Cold Storage by David Koepp – Book Review

While his name might not immediately ring any bells for a lot of readers, odds are every single person who reads this review has encountered the work of David Koepp at some point in the past thirty-plus years. Koepp is a veteran screenwriter and director in Hollywood with tons of blockbuster credits to his name. These include Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Carlito’s Way, and Panic Room. Basically, the man has an intimate understanding of suspense. Cold Storage marks his debut novel. While I think it pales in comparison to his fabulous Hollywood work, this is a pretty solid effort.

Cold Storage begins in 1987 with a specialized team of bioterror experts, Roberto Diaz and Trini Romano, leaving something bad in a cold storage facility tucked into the limestone mines in Atchison Kansas. How bad? We’ll get there. Roberto is introduced as the perfect man’s man. A hotshot hero who is a little too handsome and is in possession of superb physical and mental capabilities that ensure that he’s pretty much the most impressive specimen on Earth. He even has the perfect wife and perfect kid as the cherry on top. Trini is his brash but likeable sidekick. We very quickly jump back to the beginning of the expedition where our two prospective heroes go with an impossibly sexy and charming microbiologist with a thirst for married men to a remote town belonging to a tribe of just 26 aboriginal members of the Pintupi tribe, a tribe that ceased to exist all within a matter of hours. What killed them is what our heroes are there to find, a deadly fungus from space that had been lying dormant in this sleepy outback town since its arrival on Earth in 1979. They take a sample, nasty fungal you-know-what hits the fan, and the team members nuke the town and save humanity. Or so they think.

Brief side note about the beginning. I won’t lie. This isn’t my typical genre. I don’t read a lot of suspense thrillers and when I do I tend to do a bit of eye rolling at the typical character tropes and stereotypes. Especially those that add an unlikely and oddly placed sexual dynamic between two people in the middle of a potentially planet altering crisis. I’m sorry, but if I’m traveling to a remote village in search of a deadly pathogen, the last thing that will be on my mind is a romp in the airplane restroom with my married colleague whom I just met 20 minutes prior. I do sort of get why Koepp added this part. He thrusts Diaz into a position of having to make an ethical choice in regard to giving in to temptation. But the result is that the ironically named Hero (sexy lady scientist) gets thrust into the role of evil temptress causing readers to instantly dislike her and, consequently, making what could have been a vital character annoying and expendable. At this point in the story, I was really afraid that further reading would just deliver more narrative about loose useless women and the heroic men that clean up their messes. Even Trini had been introduced as slightly weak, in love with her partner, and needing his rescue on more than one occasion. Thankfully, better and less cringe-worthy things were to come.

Back to our story, the narrative later jumps to the present. We get two new central characters: Travis and Naomi. Both work as night guards at the storage facility. These two characters actually saved the story for me. Travis, also known as Teacake, is a bumbling but likeable young man who is entirely too trusting and talks too much. One gets him into a lot of trouble and the other ensures he doesn’t get out of it. After a brief prison sentence, due in 100% part to that gullibility issue we talked about, Teacake absolutely must keep his job at the cold storage facility in Atchison, Kansas. One night he finally gets the nerve to introduce himself to the new girl, quiet Naomi who has taken on a part-time gig at the storage facility to support her young daughter while also trying to finish school. Together the two find themselves in a heap of trouble after they investigate a mysterious beeping coming from the walls.

We also bring back into the story Roberto Diaz. Though he’s retired, he’s the only one who knows the sheer power of this fungus and the threat is poses to humanity, so he exits retirement for one final mission to save the planet. Together, Roberto, Naomi, and Teacake make up a very unlikely ragtag team of heroes. While it once again borders on cliche, I thought this worked. Now in his 60’s, Roberto isn’t quite the impressive specimen of a man he once was. While he still has full control over his wits, his body doesn’t quite cooperate like it used to, which occasionally causes a bit of extra suspense. It’s not everyday the hero of a story is thwarted by his own back muscle spasms while trying to take down a formerly human fungus zombie. Oh yeah, did I mention the fungus takes over the human brain and turns the host into a walking gooey mess of zombie goop hell bent on sharing the love?

My biggest quibble with this, and the reason I hope they never make this into a movie, is it’s really gross. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I know some readers love the gooey gore of seeping orifices and exploding bodies, but it’s not exactly my cup of tea. I also don’t really enjoy the idea that this is actually speculative fiction. Of course there are organisms out there with the power to overtake humanity and destroy all life on Earth. We haven’t met them yet, or maybe we have and they’re buried deep below the ground in cold storage facilities (oh, sweet Jesus), but they do exist. I’m fine, really. I need a drink. Or perhaps a tranquilizer dart to get to sleep at night, but I’m fine. *insert forced smile*

Overall, this was an exciting and suspenseful read with a satisfying enough conclusion. It’s quite short and easily digestible (well, except for all that gross stuff). Later characters are well-developed to make up for what I felt to be a rather rocky and icky beginning. I’d give this one 3 stars overall.

Pub. date: Sept 3, 2019 by HarperAudio; ISBN: 0062916467; Runtime 8 hrs, 6 min.

