Tuesday, January 23, 2024

2024 Reads and Reviews

1.  A Silken Thread by Kim Vogel Sawyer 

Completed:  January 16, 2024

Rating:  9.5/10

Review:  Laurel Millard is the youngest sibling in her family. Her father passed away when she was three and her Mom had never remarried. All her siblings are married with families of their own but Laurel still lives with her Mom (who is in her forties). Unbeknownst to their mother the siblings issue Laurel an ultimatum that as the youngest without a family of her own she must forgo her dream of one day marrying and having that family in order to take care of their Mother. In shock that they would expect that of her, Laurel holds out hope that she can actually find a good man who would not only love her but would also take her Mother under his household also. When the Atlanta Cotton Exposition of 1885 comes to town, Laurel's mother encourages her to apply to work there in the hopes that maybe she can meet a suitor. Laurel does meet a very wealthy Langdon Rochester who is heir apparent to his father's steam engine business. He is charming and wealthy and sets his sights on Laurel in order to appease his own mother who is pushing him to get married. Laurel also meets a young security guard named Willie who may not have two cents to rub together but has a good and kind heart. In becoming friends with Willie and his black friend Quincey who is a groundskeeper at the exposition, Laurel starts to see first hand the the division of class and education and racism that is prevalent in her city. As the exposition contends with some disasters the two young men Laurel has gotten to know are pitted against one another.

 I really enjoyed this Christian fiction from a favorite author. Under the historical setting of the exposition the author explores themes of racism and bigotry, the have vs the have nots, friendship and integrity, the desire in all humans to be loved and to belong, injustice and standing up for what is right. The characters were interesting and though sometimes Laurel might have seemed a tad naive and therefore frustrating, it would come from her sheltered life as a younger sibling in those times. Willie and Quincey's friendship was beautifully written, I thought, and the struggle, misunderstandings and turmoil that the situation they found themselves in really brought out what it might have been like back in that time. The love to hate character did his job well, I loved to hate the character. And though the ending was not a surprise the journey to get there was moving and thoroughly kept my attention.

2.  On the Cliffs of Foxglove Manor by Jaime Jo Wright (audiobook)

Completed:  January 23, 2024

Rating:  7.5/10


3.  The Last Exchange by Charles Martin

Completed:  February 10, 2024

Rating:  9/10

Review:  MacThomas Pockets is part of the Scottish Special Forces and has been hired by a film director he met on a plane to help get some of the action scenes right. Through this he meets Joe Sue, a recent Hollywood legend and her actor husband. And from this he is hired to become Joe Sue's bodyguard. As he gets to know Joe Sue, Pockets starts to see that the Joe Sue the public sees and the private Joe Sue are two very different people. Discovered as a young woman, Joe Sue has come from a hard, traumatic childhood that didn't necessarily change when she became a star. But her dream to have a child of her own is dwindling as she cannot carry a pregnancy to term. Trying to hide the past and present hurt she turns to pills to get her through the day. After several stints in various rehabs, Joe Sue is still struggling with her hidden addiction. As her husband's career is taking off, Joe Sue is left to deal with her present problems on her own. But she isn't really alone. Even after Pockets was no longer working for her, he kept up with what was going on with her and watched from afar. 

 This book asks the question "how far will you go in selfless acts to help someone you love?" and "are you willing to give up your own life to save that loved one?" The story goes back and forth between Joe Sue's voice and Pockets' voice and between past and present. At times I did have to reread a small portion when I wasn't paying attention. It was a heart wrenching, tough story that presented a lot of moral implications in actions that were taken. It definitely makes you think and there is a background thread of Christ sacrificing Himself for us woven into the story without it actually stating it outright but if you know, you know. It's a story of deep friendship, of commitment even when one party no longer wants the relationship. There is twists and turns that keep the story moving along. Charles Martin is a favorite author and I rated this a 4/5 on Goodreads with their 5 star rating system but an 9/10 on my own. What kept it from a 10 star read for me, was just the believability of some of the things that happened and a small, but still something that kept it from being that 10 star for me, was the odd names. It took me a long time into the story to get used to all the odd names and that kept it from being enjoyable for me as I'd had to pause and think about who the character was again. That's my own issue but it still detracted from the total enjoyment of the book for me. But still a powerful story that, as is the norm for Charles Martin books, made it so I couldn't pick up another book for a few days as I pondered this one.

