The Reading Woman 2022 Calendar: December

“All good stories travel from the outside in.”

― Amal El-Mohtar, This is How You Lose the Time War

Amal

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“Picture in the Sand” by Peter Blauner

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: Jan. 3, 2023

“Pictures in the Sand” is an intergenerational family saga fused with an in-depth examination of the roots of radical Islam. The novel connects surprising dots, such as those between modern-day Egyptian terrorism with the making of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, a film I’ve been watching for sixty years. Only upon reading this novel did I learn how DeMille’s telling of the Exodus helped deteriorate the relationship between Western and Islamic cultures. Multilayered throughout, the story punctuates moments of familiar comfort with graphic violence.

An Egyptian immigrant, Ali Hassan, rejoices when he receives the news that his American-born grandson, Alex Hassan, has been accepted to an Ivy League university. Instead of attending college, however, Alex sends his family an email telling them he is changing his name to Abu and leaving to fight a holy war in the Middle East. The details of Abu’s radicalization, which I found myself wanting, are left to our imagination.

In Egypt, Abu only communicates with his grandfather. We learn that in the 1950s, under his cousin’s influence, Ali transformed from a movie fan working as one of Cecil B. DeMille’s assistants to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Through the young Ali, the author shows how such organizations can corrupt a young person’s mind. Impressed by Ali’s past, Abu’s commanders allow for the correspondence. But impressing terrorists was never Ali’s goal. In his letters to Abu, the author shines, nimbly portraying Ali’s attempts to dissuade him.

As an old movie buff, I enjoyed reading about the makings of the film. Now I need to research whether DeMille was as unlikable as portrayed here. Detailed descriptions of the pyramids, the Sphinx, and the massive Egyptian set where Charlton Heston slips in and out of character while dressed as Moses reveal the author’s eye for detail. As a typical American, I think in terms bad guys versus good guys, just like in DeMille’s movie. So I sometimes struggled to follow the intricacies of inter-Egyptian turmoil after the end of British rule.

“Picture” is entertaining and educational, which is everything a historical novel should be. All but the conclusion felt genuine, which is my only issue. Explaining would be a spoiler. It leaves much to discuss regardless. I still highly recommend reading the novel. If you read this book, please share how you felt about the ending with me.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Guest” by Emma Cline

Genre: Psychological FictionThe Guest
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: May 16, 2023

I enjoyed other novels by Emma Cline. “The Girls” centers on teenage girls in a commune in 1969. The commune leader is modeled after Charles Manson. It is basically the plot of the movie “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” The film came out in 2019. The novel was published in 2016. Wonder if there is a connection. “Daddy,” published in 2000, held my interest with ten edgy slice-of-life tales exploring human nature.  In 2023, “The Guest” will be coming out. The fact that I didn’t enjoy this one surprised me. The novel is written as a character study with a fascinating protagonist, a pathological liar, and an expert grifter. Alex is in her early 20s. We get a good feel for her from the beginning. Her NYC roommates kick her out for not paying her share of the rent. Alex goes into hiding out on Long Island while evading a city boyfriend from whom she stole money. She is the kind of dislikeable character you love to hate.

When Simon, a wealthy older man, moves her into his beach house, she believes she has it made. When Simon kicks her out, she aimlessly walks around Long Island to wait for Simon’s party on Labor Day. She believes that Simon will take her back once he sees her. In her usual state of self-interest, Alex lives with the help of a teenage boy who falls in love with her. The author expertly captures her apathy towards others. Cline even somehow manages to make Alex almost sympathetic. She is a homeless soul who bounces around between men hoping to develop a relationship with one who will take care of her. However, because Cline makes sure the reader understands that Alex does not intend to find a way of independent living without the use of manipulation and sex, having empathy for the character is near impossible.

With such a compelling narrative, I expected to be enthralled by the story. However, because the plot’s theme is overused, the novel loses its appeal. The book ends abruptly, ruining the excellent tension I was experiencing while waiting to find out what would happen on Labor Day.  I was left wishing there was an epilogue. While “The Guest” is just as edgy as her other books, it lacks significance. Eventually, I started to wonder what the point of this story was. Is it researching the mentality of a sociopath? Is Alex really a sociopath, or is there some underlying trauma influencing her behavior? What is the meaning of the book’s cover? Does the image of an open palm mean Alex is looking for help or if she is welcoming men to come to her?  No matter, Cline produces such strong writing that it took me a while to realize that the plot isn’t worth getting invested in. A shorter version of the book, possibly a novella, with fewer repetitions would have been more effective.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Good Sister” by Gillian McAllister

Genre: Legal Thriller/Domestic Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Group Putnam The good sister
Pub. Date: July 2, 2018

