealing to me!

What’s it about? It’s the story of a fictional African farming village, Kosawa, and their fight against Pexton, an American oil company. Thula, a young woman from the village, becomes her people’s leader as they wage battle against the company which, in collusion with His Excellency’s government, has poisoned their waters, killed their villagers and made their land inhabitable, all for profit.

The story begins in 1980 when Thula is a young girl and spans forty years. During this time, many of the village’s children fall sick and die because of the poisoned water. Their long struggle against corporate America begins when Konga, the village madman, stands up against Pexton’s visiting representatives who then become Kosawa’s prisoners. The situation becomes violent, inciting the village’s younger men to get revenge. Years later, Thula becomes the group’s leader and works with American lawyers to make things right.

Told from several points of view, representing Thula, her mother, uncle, brother and the children, in a collective voice, readers learn the history of the ancestral village, its beliefs and its spirituality, as well as the legal battle with Pexton.

I was disappointed I didn’t like it.

It’s a weird feeling when you don’t like a book that has received so much praise, especially a book that talks about a fight I absolutely agree with. What I don’t like is that because of its themes and backings, the book becomes untouchable. I mean, how can I say a book that has an important theme isn’t good?

In my view, there were a couple problems with it. First, the author reminded me of evil corporate America and His Excellency’s corrupt government too much, almost on every page. I felt that this approach left little room for character development and resulted in a boring and overly long book. I’m reviewing it because I took the time to read it and I’m giving it three stars. Here’s why: I agree we need to do something about government and big business ruining land and wrecking its citizens lives, so this book serves a purpose. In addition, I liked how the author showed the opposing and strong opinions about using violence. And I liked how some characters resisted dedicating their lives to protesting, preferring to just live their lives. Both of those things seemed real to me. But my other issues with the book cap my rating at three. So there you have it!

Here’s what other readers think:

The Pine-Scented Chronicles
Liz from Goodreads
Katie from Goodreads

Have you read How Beautiful We Were? What did you think? Leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Party by Robyn Harding

The Party
Robyn Harding

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

About a month ago, I was getting a haircut and my stylist, knowing I have a book blog and work in a library, told me about a book she liked: The Party, about a sweet sixteen party that went terribly wrong. Curious, I went home and downloaded it from the library. Plots like this are hard to resist because we’re reading them and thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad this isn’t happening to me!”

The Party, set in a posh neighborhood in San Francisco, is all about bad decisions, bad relationships and cyberbullying. And it’s not just the kids who make the bad decisions. The adults are just as bad! There’s more at work here too. Themes of friendship and what’s right work themselves into the reader’s experience. So what sounds like sort of a voyeuristic look at a messed-up group of people points to what’s really important in life, even if the characters don’t get it. And believe me, they don’t!

The story begins as Hannah approaches her sixteenth birthday. She’s been a good girl her whole life, directed by her mom, Kim, who is intent on keeping her daughter on the straight and narrow. Her father, Jeff, is a workaholic and a work-out fiend and he’s in the dog house because of some event that comes out later. Hannah’s an A-student, an athlete and plays piano, but lately she’s been dissatisfied with her high school social life. That changes when she gets a cool boyfriend and Lauren, the most popular girl in school, brings her into the cool crowd. Hannah’s old friends, Marta and Caitlin seem so boring to her now!

Turning sixteen is a big deal and her parents allow a small sleepover, to include Lauren and Ronni, a girl Hannah knew when they were kids, but part of the fast crew now. The girls solemnly agree to Kim’s rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no boys. What Kim doesn’t know is that Jeff, in an impulsive mood and wanting to be the cool dad, sneaks the girls a bottle of pink champagne. That might not be enough to cause too much trouble, except that the girls have brought in a variety of drugs and alcohol. More secret plans ahead, too.

Something bad happens during the night, resulting in a police investigation and a lawsuit. Lauren becomes the ultimate “mean girl” as she and her friends work to destroy their classmate. Other friendships also break and Kim and Jeff’s marriage, due to major indiscretions by both, may not survive.

Harding writes the story from her main characters’ points of view, giving readers a good look into their selfish and shallow thoughts. Hannah exhibits a few redeeming qualities, teetering on the “what’s right” side and readers will wonder where she’ll land.

I enjoyed this read. Harding includes details about the privileged and upscale life, poking fun at the value her characters place on nice things and experiences. I’m looking forward to my next hair appointment so I can tell my stylist that I read the book she recommended!