4.  Becoming Free Indeed by Jinger Dugger Vuolo (audiobook)

Completed:  February 15, 2024

Rating:  9/10


5.  Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

Completed:  March 5, 2024

Rating:  9.5/10

Review:  Nineteen year old Brenda Dubie works in her parents organ store and her dream is to attend a music school. Her young life is pretty easy, working at the store, practicing her organ and flirting with the young soldiers who are in town. Then in 1943, she meets Charlie Fish. At first he doesn't leave much of an impression. A Harvard educated mathematician, he is reserved and quiet, nothing like the fun loving soldiers she hangs out with. But keeps coming around the store to see her. In a short time they become a couple but his mild nature holds Brenda back from fully committing to him. Then Charlie is drafted into a special top secret military project where he gets very little time off. Working for the Manhattan Project, Charlie finds his life fully consumed. Soon he is assigned the task of designing a detonator without knowing what it is for. But as he continues to work on the project and the reality of what it is he is having a hand in building starts to become very real, Charlie starts to have reservations. His highly ethical nature is rising up, yet he is not allowed to talk to anyone, including Brenda, about it. As he struggles with his conscience, Brenda unaware of what the project is, urges him to be a man and step up to the task. If it helps the war effort, then what could be the problem? When the war is over Charlie ends up receiving a scholarship to get his PhD in physics, a dream as there is no way he could afford it. But it comes at a cost. As the guilt continues to lay ahold of both Charlie and Brenda of what they had a part of, Charlie quits school and the two build a life trying to make amends. 

 This is my second book by this author and I have loved both. I didn't really know what it was about when I bought it a couple of years ago, but funny that I happen to pick it up right when the movie "Oppenheimer" is all the buzz. The story is loosely based on the life Charles B. Fisk, who was a mathematician and world renowned organ maker. It explores the guilt and remorse that followed him throughout his life for his part in the development of the atomic bomb. It's a love story set in a time when payback and stopping the enemy was forefront in the minds of most Americans and most were willing to do what it took without really understanding or looking into the consequences of what producing such a weapon would have for the future. I learned a lot about a part of the WWII effort that I've never really understood before and, if truth be told, never really thought of at all. And that is the guilt that some of these ordinary people had to live with for their whole lives. They were not soldiers or military but ordinary people who had been drafted into the making of a horrendous, top secret weapon just because of the skills they possessed. In all honesty, I find it hard to believe why this book is not being talked about, or reviewed more. I did read another story that dealt with the making of the atomic bomb last year, "The Woman with Two Shadows, that explored the question of how the scientists working on the bomb could justify the end result. This one took the angle of the guilt that plagued some of them as the revelation of what they were using their talents for comes to light and their struggle to make sense of it. Very good read that held my attention with it's compelling and flawed characters and it's twists and turns based in history.

6.  Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Completed:  March 23, 2024

Rating:  9.5/10

Review:  Sophie Duval got her love of the perfume business from her father. She learned everything she knows from him. But now that her father has passed away, she is struggling to carry on the family business. Her mother, who never understood the passion of the business, and her wealthy boyfriend want her to sell the business and move on but Sophie cannot bear the thought. She believes in what her father created, not in phony chemically derived scents that are becoming more popular as they are cheaper to make and sell. All she needs is a breakthrough fragrance. When one of the world's biggest stars, Grace Kelly, steps into her shop to avoid paparazzi during the Cannes film festival, little does Sophie realize the unexpected encounter and her willingness to hide Grace from James Henderson, the persistent photographer, will change her business and her life in more ways than one. 

