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Book Review: The Girls at 17 Swann Street – Heartbreakingly Hopeful

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

By Yara Zgheib

Anna is dying. She is a slip of a girl, married to a fabulous husband that she really loves. She used to be a ballerina, she used to like roller coasters and ice cream and she used to eat. All those things are in her past. Now she spends her days exercising and not eating. She has dropped dairy, meat, bread and almost everything else from her diet with the exception of apples and popcorn. She will die if she continues to deprive her body of the nutrients it needs. No matter what her family and husband say or do, they cannot convince her to eat.

Her last chance to begin living again is moving to 17 Swann Street with the rules and the meals and the other skeletal girls. These women there are mothers, daughters and dying from lack of food in a country where food is abundant. Each of the women has their own stories and reasons.  Some have had traumatic events in their past, others have been pressured by society and careers that they need to be thinner until food becomes the enemy. But when the enemy lurks within it is invisible but continues to whisper in your head over every morsel of food.

Almost everyone has heard of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. They are illnesses  like any other. While hard for some to understand, there are many underlying psychological factors that come into play when someone decides to starve themselves into skeletal bodies and deprive their organs of much needed nutrition to survive.

Zgheib pulls the reader into 17 Swann Street. We are there for the triumphs when Anna begins to slowly eat meals again. We are there when one of the girls is taken to the hospital and does not return. It is easy to feel the pain that food causes them, but that makes their triumphs all the sweeter.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is written in a style that does not use extra words. That being said the story is full of depth and meaning. The conversations are in italics to differentiate but even without them it would be easy to know when the characters are speaking. It is appropriate to write in this style to tell the story of Anna and her friends. They have cut out all things involving food that they deem unnecessary in their lives, just as Zgheib cuts out the words that would not have helped tell their story.

This is the first book written by Yara Zgheib. I sincerely hope it is not her last. Her powerful prose kept me reading late into the night and often brought me to tears when I felt Anna was giving up hope. This book is powerful and insightful. It would be perfect for your book club as the seriousness of these diseases calls for more discussion. Even though it is fiction, Zgheib has opened the door into the hidden world of anorexia and bulimia, allowing you to step through that door with Anna and hear her story.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy from Bookish and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. Copyright © 2019 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: We Hope for Better Things – History Wrapped In Mystery

We Hope for Better Things

By Erin Bartels

We Hope for Better Things is a remarkably memorable story that winds through the lives of a family from the civil war to today. Focusing on three women that are more alike than different, the story alternates between them giving the reader characters and a story that spans 150 years. Each of these women are vastly different, but still curiously alike.

Mary is a young woman who has to take care of the family farm while her husband is fighting in the civil war. Without thinking of the consequences, he sends a freed slave to Mary and asks her to help keep him from harm. Her husband doesn’t stop there; she soon has a house full of men, women and children who are recently emancipated or on the run from their former owners. The backlash in the community is only one of the problems she has to contend with. Mary soon cares deeply for one of the men sent to her home.

Nora falls in love in the turbulent 1960’s. Her life was forever changed when she meets a young, talented photographer. Will she be willing to give up her family, her wealth and her comfortable life to be with a man who loves her, but society does not approve of?

Lastly there is Nora. She works as a successful journalist but is abruptly fired after standing her ground about a story she is passionate about. Randomly, a man contacts her about her Great-Aunt Nora. Since she is adrift in her professional life, she travels to see her aunt. There she unwittingly begins to dig into her family’s past. She has no intention of staying in the house that has been inhabited by Mary and Nora, but the deeper she digs the closer she feels to them and the ghosts of our nation’s past. Her investigative nature will not let her stop digging until she solves the mystery of the past she encounters

The characters are interesting and full. They come to life on the pages, pulling the reader into each of their lives and stories. As the author masterfully alternates the lives of the three women, I read long into the night to find out what was happening in the different decades. The farm house each of them lived in further links the women together as it whispers of the past and adds hope for the future.

Erin Bartels gives her readers a gift wrapped in history, shrouded in the past and present race relations in the United States. Her beautiful prose pulls readers into the story and lives of the characters. This is her first novel, and I am anxiously awaiting her second novel that will be published in fall of 2019.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy from Bookish and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. Copyright © 2019 Laura Hartman

 

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Book Review: The Sicilian Woman’s Daughter – Fascinating Novel and Author

The Sicilian Woman’s Daughter

By Linda Lo Scuro

Recently retired, Maria has extra time on her hands. While her husband Humphrey spends his days working as an investment banker, she now has to find other things to occupy her time. Her daughters are grown and out on their own, so when Maria’s cousin calls and asks her to check in on her aunt, she reluctantly agrees. For years Maria has kept her distance from her family. There are some shady dealings dating back several generations connecting them to the Mafia. All Maria knows for sure is that one of her aunts and mother despised her and abused her as a child leaving her bitter and a bit afraid of them.

