Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Force of Nature
by
Jane Harper

Force of Nature is the corporate teambuilding retreat you never want to go on. When five women from BaileyTennants accounting firm begin a four-day excursion in the Australian Bushland and only four return, police and rescue workers begin an urgent search. Mirror Falls is a dangerous place, with dense growth, confusing trails and no cell signal.

The four women who emerge from the forest are hungry, dehydrated and bruised and none of them can explain what happened to their colleague Alice Russell.

To make matters worse, Alice is lost in the same area where a young woman went missing twenty-five years earlier. Sarah Sondenberg was never found, but three other women were killed around the same time and a man named Martin Kovac went to jail for the murders. Does Martin’s son, Samuel have anything to do with Alice’s disappearance?

Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper are especially interested in finding Alice. She’s their inside contact at BaileyTennants, under suspicion for money laundering. Falk and Carmen are trying to acquire documents to implicate Chairwoman Jill Bailey (one of the women) and her CEO brother, Daniel Bailey who was in a different group on the same trip.

Alternating chapters describe the events during the hike and the search. Jill is in her fiftes and out of her element, but remains the boss of the group.  Alice is an aggressive corporate climber in her forties, selfish and cruel, especially to Lauren Shaw who was her classmate in school. Lauren is more tentative and self-conscious and often the perfect prey for Alice. Bree and Bethany are twenty-something twins, though very different in appearance and attitude. Their twin relationship has been fractured and this dynamic plays nicely into the plot. I especially enjoyed seeing how the five women interact when things go bad and they have to make decisions and ration food and water.

There are several subplots that figure in well with the story. Falk is still coming to terms with his father’s death, though it’s been seven years, and the search at Mirror Falls brings back memories of the hikes he refused to go on with his dad. We see into Jill’s conscience and learn of her reluctance to get into the family business. Alice and Lauren’s history involves some cruel hazing and now their daughters are vulnerable teenagers. In addition, tension between Bree and Bethany affects several events on the excursion. Will the sisters reunite or turn against each other instead?

A few red herrings point the reader the other way while the plot continues to develop. They all lead to a big scene full of raw feelings and shocking reactions.

I enjoyed reading Force of Nature. It’s a fast read with interesting characters. Harper uses one of my favorite story-telling elements by including nature’s power to drive the characters and plot. I also like how she draws parallels between seemingly different characters and their situations. And the whole story revolves around parent/child relationships over two generations, always a relevant theme and one I like to read about.

I recommend Force of Nature to readers who like mysteries and suspense set in dangerous and intimidating surroundings. Force of Nature is the second book the Aaron Falk series, after The Dry (read my review here), but it can be read as a standalone.

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Book Review: Outsider by Linda Castillo

Outsider
by
Linda Castillo

Rating:

Gina Colorosa is a cop on the run. She’s mixed up in something bad at the Columbus Division of Police and now there’s no turning back. With nowhere else to go, she points her car to Painters Mill, Ohio, hoping her former friend, Kate Burkholder, now the Chief of Police, will forget the past. Gina gets close, but her car crashes in a blizzard and in the morning, she’s discovered by Adam Lengacher, an Amish widower with three young children.

Gina is injured and bears a weapon, but Adam doesn’t question taking her in. “You don’t leave anyone, including an outsider, to the elements, especially if they’re hurt,” he explains.

Now Kate must confront a close friendship that went bad and ended abruptly. Once best friends and roommates, Gina and Kate attended the police academy together. And Kate can’t forget that Gina took her in when she had nowhere to go, after “leaving the fold” of her Amish family and community.

Gina stays at the Lengacher’s home, under Kate’s supervision, until the weather breaks and Kate and her boyfriend, John Tomasetti, who is with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, decide what to do. Kate tries to get a read on her wild, tough-talking and elusive friend while Tomasetti makes some calls to Columbus. It seems safe at the cozy Lengacher home, where Gina learns about the Amish way of life, but everyone knows it’s just a matter of time until Gina’s dangerous pursuers find her, putting Adam and his kids at great risk. Kate senses that Gina isn’t giving her the whole story and events from their past suggest Gina has broken many police rules.