 I really enjoyed this story. The history of Grace Kelly's whirlwind romance and wedding to Prince Rainer is a great backdrop the main love story. Though that was a huge part of the story, I thought the authors were able to make Sophie's own story stand out well and not get lost in the midst of Grace Kelly's history and the two were merged well. Through Sophie's story you learn more of the perfume industry and through the story of James Henderson the reader gets a glimpse into the life of the early paparazzi. James, on assignment from England, was the one who sent Grace fleeing into the perfume shop in the first place. His side of the story brings an interesting perspective of the life of those trying to take pictures of the rich and famous. The setting is lovely and story is sweet and this would make a great summer beach read.

7.  The Women by Kristin Hannah

Completed:  March 30, 2024

Rating:  9/10

Review:  Frankie McGrath is a young woman barely out of her teens from a well to do California family where they live a typical all American lifestyle. Image is everything in their circles and the men in the family serving their country are upheld highly. Women go to school and then marry and become mothers. That is the way of things. For various reason her father never did serve but has a family wall of heroes in his study of all the men in the family who served. When her brother Finley gets drafted to the Vietnam war everyone is very proud and throws him a huge going away party. But once he is gone, Frankie is at loose ends without her beloved brother and so she makes a rash decision to take her nursing degree and sign up with the Army Nurse Corp hoping to see her brother in Vietnam. Thinking her family would be proud, she is shocked when her father is angry and her mother is devastated. When she arrives in Vietnam she is immediately thrown into the middle of the destruction and horror of what the war really is. Nothing like the upbeat letters her brother had sent home. When she finally comes home she does not find the rest and peace she hoped for or deserved for her 2 years of service on the front. She comes home to a country divided, full of protests and is spat on when in uniform. Her parents refuse to talk about Vietnam and what she experienced. In fact, wherever she turns, people deny that women were even over in 'Nam. As the anger in her builds, Frankie fights a whole other battle within herself away from Vietnam that has everything to do with being in Vietnam. 

 This is the most talked about book at the moment in any of the fb book groups that I am a part of. The author first conceived of it more than 20 years ago but felt she wasn't, at that point in her writing, to do it justice. She finally wrote it now. It is intense. Very, very intense. So many trigger warnings but a story that must be told. I was just a child when this war was being fought and I really had no idea. The story for me had 3 parts: The first being the background of Frankie's life growing up in the idyllic American dream. Then her two tours in Vietnam as a combat nurse. And the last part being her experiences returning to a divided America who's government had been lying to them about the war. The author does not hold back on the horrors experienced by the soldiers or the medical teams that tried to save their lives. There is lots of descriptions of the combat and the injuries that came into medical units and what they had to do to save the men's lives. The author did a good job in telling the story of the women who were over in Vietnam helping to save lives and the strong friendships that were formed amongst the nurses and the medical teams and other relationships that were formed. She also did a really good job of relaying the experience of PTSD, from what I can tell as I've never had it or known anyone who did. But she was able to bring in my emotions as the characters experienced it in the story. It certainly opened my eyes to how easy it is to make wrong choices and decisions when experiencing and reliving the horrors that someone in combat does. I learned a lot about a war I really knew nothing of. The only thing that kept this from a 10 star read for me was I felt there was some repetition of things. I especially remember one specific paragraph that jumped out at me because I felt it was literally copied and pasted from an earlier part in the story. But that being said, it is an important book that finally tells the heartbreaking story of the women and and men who fought in an un-win-able, awful war and who for years to come were certainly not held as heroes.

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly by Catherina Ingelman-Sundberg 

DNF'd at page 75

8.  In His Image by Jen Wilkin (audiobook)

Completed:  April 20, 2024

Rating:  10/10

9.  The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

Completed:  April 26, 2024

Rating:  9.5/10

Review:  Kaz Zemechkis' dreams of being an astronaut came to an abrupt end when he had an inflight accident that left him with a glass eye. Now he's a NASA flight controller and has been called in on Apollo 18's final mission to the moon. But intelligence coming in of a secret Russian spy station has political leaders on edge and has just made the mission way more complicated. When the suspicious death of one of the crew members occurs, NASA, and Kaz, are on a race against time to get Apollo 18 up and completing it's missions successfully. With political tension at it's highest on earth, and unexpected occurences in space creating havoc, the Apollo 18 crew faces the uncertainty of no help or rescue and their return home hangs in the balance. 