Mini Review

In this melodramatic novel, two sisters, Martha and Becky, re-examine their relationship as one stands trial for murdering the other’s infant. Martha’s 8-week-old baby, Layla, suffocates while she is under her Aunt Becky’s care. The book opens several months after the baby’s death. During Becky’s trial, the narrative switches back and forth between the sisters. Their parents consider Martha to be the good sister because she runs a successful business while raising a baby in a nuclear family. The wild child who became pregnant at an early age is Becky. Although she is raising a son as a single parent, she still doesn’t know what to do with her life, either professionally or personally. Lots of emotions are running high in the story. I guessed the ending half-way through, so not much of a legal thriller. It’s more of a beach read. The author does a fine job of expressing the pain between the sisters. Still, a predictable story that tries too hard to pull heartstrings.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Overkill” by Sandra Brown

Genre: Mystery/Thriller/RomanceOverkill
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pub. Date: September 27, 2022

The book’s genre reads mystery and thriller. If I knew the author, I would have known she is a romance writer. Romance is not a genre I care for. I like romance in a novel, but not the genre—the sort of book with a Fabio look-alike on its book cover—is not for me. I chose to keep reading because, in between the steamy love-making sequences, the beginning of the storyline held my interest.  “Overkill” does not have such a cover. Zach Bridger is taken aback when he receives a phone call regarding his ex-wife, Rebecca. After a brutal attack, she is on life support. Despite their divorce, he still serves as Rebecca’s medical power of attorney and doesn’t want to be. Zach’s love interest is Kate Lennon, a state prosecutor who wants to put the attacker back in jail. However, halfway through the novel, I lost interest because there was no plot or character development. In addition, the twist is not believable. If you like romance novels, you will like this if you don’t skip this one.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Set in Stone” by Stela Brinzeanu

Genre:  Historical Fiction/LGBTQSet In Stone
Publisher: Legend Press
Pub. August 4, 2022

This book takes place in the Eastern European country of Moldova during medieval times. Readers are informed in an Author Note at the beginning of the book that a Balkan folktale inspired her story. It centers on two female heroes who fall in love. They behave and dress as man and wife. Cross-dressing and living as the opposite sex has been around throughout history. I wish she had written more about the folktale. I want to know if she took an author’s liberty of changing the sex of one of her characters. Either way, I am happy to say that the author writes of the love affair in a sweet and respectful manner.

Brinzeanu shows us medieval Balkan women lived in a patriarchal world where a woman’s role is defined by religion and class. Mira and Elina are two motherless young women from opposite backgrounds. Both are expected to wed. Their fathers are in the process of finding their future husbands. In the opening chapter, “Dowry,” we meet Mira, the village potter’s peasant daughter. When Mira meets Elina from the ruling class, neither expects a friendship to form. Rozakau, the local female healer, often thought to be a witch, is the link between them. She is helping Mira recover from a horrific accident that Elina witnessed. Rozakau is the most interesting of the three women. She stays hidden in a hovel below the ground because she fears being burnt at the stake one day. Despite this, she continues growing medicinal plants because she believes this is her calling. Rozakau is written as magical and mysterious. The reader is never sure if she is who she thinks she is or an old insane woman.

The backdrop of the conflict between church and pagan beliefs that fuelled witch burnings across medieval and early modern Europe is well written and shown through Rozakau. The author gives her novel a bit of reality by incorporating some Romanian terms. There is a glossary provided at the end of the book. How then could such a compelling a storyline be anything but entertaining?  Yet the novel is not not a good read. It lacks depth and repeatedly mentions the same theme of gay love. Despite this, I appreciated that women’s issues and lives were shown to be not significantly different from today, especially in this current political climate where women’s rights are under attack. The author states that she “grew up in Soviet Moldova – a land where propaganda dominated the airwaves.” It is a shame that she did not use her political life experience in her novel. She barely writes about the politics of that time. She stuck with the love story.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“On the Rooftop” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton 

Genre: Historical/Domestic-African American FictionOn the Rooftop
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pub. Date: September 6, 2022

The Fillmore District, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco during the 1950s, is the setting for the book. An African American musical family and their tight nit neighborhood are central to the narrative. The novel has a sincere attitude but is a tad lackluster. Vivian is a widow who fled the racial cruelty of segregated Louisiana for San Francisco. She lives in a community where she and everyone are close friends with the barber, the butcher, the pastor, and many other neighbors. While working as a nurse, Vivian raises her three daughters, all talented singers. She wants to turn them into celebrities. Consider a Gypsy Rose Lee dynamic that is less jarring. The sisters are very close and firm believers in the power of prayer. As adults, they will not all share their mother’s preferences. The tensions in the family are predictable, making their scenes read sluggish.

Many leading jazz performers, including Louis ArmstrongJohn ColtraneElla FitzgeraldBillie Holiday, and Charlie Parker, visited the district. The nightclubs were bouncing and overflowing. Reading about the sight and sounds of jazz and blues music was fun and exciting. Still, the main narrative is the community’s gentrification and the impending decline of the jazz scene in the area. The bookstore owner informs the beauty salon owner, “Pretty soon, you’ll go around these streets, and you won’t see yourself reflected back in it.” (Spoiler: Once again, racism forces Vivian out of a home she loves.) The author captures the anguish felt by all black people who fought but lost the battle of ethnic cleansing in their neighborhood. The book’s conclusion is factually correct but written in a corny way that reads more like women’s fiction than historical fiction. Considering the Fillmore District had an energy and life of its own, I expected a more memorable tale. The story would have had more punch if it had less syrup. That is me. If you enjoy women’s domestic fiction, you will enjoy “On the Rooftop.”

