An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford

Historical fiction fans, I have a fresh spy novel for you! Don’t you love the cover? How about a rags to MI5 Counterintelligence agent during World War II? If so, you will want to read Rebecca Starford’s novel An Unlikely Spy. I dove in head first and read this book every chance I could. 

Evelyn Varley is a bright and clever girl from a poor family in Lewes. She attends an excellent and competitive school on scholarship, meeting her best and very wealthy friend.  Evelyn goes on to Oxford and eventually is recruited by MI5, starting with office work and transcribing notes.  She receives her first assignment in counterintelligence and must infiltrate a dangerous secret society allied with Germany.  Posing as a Nazi sympathizer, she ultimately must choose between friendship and country.

This novel goes back and forth between 1940 and 1948, and despite my aptitude for WWII spy novels featuring female spies, I felt like I missed something through 80% of the story, sometimes swiping back to try to figure out that missing piece or detail.  Without spoiling anything, there comes a point near the end where everything starts making sense–a huge, long aha.  The author’s note at the end explains how much of An Unlikely Spy was based on real people and real events, and I almost wish that was placed at the beginning.

All in all, An Unlikely Spy is a solid spy novel you will want to add to your TBR pile.

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The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Other Black Girl

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is part thriller, part Devil Wears Prada, and possibly part #Ownvoices novel…and it is a debut (one of my favorite kinds of reads!)

Editorial assistant Nella Rogers works for Wagner Books, and is the only Black employee. She is tired of that role, tired of the microaggressions, and thus quite excited when she meets and begins to train Hazel, a Harlem born and bred editorial assistant working in the next cubicle. The two bond over hair care regimens, but then Hazel becomes the office darling and Nella becomes anything but. Nella starts to receive threatening messages telling her to leave Wagner Books. As things intensify, Nella realizes there is more than just her job at stake.

What I liked: This debut is great–twisty, sharp, a bit of a social commentary, takes place in the world of publishing, and kept me engaged and guessing to the very last page. I hope you will pick up a copy so we can discuss while I wait for Harris’ next novel. She is an author to follow!

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The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds: A Novel

Does a Kristin Hannah novel really need any more press? Yes! Especially when it is as satisfying as The Four Winds!

Travel to Texas circa 1921. World War I is behind America, and the western land is bountiful. Elsa Wolcott lives with her family on the Great Plains, and is in a tricky spot. Her only opportunity to freely live a life close to the life she desires seems to be marriage, but she is plain looking, older, and was sickly as a child. She reads all the time, and longs for freedom and a life away from her parents. Elsa sneaks out one night, goes to a dance in town, and meets Rafe Martinelli. She is soon pregnant, living with Rafe and his parents, and disowned by her own natal family. Fast forward to 1934, and between the Great Depression and the frequent dust storms destroying the Great Plains, the Martinelli’s farm is in crisis, and its owners are starving and sick. The one hope residents of the town hold is for a move to California. Rafe wants to go, but Elsa knows his parents will never leave their land.

The Four Winds chronicles a devastating piece of American history, with a narrative that personalizes both the heart breaking challenges and the courage that defines the survivors. This gripping and compulsively readable portrayal is for any reader who likes historical fiction, characters with strength and resilience, and for all Kristin Hannah fans. As with previous novels, Kleenex should be handy for the last 20 pages.

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The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Mystery and Thriller reader fans, get ready for your next great read! Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest novel just came out, and in a word, it is…delicious! Our protagonist is a promising young novelist, Jacob Finch Bonner, working on that sophomore novel and teaching writing at a low residency MFA program (Bread Loaf it is not.) Jake meets his latest group of students, and is a bit taken aback by one Evan Parker, an arrogant and narcissistic student who tells Jake he has the next great American novel. Evan is hesitant to share his work–he really applied to the program to find an agent–but ultimately tells Jake about the plot.

Time passes; Jake continues to struggle to succeed at his writer lifestyle. Then one day, he learns that Evan Parker died. Jake thinks about the plot of Evan’s great American novel, and scours the internet to see if it was ever published. It was not. And it really was a good story…

The Plot was an absorbing and quick read for me. I loved The Devil and Webster, also by Korelitz, and was eager to read The Plot based on that alone. Korelitz is really good at the college and writers’ program details, and has great character development for teachers. You can see what is going to happen just maybe a page before it does, which was very satisfying. I also love the whole question of intellectual property as well. The Plot is a five star read for me. I hope you will put it on hold at the Library, “add to cart,” or find it at an Indie Bookseller. So good!

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A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I don’t often share books about political figures, but I am today! I recently finished listening to A Promised Land, written and read by Barack Obama on Audible. It was a commitment with a listening time of 29 hours and 10 minutes, and it was bliss. Pure bliss.