Outsider is the twelfth book in Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series and is told in both Kate’s voice and a third-person narrative of the events in Columbus and the women’s backstories. The author gives readers a look into the Amish way of life and how the Amish and “English” outsiders interact as their lives inevitably overlap. Kate is a bridge between both lives, understanding her childhood friend Adam as well as the outside world. Several moral questions come up and are resolved in interesting ways.

I enjoyed Outsider, although I haven’t read the other Kate Burkholder books. References to her Amish family make me want to go back and catch up on these relationships. I thought the author did a nice job portraying Amish life and includes many Pennsylvania Dutch phrases that enhance the story. There is a big contrast between these Amish chapters and Gina’s life as a cop in Columbus and at times the transition seems jarring. But the story moves at a good pace with a few twists and a satisfying conclusion.

I was attracted to Outsider because of the title and cover. I had an idea of who the woman on the cover represented, but was disappointed that it never became obvious and in fact, I was definitely wrong about my idea. Is this Kate from years ago contemplating her life outside the community? Has she already been shut out? I couldn’t figure it out and felt a little misled.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the book and think readers who like police detective stories and enjoy learning about the Amish would like the series. The author explains plenty from previous books so Outsider also works as a standalone.

Outsider will be released on July 7, 2020. I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
by
Agatha Christie

Rating:

I’d known about Agatha Christie’s books, but I’d never read one until I picked up The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Published in 1920, it is Christie’s debut detective novel and is set in England, outside London. Christie introduces her now well-known character, Hercule Poirot, a Belgian refugee and “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.” Poirot became a long-running character in Christie’s writings and appeared in thirty-three novels, two plays and more than fifty short stories.

In this story, Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Mrs. Emily Inglethorp at the family estate, Styles Court in Essex. Emily’s two stepsons and others at Styles are convinced that Alfred Inglethorp, their mother’s new and much younger husband, is the killer. And he has a  motive, they believe: Emily’s fortune. As a favor to his friend Hastings, also a guest at Styles and narrator of this story, Poirot investigates Emily’s death. Hastings is recovering from war wounds thanks to John’s hospitality and has always wanted to be a detective. He happily becomes Poirot’s eager assistant.

In a thorough and sometimes indirect and mysterious style, Poirot interviews family members and guests including stepsons John and Lawrence Cavendish; John’s wife, Mary; Emily’s loyal friend, Evie Howard; and Emily’s protégé, Cynthia Murdoch. Maids and gardeners also share important clues and Christie includes helpful floorplans to explain the layout of the house, crucial to understanding the events of Emily’s death.

One of the major issues is Emily’s will. There have been many versions and a last-minute revision. No one is sure what changes have been made and a lot is at stake. John and Lawrence, country squires, have no real source of income and they also fall under suspicion. Another fact to sort out is the strychnine that killed Emily. How was she poisoned and who acquired the strychnine? There are several possibilities. A curious side character is Dr. Bauerstein, who happens to be a poison expert. He’s staying in the village while recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Hastings may be Poirot’s helper, but Poirot likes to keep his ideas close to the vest, leaving Hastings, and the reader, in the dark for periods of time. He gets it all right, of course, in genius style because he quietly notices details and considers possibilities others have discarded. Poirot’s methods are amusing to witness because they show how people become frustrated when they don’t get immediate answers.

I enjoyed reading this mystery, which is not solved until the final pages, but which Poirot fully explains to his naïve assistant.

I must mention, however, several racist characterizations in the book, something Christie has been criticized for and which are completely unnecessary to the storyline. Although I’m unsure of when this happened, the Anti-Defamation League complained about Christie and American publishers were allowed to remove offensive descriptions from some of her books. There are several articles about Christie’s depictions.

ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, May 14, 2018: “The erasure of race in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None by Blake Allmendinger”

The New Yorker, August 16, 2010: “Queen of Crime – How Agatha Christie created the modern murder mystery” by Joan Acocella

Canadian Jewish News, January 23, 2020: “Was Agatha Christie an Anti-Semite?” by Michael Taube

So although The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a clever story and marks the introduction of Poirot’s character, these comments took away from my reading experience.

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Book Review: The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

The Tenant
by
Katrine Engberg

Rating:

If you like mysteries and police procedurals, here’s Katrine Engberg’s debut novel set in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Tenant is the first in a new series.

Esther DeLaurenti is a retired professor of literature and has settled back onto the third floor of the building she owns, ready to write her first mystery. But fiction and real life cross a dangerous intersection when one of Esther’s tenants, 21-year-old Julie Stender, is murdered on the first floor. As investigators uncover crime scene clues, Esther is shocked to discover that the murder closely mirrors the plot in her manuscript, including the violent killer’s chilling message.

Jeppe Kørner is the lead police investigator and joins up with his partner, Annette Werner. Under pressure to solve the crime quickly, they enlist their team of detectives to find Julie’s killer. Like all mysteries, the investigators have their own pasts that influence how they do their jobs. Kørner is newly-divorced, battling back pain and emerging from a depressive episode. He clashes with his partner and her irritating ways. And the dynamics among team members suggest grudges and hidden agendas. But the investigation continues, raising questions about the men in Julie’s life, including Kristoffer Gravgaard, Esther’s awkward friend and a new love interest, the “Mysterious Mr. Mox.” Equally strange is Julie’s father, whose alarming reactions raise warning flags and of particular interest is a suspicious dinner party held at Esther’s apartment earlier that year.

Some of the story takes place at the Royal Danish Theatre, where Kristoffer works as a dresser and Kørner had once trained as a performer, a dream career given up for more practical police work. The author knows this world well—she is a former dancer and choreographer in television and theater.

A second dramatic murder is no doubt related, placing additional pressure on Kørner, just as his personal life gets reckless. When the killer begins an online dialogue with Esther, Kørner takes steps to protect her, but will that be enough?

Many of Enberg’s characters struggle with the shame of loss and abandonment as they work to own painful and spiteful decisions of their pasts. These struggles, including Enberg’s, muddy up the investigation and keep the reader from figuring things out too soon.

I enjoyed this story, although it was a little slow getting started and the various subplots were complicated at times. I also liked reading about the different sections of Copenhagen, its historic buildings and the Danish way of life. Now that the author has established the main characters, I look forward to the second book in the series.

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What’s That Book? The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

TitleThe Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Author:  Phaedra Patrick

Genre: Fiction. Tough to classify, part slice-of-life, part humor, part adventure, and part mystery

Rating:

What’s it about?  A reclusive widower has finally decided to go through his wife’s belongings when he finds a charm bracelet he never knew she had. Curiosity gets the better of him and he slowly unravels the story behind each charm. This discovery not only reveals things he never knew about his wife, but also forces him out of his comfort zone and helps him realize a side of himself he never knew he had.

How did you hear about it? Just a random bit of browsing through the library catalog

Closing comments: This is a charming (sorry for the pun) slice of life story that readers of a Man Called Ove and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will enjoy.

Contributor: Tammie PainterI turn wickedly strong tea into imaginative fiction – You can read about my adventures over at TammiePainter.com/blog.

Many thanks to Tammie Painter who was generous enough to submit two book reviews for What’s That Book. Click here to read her review of A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer.


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
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Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Book Review: A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder
by
Louise Penny

Rating:

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec, but in the fourth book in this series, Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie are taking a mini-vacation at the beautiful Manoir Bellechasse to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Or so they think.

They’re sharing the remote lodge with the wealthy Finney family, there to honor the raising of a statue of the late Charles Morrow, Mrs. Finney’s first husband and the father of their four adult children. It isn’t long before someone is murdered, however, and Gamache must change gears to investigate. He summons his staff, Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir and Agent Isabelle Lacoste, they quickly set up an investigation room and begin interviewing suspects.