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Book Review: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters
Emma Stonex

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I downloaded this eBook not realizing that I’d already read another book and watched a movie based on the same real events that took place in 1900! What a fun coincidence!

The other fun coincidence is that my blogging friend Charlie over at Books and Bakes also read The Lamplighters as part of her summer reading challenge!

What’s the basis of the story? In 1900, three lightkeepers disappeared from the remote rock lighthouse on Eilean Mòr in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. You can read all about the actual events here. I read Coffin Road by Peter May a few years ago in which a character is writing a book about the disappearance. After that, I watched the Scottish movie, The Vanishing, an intense psychological thriller that offers a possible explanation.

Stonex moves the events to Cornish Maiden Rock, a sea tower built on rocks, off the coast of England’s Land’s End. The story begins in 1972 when the three keepers disappear. This is just a few years before this type of lighthouse was automated, putting an end to a job that required months of isolation. On the rock, investigators find three mysterious clues: the doors are locked from the inside, the clocks have stopped at 8:45 pm and the table in the lighthouse is set for two people, not three. The second storyline takes place in 1992 when author Dan Sharp approaches the keepers’ widows and one former girlfriend to gather information for his next book. The three women have moved on in different ways. Helen, the main keeper’s widow, has moved away from the sea, but returns to contemplate her marriage. She wants to tell her story, but the Assistant Keeper’s widow, Jenny, very dependent on her husband while he was alive, has not done well. And she has a secret. And Michelle, the Supernumerary Assistant Keeper’s girlfriend at the time, although now married with two daughters, can’t let go of the love she had for Vincent. The disappearance, though never satisfyingly resolved, was blamed on Vince because he’d been in prison for violent acts, but Michelle knows in her heart there was more to the story.

As it turns out, there are a lot of secrets!

Readers will learn about the days leading up to the disappearance and about the women’s relationships with the keepers and with each other. This is a slow-burn atmospheric psychological drama that looks at the effects of isolation and separation. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it to readers who like mysteries and studies of relationships.

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Audiobook review: Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe

Last Summer on State Street
Toya Wolfe

Narrator: Shayna Small

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was immediately affected when I listened to the audiobook of Toya Wolfe’s debut novel (published June 2022) about four young girls who live in the projects in Chicago and even more so when I learned that the author grew up in these projects. In addition, the narrator, Shayna Small does a terrific job portraying a variety of characters and personalities, male, female, young and old.

The Robert Taylor Homes were part of a public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. The twenty-eight sixteen-story buildings opened in 1962 and over time were plagued with serious problems: gangs, drugs, violence, sexual assaults and overcrowding. In 1993, the Chicago Housing Authority announced plans to replace the homes with low-rise buildings in a mixed-income community and between 1993 and 2005, the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and its qualifying tenants relocated.

Last Summer on State Street begins in the summer of 1999, unsettled times just before building 4950 is set to be demolished. At twelve, Felicia “Fe Fe” Stevens and her friends Precious Brown and Stacia Buchanan begin their summer with Double Dutch jump rope games, but their lives are about to change dramatically. Fe Fe lives with her mother and teenage brother who has so far resisted the pressure to join a gang, a life that a multitude of the young Black males in the building choose. Precious and her family spend Sundays in church and hope to move to a safer neighborhood. If they do, Fe Fe may never see her closest friend again. Stacia, already a bully, comes from the violent Buchanan gang.

When they’re together, the girls can sometimes forget their problems. The dynamics change, however, when Fe Fe invites a new girl, Tonya, into their group. Tonya lives with her drug-addicted mother who can do nothing except think about her next fix. While Fe Fe and her mother want to help Tonya, Stacia wants to bring her down. A tragic raid threatens to ruin their friendships and it won’t be until decades later that Fe Fe makes sense of what happened.

This is a moving coming-of-age story, but its backdrop makes it a lot more than that. It’s growing up in a dangerous place. It’s crouching in the hall of their apartment during gunfights. It’s staying out of the elevators to avoid assault. The tenants of 4950 State Street think about how to survive, not about their futures.

I recommend Last Summer on State Street to readers and listeners who like realistic stories about friendship during difficult times. Interestingly, this book is a Stephen Curry Underrated Literati Book Club Pick! If you aren’t sure who that is, Steph Curry is a basketball superstar with the Golden State Warriors.

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