This first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs covers his life from the beginnings of his political aspirations to the death of Osama bin Laden. Obama’s intimate and insightful narrative shares his truth by recounting different jobs, elections and presidential actions. It is an excellent history of America during this part of his political career, and an affirmation of his values as a husband and father, as well as a politician and American. It is long, and I am glad I listened. I would probably still be chipping away at the reading if I chose the paper book over the audiobook. Another plus for listening, I felt like I was in a personal conversation with Obama.

There are lots of excellent reviews of A Promised Land out there, if you are looking for a critical review. I’m just a person who reads tons of historical fiction, and a few memoirs saying this is a great book!

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We Begin at the End

We Begin at the End

Scandal in a western small town. I bet you know of or have lived in a town like Cape Haven, where generations of families make up the population, and everyone knows everyone’s business. While you can count on your neighbors looking out for your family, it is a hard place to make a fresh start, and a harder place to get away from.

Duchess Day Radley, 13, is a self proclaimed outlaw, caretaker for her 5 year old brother Robin, and her mother Star, who just can’t get ahead because of her past. And drugs. Star’s sister Sissy was murdered when they were younger, and Walk, now police chief, gave the testimony that put her killer and his best friend in jail. With the accused killer’s time in jail up, the town is on edge as they await his release. With a fire and another death, he returns to jail and Duchess and Robin end up on the run, and that is where this novel really takes off.

I liked this book, and found myself thinking about it when I was not reading. The plot is complex, it is cunning, and there are surprises along the way. The back stories for all of the characters are pretty miserable; they all have more than their share of sadness and tragedy. Some are resilient, some are not. There are kindnesses in unexpected places, and cruelties that prompt revenge. There are long buried secrets that need discovering. And most of all, there is a main character you will want to see to the very end. We Begin at the End is a modern To Kill A Mockingbird and was a solid read. If you are looking for a novel with substance, an intricate plot, and characters you would jump onto the pages of this book to help, We Begin at the End belongs in your TBR pile.

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Hadley & Grace by Suzanne Redfearn

Hadley and Grace: A Novel by [Suzanne Redfearn]

I just discovered author Suzanne Redfearn, and am I glad I did! Redfearn is an architect, owner of two restaurants, family person and best selling author living in Laguna Beach, all of which augments her latest novel, Hadley & Grace.

Hadley is on the cusp of fleeing from an abusive marriage with her daughter Mattie and her nephew Skipper who has lived with her family for the past 8 years while his mom, Hadley’s sister, gets it together. Hadley is going to meet her sister to return Skipper to her, but knowing this might be her only chance to escape and start over, she stops at her husband’s office after hours to “borrow” some cash. In his office, she runs into Franks recently hired assistant Grace for the first time. Grace has a new baby and a husband in Afghanistan who also happens to have a gambling problem. Hadley’s husband Frank cheats Grace out of a commission that she both earned and needed to pay her rent and buy some food. She returns to the office, knowing she is probably about to be fired, to get some of the money “owed” to her. The women do not become fast friends, but rather end up in a bitter negotiation for a cut of the money. Hadley knows the combination to the safe, but not the location, and Grace knows the location, but not the combination. When they agree on terms and open the safe (in the tank of the toilet), they find almost two million dollars in cash. And so starts their partnership as fugitives, from the police and from the FBI, because as it turns out, Frank is part of the mob.

This all seems like a lot, and fairly implausible, and I am leaving out some major details! I actually don’t want to read a novel about abused women trying to escape their abusers with out some implausibility. Hadley and Grace are like Thelma and Louise, or Bonnie and Clyde. Full of courage and personality, odds are against them, slowed by three children, a badly sprained ankle, and social media. I really enjoyed this story with all of it’s crazy twists and turns. Perfect for a weekend or beach read!

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Good Company

Good Company: A Novel

I recently listened to an interview with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, and learned she started writing novels in her 50s! Good thing, because Good Company, her second novel, is a gem. Flora, a theater actress turned mom and voice over performer in LA, is looking for a photo as her daughter Ruby’s high school graduation draws near. In and amongst the memorabilia and ephemera, Flora finds her husband Julian’s wedding ring–the ring he said he’d lost many summers ago at the lake. You and I both know a found wedding ring at the beginning of a novel is going to stir the pot. I am fascinated by the premise, and learned in the interview that the author accidentally left her wedding rings at a hotel on vacation, and never got them back. The loss was always gut wrenching, until she could bring the rings back by writing with an adjusted context.