The Finney family is not a warm bunch and the adult children are laden with bitterness and hatred for each other. Although they are in their 50s and 60s, their petty rivalries shoot to the surface, all centered around who was favored and loved and who was shunned. It doesn’t help that their mother is cold and distant and her new husband, Bert Finney is a puzzle. An accountant, he’s frequently seen doing his “sums” and the reader can’t help but ask if he’s in the marriage for the money.

The siblings are busy asserting themselves, in terms of who’s the most successful, most charming (on the outside), best at the piano, and word games and they frequently jab at each other’s weaknesses. The youngest Morrow, Mariana, takes her fair share of criticism. Unattractive, sloppy and less refined, she also has a child whose sex she refuses to reveal to the family.

Busy serving this demanding family are Pierre Patenaude, the Manoir’s maître d’, his large staff of young waiters and attendants, the owner, Clementine Dubois and Chef Véronique Langlois. There are secrets, romance, drama and a little rebellion among the Manoir’s staff, adding to the story.

Everyone is a suspect and, while it’s easy to line them up, it’s not easy to explain how the impossible events of the murder occurred. For Gamache, when more people go missing, it’s a race against time to figure it out.

Penny includes strong themes of family, fatherhood, and parenthood in general, the conflict between French and English Canadians and also between the upper class and the working class. Many of her characters, Gamache included, struggle in this story to understand their pasts and possible misconceptions about their families. She also includes a bit of her Three Pines characters, the recurring setting in her other books.

I enjoyed reading A Rule Against Murder, which absolutely can be read as a standalone, or even out of order. I read my first and only other book in the series, A Great Reckoning (Book 12) about two years ago and had no issues adjusting to the story line or characters then or now. You can read my 4-star review here. Penny’s books are smart, literary, a little quirky (but not too much to keep me away) and both serious and warm. I recommend A Rule Against Murder to mystery readers who enjoy both standalones and series.

Have you read any books by Louise Penny?

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What’s That Book? A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

TitleA Prisoner of Birth

Author:  Jeffrey Archer

Genre:  Fiction, it’s categorized as a legal thriller but this is definitely NOT like John Grisham.

Rating:

What’s it about?  A young man and his fiancée and her brother are out to dinner one night when a group of upper class guys start harassing the fiancée. The couple and the brother try to leave bu tend up cornered by the group of guys in a back alley. Despite all attempts to avoid a fight, the brother ends up murdered. The young man is convicted of the crime and the upper class guys go free (despite a clear cover up involving many people). The novel follows the young man into prison where he makes important connections and the efforts of his (very beginner) lawyer to clear his name.

How did you hear about it?  Having been a fan of Archer’s work in the past, I was thrilled to snag this as a used hardback copy at the local library’s annual book sale.

Closing comments:  Wow! Just wow. This is an amazing and clever reimagining of The Count of Monte Cristo. Unlike the original, this book (despite its length) never has a dull moment. Although you can kind of guess what might be coming next (especially if you’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo), Archer’s storytelling skills add an unexpected twist. Above all, you can’t help but cheer on the protagonist.

Contributor:  Tammie Painter – I turn wickedly strong tea into imaginative fiction – You can read about my adventures over at TammiePainter.com/blog


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
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Book Review: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone
by
Wilkie Collins

Rating:

Serious mystery readers may already know that The Moonstone is considered “the first and greatest of English detective novels.” Those are the words of T. S. Eliot, poet, playwright, literary critic and winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. I read The Moonstone, which was first published in 1868, for the Whodunits mystery book club at the library where I work.

Wow. It’s a whopping, 482 pages of dense type, with footnotes, so I had to go hard to get it read by my deadline, but it was totally worth it!