When visiting the aunt that was kind to her as a child, Maria finds herself falling into the family business. Just on the fringe shouldn’t hurt anything. Besides she has a few scores to settle and her aunt has offered help. As she spends more time with her aunt, Maria begins to slide into the habits of the previous generations. She can solve problems that others are having with the help of family. She tries to keep her extended family away from her husband and children; there is no need for them to know the history she has always hidden. But when one of her immediate family makes an irreversible decision, help from the Mafia may be the only way to right the wrong. Or at least cover it up.

I loved this book. The transformation of Maria was remarkable to read. Ms. Lo Scuro does a fantastic job filling in the sordid past of Maria’s family and blending it in with the present day characters. Will visiting her Sicilian family turn this upper-middle class Brit into the person she has always feared she may become? Perhaps it was inevitable.

Linda Lo Scuro is as mysterious as Maria. Because this was the first book I’ve read by this author, I Googled her name to find out more about her. What I found out about Linda Lo Scuro is exactly what she wants us to know. This is not her real name and she will not be giving interviews. You can follow her on social media under her pseudonym, but her real persona will not be revealed. I admire her decision as well as her determination to stay anonymous amid the clamor of writing a truly remarkable and memorable novel. I think she is as interesting as her novel, which makes this a double win in my reading world.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was not expected to return this item after my review. Copyright © 2019 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: The Red Address Book – Best Book I’ve Read This Year

The Red Address Book

By Sofia Lundberg

As the book opens, Doris is a Swedish woman in the twilight of her life. She has a nursing service come in to help her once a day, but the caregiver is simply getting the job done without caring about the person she is paid to help. Doris is kind, but doesn’t bother to interact. The caregiver doesn’t notice. Doris’ body is betraying her with weakness, but her mind is still sharp and her memories clear.

There are two things Doris does interact with. One is the computer phone call to her niece in the States, which happens every day. Both of the women delight in seeing the other from around the globe and sharing their lives. The other is the red address book that her father gave her for her tenth birthday in 1928. Just by opening the pages and scrolling through, she can walk through her past and relive the good and the bad of all the years.

At this stage of her life, Doris’ red address book holds many names of the dead. As each friend or family member passes away, she draws a line through their name and writes in one word. DEAD. She has lived a full and interesting life and has accepted the fact that her life is soon to be over. Her niece realizes that her beloved aunt is failing fast, and makes the journey to see her one last time. Her bittersweet journey will open her eyes to the woman Doris once was and still is until her last breath.

Lundberg skillfully takes us from past to present by using the entries in Doris’ red address book to tell us of the people she has encountered and events that have happened in her long and interestingly colorful life. Not all of the experiences have been good – but each of them has shaped Doris into the strong woman she remains to be today.

Oftentimes as people get older they are not seen as the young, vibrant person they were before age slowed them down. I have been fortunate to have close older family members tell me about their lives, just like Lundberg does for Doris. By the end of the book, I had laughed and cried with her as if she was an Aunt I was truly fond of.

This is the first book Sofia Lundberg has written and I am excited to see what this promising author does next. The former journalist that resides in Sweden is an author to put on your radar. I have read hundreds of books this year. Some of them fantastic, some mediocre, some made me want to chuck them across the room for various reasons I won’t mention. But hands down, The Red Address Book is the best book I have read this year. Do yourself a favor and get it now. Share it with your friends and read it for your book club. Tell me what you think!

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: Past Tense – New Jack Reacher Novel

Past Tense

By Lee Child

Lee Child’s fan favorite character, Jack Reacher, is back. He is in a tiny town in Maine looking for his roots. The home of his family may have the charm of small town America, but tiny towns like this can be clannish and Reacher is an outsider. But never one to back down from a challenge, he quietly researches his family. That is up until circumstances radically change in the blink of an eye putting a target on his back.

One of the many skills he has is hearing something wrong in his environment that will wake him out of a dead sleep. The domino effect of him investigating the noises he heard and coming to the rescue of a woman in trouble becomes his problem faster than a heartbeat. This act of kindness, done in only a way Reacher could, lands him on the wrong side of the law in a town he needs to stay in to help find his family. He understands it is a longshot, but never one to shy away from a challenge, he is determined to finish what he came to accomplish.

Meanwhile, a young couple from Canada is traveling through the area with a car that should be in the junkyard instead of on the road. When it gives them too much trouble to continue on, they are forced to stop for the night. Lucky for them it is by a small motel. But their luck soon turns bad as they find out the car will take more time to be fixed than they thought. Basically trapped in the small secluded motel, they become more and more uncomfortable. Soon it is clear something is desperately wrong with their situation. The owners appear to be keeping the couple isolated from others which makes them afraid of what might happen next.

Soon Reacher and the couple will meet. But when someone else brings weapons to the party, everyone knows bullets will fly and men will die.

I am a fan girl of Lee Child without apologies. His characters, quite notably Jack Reacher, are full of life and energy. They pop off the page with life. The perfect plotting will leave you guessing right up to the end. You will find yourself reading late into the night to see what happens next.  Spoiler alert – Reacher survives the book. But of course all Reacher fans know that going in. Much like James Bond, he lives to die another day and we all expect him to.