 Beloved Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has added "fiction author" to his ever growing list of accomplishments with his first fiction novel. Bringing his expertise as an astronaut, commander, engineer, and fighter pilot, he brings an alternate reality story of the end of the Apollo missions to the moon. Filled with twists and turns, tension, mystery and politcal intrigue it was a definite page turner. Being a big fan of reading all sorts of non-fiction books and watching documentaries and movies about the Apollo missions I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced and had lots of detail of the technical aspects of what a moon mission entails without getting bogged down in those details. All were significant to moving the story along with understanding for the reader. It seemed authentic because the author's first hand experience and knowledge. The story telling was fast paced and the romance in it didn't interfere with what the story was mainly about. This story would make a great movie.

10.  The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom (audiobook)

Completed:  April 29, 2024

Rating:  8/10

11. Something Worth Doing by Jane Kirkpatrick

Completed May 13, 2024

Rating:  6.5/10

12.  Just For the Summer by Melody Carlson

Completed:  May 21, 2024

Rating:  9/10

Review:  Ginny Masters is the manager of a boutique hotel in Seattle. Even though she had no schooling for it, she learned the job from the ground working through the different departments until she finally was given the job of managing. Her intuition and empathy have given her the tools to make the hotel what it is today, but the work has taken over her life. She has been with Hotel Jackson for almost a decade in spite of it ornery and demanding owner, Diana Jackson. Yet again Ginny finds herself having to fix the mess her boss made accommodating her wealthy friends, Ginny has had enough. When she runs across a job swap opportunity, she throws caution to the wind and applies. It's only for two months, but it sounds like the break she needs away the city. Meanwhile in Idaho, 

Jacqueline Potter would give anything to get out of managing her grandfather's boring fishing lodge. After earning her degree in hospitality, Jacqueline finds it all beneath her. She wants the big city lifestyle and paycheck. So when the summer job swap comes to her attention she applies thinking it is her way out of this arrangement with her grandfather. Both women think the job swap will be the answer to their woes. But is it as simple as all that? 

 This was a fun, sweet read. After the heavier subject of the previous reads, I was wanting something more light and fun. This fit the need perfectly. Though a couple of the characters were super frustrating and unlikeable for me, the contrast to the other characters is what made it fun. The author did a wonderful job of describing and contrasting the two settings also. A great summery vacation read with a satisfying ending.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

2024 Reading Challenge and Goals

New Year, time for a new reading challenge.  How did 2023 go in the reading department you ask?  Not too bad. I missed my Good Reads goal of 40 books by two, but I did get a lot of the other goals accomplished. So onto a new year.  In looking back over what I did read last year, even though I did manage 15 of the books off my own shelves a lot of those were books that I got a Free Little Libraries or I found at library sales for a couple of bucks.  I only read 5 of the books I actually purchased either full price or discounted price at BookOutlet.  This kind of really surprised me.  That's why I kind of like setting goals because then I can see what's happening with the books I actually shell out hard earned cash for.  Though one look at my overflowing new purchase book bag should have been a major clue!!

And believe it or not, I actually forgot two books that were sitting in my non-fiction stacks.  These books have all been purchased over the last 4 - 5 years.  So this is going to be my goal for this year.  There are 26 books total and my goal is to read them to zero.  Meaning reading this stack is going to be first priority before I put any more books on library hold or reach for ones that are second hand that I've gotten for free.  I'll put a goal of at least 2 per month from this pile before I can get a library book or another from my free books pile.  That way it will still let me get to some of those throughout  the year.  I may surprise myself and chug right through this stack without looking elsewhere.  We'll see how it plays out.  Now the bigger trick is going to be not purchasing anymore this year.  Yikes.