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“Rich Blood” by Robert Bailey

Rich Blood

Genre: Legal Thriller
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Pub. Date: September 1, 2022

This is a farfetched whodunit. Jason Rich, an ambulance chaser attorney, takes on the criminal case of his estranged sister, Jana, in this legal thriller and murder mystery. She is charged with killing her husband. It’s implausible that a personal injury attorney could handle a murder case. That was probably intended to add to the tension. I just found it unbelievable. The story is more about small-town and family skeletons than the trial. The secrets involve infidelity, drug and alcohol addiction, corruption, drug lords, and PTSD. The skeletons are the best part of the novel. The ending has a nice twist, even if it’s not too tricky to figure out.

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“Babysitter” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Literary Fiction/Mystery & ThrillersBabysitter
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: August 23, 2022

One of America’s greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, revisits her usual themes of class struggle, the vulnerability of girls, and racism in her latest novel. Following a white, privileged female protagonist, she leads the reader through a labyrinth of horrors: sexual re-victimization, violent marriages, ruthless lovers, pedophile priests, serial child murders, incest, and rape. As only a master can, she writes as if you can see into the souls of her characters. Her carefully constructed sentences render her protagonist simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. Some parts of the story are so cringe-worthy that I needed to take a break from the book. At 84 years of age, no one writes about violence with a deeper awareness than she does. Still, I feel that this novel is only for JCO fans. She even throws in a childhood terminal illness. It is just a bit too much to cram into one story.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of sexual re-victimization, you won’t be after reading “Babysitter.” The term refers to the increased risk of adult sexual assault faced by women with a history of childhood sexual assault. In 1977, Hannah Jarrett, “an attractive white woman in her late 30s, is living the American dream: a wealthy husband, two kids, a home in the Michigan suburbs, and a Filipina nanny. She spends her days at country clubs and community relations forums.” She believes that she hides her insecurities behind her expensive and sophisticated wardrobe. But, due to abuse experienced in her childhood, Hannah cannot recognize the warning signs exhibited by people around her. She meets a man at a party and starts what she considers an affair. The man drugs, beats, and brutally rapes her. Despite the severe abuse, she calls him her lover.

In addition to exploring the patriarchal marriage dynamics, Oates also uses “Hannah’s marriage to explore the deeply embedded racism of 1970s suburban America.” The author nails white supremacy. When Hannah is discovered in the hotel lobby, battered and bruised by her so-called lover, a young black parking attendant is immediately accused of rape. Confused, she never denies that this young man is her rapist. The police shot and killed him, stating that he was resisting arrest.

The book’s title refers not to Hannah’s nanny but to a serial killer who sexually molests and tortures children before killing them. Unsurprisingly, Hannah’s husband is convinced that he must be a black man from Detroit. Sadly, JCO takes her horror stories from real life. What makes the “Babysitter” even viler is that the plot is based on a true story. In the 1970s, a real-life serial killer called the Babysitter Killer, also known as the Oakland County Child Killer, abducted and murdered children around Detroit. Per the Boston Globe, “he left their bodies on display in public places a few weeks after they disappeared. Several suspects, including the son of a prominent man who later committed suicide [also in the book], were identified, and the investigation led to a child pornography ring, but the case was never solved.” Spoiler alert: Nor is it in the novel. If you are looking for answers, the author gives none.

Oates has never shied away from taking her readers on dark journeys. It cannot be denied that her stories will leave you with a better understanding of the psyches of both perpetrators and victims. I am a loyal JCO fan and am glad I read her latest. I hesitate to recommend the book, as it is not for the faint of heart. However, if you are already a fan, you know that her work can get grisly. It appears that she just keeps getting better at what she does.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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Wrong Place, Wrong Time” by Gillian McAllister

Genre: Time Travel/ThrillerWrong time wrong place
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: Aug. 2, 2022

McAllister’s attempt at “Groundhog Day,” where the protagonist is stuck in a time loop and the day keeps repeating until she gets it right. Unlike the movie, this novel is not a comedy. The author explores motherhood and marriage in an unusual mystery. Jen sees her gentle teenage son, Todd kill a man in the middle of the night. She and her husband follow Todd in their car to the jail. They are devastated and in shock. When she wakes up the next morning, it is the day before—all is normal. This is a well-written scene, which will confuse the reader as much as the character. Jen figures out that she has transported back in time to stop the murder. McAllister mentions the phenomena of hysterical strength, which refers to extraordinary displays of human strength typically prompted by a life-threatening situation. One commonly cited example is a mother lifting a vehicle to save her trapped child. Not the same thing, but good enough to explain the author’s time travel plot. Interesting premise, the problem is that she travels further backward each night when she goes to sleep. Halfway through, it becomes monotonous reading the same days over and over. But then again, I didn’t care for the movie. Maybe it’s just me.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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