The story begins in India, with the Storming of the Seringapatam by an English Imperialist army, during which a valuable gem is stolen from a religious icon. John Herncastle brings the famous Yellow Diamond back to England and, when he dies, it goes to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her eighteenth birthday. It’s an act of revenge, though, because the gem is rumored to be cursed and Herncastle’s family hates him. And a mysterious trio of Indians has been lurking in the shadows ever since Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, brought the Diamond, aka The Moonstone, to the family’s home in Yorkshire.

Rachel wears the Diamond for her birthday party and by morning it’s missing. The local police manage to offend the servants and soon, the famous Sergeant Cuff is called from London. He discovers an important clue, and the investigation takes off. Rumors from London suggest the gem been pawned and secured in a bank vault. If true, how did it get from Yorkshire to London?

The narrative is from many points of view, beginning with Lady Verinda’s butler, Gabriel Betteredge. He quickly becomes Cuff’s sidekick as they try to unravel the events that led to the lost Diamond. Other narrators include a poor relation, Miss Clack, who is eager to share her carpetbag full of religious pamphlets and Franklin, who was also Rachel’s love interest before the gem went missing, and is now under suspicion. Many additional characters contribute clues, but they don’t always lead in the right direction: Rosanna Spearman is a plain housemaid (and former thief) with a deformed shoulder, and she knows something. Philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite is another love interest and “Limping Lucy” Yolland holds a letter that may explain a lot.

The mystery is set in both the coastal region of Yorkshire, where a scary tract of quicksand may have swallowed up some answers, and in London, where shady lender Septimus Luker has an office and family lawyer Matthew Bruff wields an imposing legal influence.

Halfway through the book and you wonder if the mystery will ever be solved. It will, but there’s a lot to discover, through briefly introduced characters in the beginning, and new characters, all leading towards a twisted and spectacular finish.

While not an easy read, I totally recommend The Moonstone as an example of how it’s done. I’m only giving it 4.5 stars, however, because of its difficulty.

And here’s something interesting: the book was originally published in serialized format by Collins’s good friend, Charles Dickens!

Have you read The Moonstone? What did you think?

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Mysteries and thrillers to keep you guessing

Image: Pixabay

I read some good mysteries and thrillers this year, some debuts and others by established authors. Great for seasoned readers of this genre and everyone in between! Take a look:


Back of Beyond by C. J. Box

Tense murder mystery set in Yellowstone National Park, with a suspended investigator on the heels of a wildnerness adventure tour, sure his son is in danger.


Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

A conflicted Texas Ranger is in hot water with the force for helping out a family friend facing murder charges. Forced to turn in his badge, he goes rogue with a new investigation.


A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Entertaining historical mystery, set in England during World War I. The first book of the Bess Crawford Mysteries, introducing Bess as a highly skilled young nurse aboard the doomed HMHS Britannic.


The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

When Vincent deVries of Stanhope & Sons summons his Wall Street investment banker team to a compulsory meeting, the last thing they expect is to be trapped in an elevator, meant to be the setting for an escape room activity.


Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Fictionalized account of the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic free spirit in San Francisco, who dressed like a man and earned a living catching frogs for restaurants.


The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope has another crime to solve when her neighbor, Joanna Tobin, goes missing and an influential professor is murdered. Could Joanna, who is off her meds, be responsible for the professor’s death?


Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Debut novel and a mystery/courtroom drama in which a young mother stands trial for the murder of her 8-year-old autistic son.


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Alicia Berenson does something strange after she kills her husband. She stops talking. The only clue to explain her actions is a self-portrait, painted a few days after the murder.


Those People by Louise Candlish

On the problem of despicable neighbors, here’s a new book about a couple that moves into an idyllic and award-winning neighborhood in South London and drives the families to desperation.


What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

It’s 1975 when two sisters disappear from a busy mall outside Baltimore, Maryland. They separate at the mall and never come home. Thirty years later, a mysterious woman returns and claims to be one of the missing girls.


Did you read any good mysteries or thrillers this year?

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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.


Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.


What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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