Because Child is one of my favorite authors, I have read many of his books. My favorite is always the one I have just finished.  Each time I read one of his books, I am reminded how he can pull me into the story with his eloquent turns of phrase that never intrude on the story he is telling. If you have only seen Jack Reacher on the big screen, invite him further into your life by reading one – or all of Child’s books. You will enjoy the depth of the character and story so much more. In my opinion, the book is always better than the movie.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: The Drowned Girl – Thought Provoking Mystery

The Drowned Girl (previously published as Only One Life)

By Sara Blaedel

Officer Louise Rick travels an hour out of Copenhagen to a small town to help the Unit One Mobile Task Force investigate the horrific murder of a young girl. She was found submerged in the bay by a local fisherman. Suicide is out of the question as she was tethered to a concrete block. Was this an act of random violence? Was she killed by someone she knew? Or was this an honor killing?

The dead teen is Muslim. Her parents live by the rules of their religion, which makes the investigation much more difficult due to their lack of cooperation due to fear and tradition. Unfortunately, information comes to light that may point to a private side of the young victim. Her parents may have found out about her secret which could have brought dishonor to their family.

Enter crime reporter Camilla, close friend of Louise. She jumps into the story and latches onto the honor killing theory. Her editor wants more of this angle, but the deeper Camilla dives into the lives of the Muslim families, the more she wants to help them by finding the truth. But her articles are stirring up a hornet’s nest of preconceived notions that will result in a bigger divide between Danish and Muslims. Will this lead to more violence?

Not only is this a solid mystery, but the thread of prejudice that affects the different groups of people is woven throughout the plot. This multilayered story makes the reader pause to think about listening more and learning more about others they may fear or dislike without foundation.

Some books that are translated from a different language are difficult to read. The Drowned Girl is not one of those books. The flow and read was perfect. Even though this is the first novel I’ve read by Blaedel, it is not the first mystery featuring Louise Rick, but I never felt as though I didn’t know enough about the characters to fully understand the story. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Not only were the main characters shown doing their jobs, but personal lives, hopes and dreams are woven throughout to bring them to life and enrich the story.

This intriguing mystery is entertaining and thought provoking. The plot kept me guessing until the last chapters. Just when I thought I knew who the killer was, my theory would be debunked in the next chapter. This is a perfect multilayered book. If you like depth of characters and the tough topics in Jodi Picoult books, you will love Blaedel’s writing style.

Sara Blaedel is a prolific Danish author, who now resides in New York. She is the recipient of several awards including the Golden Laurel, Denmark’s most prestigious literary award.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from the publisher/author in connection with Killer Nashville in return for my review. Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: Lies – Heart Pounding, Page Turning Psychological Thriller

Lies

By T. M. Logan

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Joe has a great life, an ordinary life. Being married to Mel and father to William – Wills as he calls him, makes him content. He teaches school, helps around the house and does his fair share of parenting. Life is pretty darned good. That is until it slowly begins to unravel.

It all begins when Wills and Joe see Mel’s car on their way home from school. Wills wants to surprise her, but unfortunately Joe is the one who is surprised. Mel seems to be in some sort of meeting with an old college buddy, Ben Delaney. Joe knows Delaney, his daughter babysits Wills and their social circles sometimes intersect. He cannot figure out why Mel is meeting with him when she said she was at work.

Later, what begins as a conversation between Joe and Ben quickly develops into a confrontation. Words lead to shoving and Joe pushes Ben a little too hard. Shocked, he feels he must do something, but Wills is waiting in the car and has an immediate medical need that can’t be delayed. Once Wills is safely home and has been given his medicine, Joe worries about the fight he had with Ben. Giving an excuse to his wife, which is nowhere near the truth, he leaves the house to make sure Ben is okay.

When Joe gets back to the hotel parking lot where he left Ben, he is gone. Could Ben have been lying about his meeting with Mel? Was Ben hurt worse than it seemed when Joe had to attend to his son and left him bleeding next to his car?  Or was he fine and simply gone home.

Joe can’t tell Mel what happened or why. Then she lies to him about the meeting with Ben. As the lies pile up they gain momentum. And to make matters worse, it appears as though someone begins to systematically ruin Joe’s peaceful, perfect life. It begins almost immediately after the incident, whispers and rumors that become accusations and arrests. How did his life unravel in less than a week’s time? Will anyone believe the truth? Does Joe really know the truth about anyone or anything? His life depends upon him finding the true behind all of the lies before it is too late.

The scariest thing about this fabulous book is that it is totally believable. Technology and crime unfortunately have become willing partners. Life as we now know it could end with a few clicks of someone’s computer or a quick picture or two on an anonymous cell phone. Joe’s life goes from bad to worse in the time it takes to pay a bill or “like” something on FB. The tension ramps up from mild to out of control then continues with breakneck speed up until the final chapter.

Lies is Logan’s debut novel, published last year in the UK where he resides. It is now available in the US. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves mysteries featuring psychological twists and turns. The characters are everyday people you work with or that live next door. Who knows what secrets they have or what their past and/or present situations may motivate them to do.

Logan’s next book, 29 Seconds is also a psychological thriller and will be available in the US next year. It is available now in the UK if you happen to be traveling there, pick me up a copy.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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