Flora and Julian’s close and most trusted friends are Margot, a tv actress, and her husband David, a doctor who recently suffered a stroke. They are much wealthier, but that is not a sticking point. They are dear and generous friends, Margot is wonderful with Ruby, and initially seems to be a loving and caring wife to David. They are supportive of Good Company, the small theater company Julian co-founded and struggles to keep viable. But what will be the sticking point?

What I liked: Good Company is a fun, contemporary novel about relationships. Sweeney’s explorations of marriage and friendship give a refresh to these themes with humor, tenderness, and perception. She aptly hits that moment in adulthood when you have arrived and all is going swimmingly. By accident you discover something you can’t undiscover, and boom! Everything changes. You may not know characters like Sweeney’s on the exterior, but I think you will find their interiors familiar. If you are a fan of authors like Elin Hilderbrand, Claire Lombardo, Rebecca Serle and Alexandra Andrews, add Good Company to your TBR to be entertained.

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Mosaic by Chris Aslan

Mosaic by Chris Aslan

Here is some interesting historical fiction, written by Chris Aslan, an author who grew up in Turkey and Lebanon. I do not usually write about books with as much of a biblical parallel, but I hope you will indulge me so I can share a new book that I enjoyed. In Mosaic, Aslan reimagines the story of four friends lowering a paralyzed man in hopes of Jesus healing him at Capernaum, as told in the Gospel of Mark.

Tabita is spreading lentils and picking out the stones one moment, and then her life is changed forever when her best friend Sholum dies in the forest picking walnuts, and her brother Phanuel returns from the forest paralyzed. Like many members if her mountain community, Tabita is bereft with grief, and then incredibly angry at her brother and his friends. She blames them for the accident that killed Sholum. She is as also angry at herself for finding a way out of that walnut picking trip, and therefore not being in the forest when tragedy struck, as if her presence could have changed the outcome for Sholum and Phanuel.

Tabita takes a trip from her village to the Holy City, hoping to heal her heart and be changed. She meets a healer there, known as the “Teacher” and through their encounter, regains her hope and becomes a great admirer and defender of the Teacher. Her family and friends are of course suspicious of her devotion. Phanuel’s miracle at the hands of the teacher causes a commotion and an encompassing conflict between those who gratefully believe in his healing, and those who are suspicious.

What I liked: It is no secret I love historical fiction, and I was happy to move away from the many World War II novels I’ve read of late. I am pretty familiar with the story of the paralyzed man, and with that knowledge, I was fascinated by this new interpretation, noting the parallels, looking for the significance of the names and places. I was interested that the story was written by a man but shared primarily through Tabita’s point of view. I was also interested in the time period: this is not a modern retelling or reimagining. While I read in comparison to a Bible story, one can easily read this as a story with out reference to the Bible or known religion. I find the comparison richens the story, and helps me understand more quickly because of a context, but again, that isn’t necessary.

This book, Mosaic, is the third in a series by Aslan, so if you find it to your liking, there are more!

Thank you to Fern Lindsey-Tolley at Lion Hudson for the advanced reader’s copy of Mosaic.

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The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

Oh wow! The Kindest Lie really got to me. This novel is takes place at the beginning of Barack Obama’s first term as president, set against that idea of a new hope for everyone, especially Ruth Tuttle. Ruth has lived her rags to riches story, graduating from Yale, working as an engineer in Chicago, married to a kind and successful man who is ready to start a family. Ruth and her husband Xavier live in a gentrified neighborhood and are friendly with a diverse group. Ruth isn’t so confident about a family. She is still grieving the baby she gave up as a teenager. When Ruth finally reveals the secret of her baby to her husband, he is shocked and hurt that he didn’t know sooner.

Ruth heads home to Indiana, to the small and still segregated factory town where she was raised. As she digs around in her past trying to find her child, she runs into many of the people who never left town, and a few new folks as well. She sees more clearly the disparity race and economics have caused, and that her success as a woman of color from a childhood of poverty is an anomaly in Ganton, Indiana. Ruth and her brother were raised by their grandparents after her mother overdosed. The stigma of her mother’s addiction follows her until she leaves town.

She meets a young boy who goes by “Midnight,” who struggling to stay in school and out of trouble. Midnight lives with his grandmother, Lena, a shopkeeper Ruth has known most of her life. Midnight catches Ruth’s eye and attention, and indirectly helps her with the search for her own son.

What I liked: The Kindest Lie is a real exploration of the American dream, or small towns, belonging and being left out, of prejudice and segregation, and of family. The characters were not all good or all bad, and even the ones who were more bad than good had some redeeming values. The adoption plot line is also excellent, and very moving. I think it is a “current” read for our times, not just because it takes place in the last 20 years. You know the premise when you pick up the book, so this is not so much a “I wonder how it will end” as it is a “I wonder how Johnson will get us to the end?” The Kindest Lie is a reading journey worth taking.

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