Posted in Horror, thriller | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – Book Review

You will honor them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here.”

Heather Morris

There are certain periods in history that fill me with an absolute all encompassing blind rage. It should come as no surprise that one of these events was the reign of the Nazi regime in Western Europe from the years of 1933 to 1945 in which approximately six million Jews and five million other targeted groups were murdered in one of the most horrific and high profile genocides in human history. More than one million victims were children. As this is a book review, I’m not going to get too much into the history of the rise of the Nazi regime or the years leading up to Hitler’s “Final Solution,” but if you would like to read more about this topic I’d encourage you to visit this website1 for a succinct timeline of events.

In 2003, author Heather Morris met with elderly Holocaust survivor Lali Sokolov. She describes their conversation, spread over the course of 3 years, exactly as long as Lali’s tenure at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, as “simply the ramblings of an elderly gentleman.”2 He regaled her with sound bytes that weren’t even really linked in any sequential order. He was reliving and grappling with the past, and he wanted her to tell his story. He needed her to do it quickly, because he needed to be with his Gita again and was in a hurry to move along. The story she would write would become The Tattooist of Auschwitz. This is a love story at heart, but it’s also a fairly remarkable work of historical fiction that is heartbreaking and raw.

Heather Morris based her novel on the account of Auschwitz survivor, Lali Sokolov. She met with him on a regular basis for a period spanning 3 years beginning in 2003. Image credit:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz begins with Lale Eisenberg answering the order from the government for each Jewish Slovakian family to send one individual to the “work camps.” (Clarification break: I’m not entirely sure why, but Morris chose to change the spelling of Lali’s name to Lale for the novel. After the war, Lali changed his last name to the less Jewish sounding name of Sokolov.) His brother had volunteered, but Lale refused to allow him to go. His brother had a wife and two young sons to care for, and Lale insisted as a single man it was his place to sacrifice on behalf of his family. Eventually he finds himself at one of the most infamous concentration camps of the Holocaust, Auschwitz. The course of the novel follows Lale as he fulfills his duties as the camp Tätowierer, a prisoner in charge of tattooing the numbers onto new arrivals. Through Lale, we experience life in the camp. We live the horror, the fear, the immense heartbreak, and the determination for survival. We also experience true love that blossoms in the unlikeliest of places.

There’s really not much more I can say about the plot without getting too spoiler-y, so I’ll digress and discuss something I feel to be important. In my research surrounding this book, I found articles alluding to extremely heavy criticism from historians about the events in this novel. Many details are incorrect, and many events are quite fanciful in nature, leading them to believe a large part of this narrative simply wasn’t possible. Morris has responded to these critiques by asserting that she was telling Lali’s story. If Lali said it happened, she included it. I, frankly, support her in this. Morris was not writing non-fiction. It’s within the rights of a fiction writer to take liberties with a novel. And we must remember that Lali was a very old man at the time he met Morris. He’d endured years of trauma, so could we really blame him if he got a few details wrong? Honestly, this man survived 3 years of the most unimaginable tortuous suffering, so if he had told Morris a sparkly unicorn flew over and pooped on a guard, well he earned every bit of that unicorn poop and I damn well hope she would have put it in the book. Ok, maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but you get my point.

I do love history. I do believe it’s important to be accurate, but I also believe it’s important to honor both the survivors and the dead with an emotionally honest account. This is why I love fiction so much. History is fascinating, but knowing dates and facts doesn’t encompass the actual human experience. I can know that Crematorium number 1 was put into operation at Auschwitz on August 15, 1940.3 But that isn’t nearly as powerful as the image of Lale standing outside feeling the ash, the whispered remains of human life, raining from the sky onto him and his fellow prisoners. Good historical fiction allows us to FEEL history, which is essential for the development of empathy and full understanding. Full understanding is what ensures that we never stand by and let such atrocities occur for the remainder of human history. I wish such fanciful notions were yet within our grasp, but sadly we still have a lot to learn. I know a lot of people have trouble reading books like this. I completely understand this. Frankly, I do too, and I have to mentally prepare myself for such an undertaking. I feel that Morris crafted this novel in a way that was both brutally honest and, somehow, mild enough to not be overtly traumatic. Though there is literally no way to write a novel of the Holocaust without inflicting emotional pain. If you don’t feel pain when reading such things, there is definitely something wrong with you.

Lali Sokolov and Gita Furman met and fell in love at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The author found herself embroiled in controversy over the accuracy of Lali’s account. Image credit and more info at

My overall takeaway from the novel is that it’s a well-written and moving love story. It does well in honoring the victims of this horrible nightmare from the past. Peripheral characters are well-drawn and add to the story. We are even introduced to other real-life characters, both the brave heroes and heroines of the war and the infamous evil bastards whose cruelty bore no impediment. I don’t believe it’s a literary masterpiece, but it’s a good narrative peppered with some lyrical moments. I listened to the audio, and I feel it was well done by Richard Armitage. Eventually I wearied a bit of the breathless way he spoke Lale’s voice, but I understand why he read him this way in most instances. Where he really excelled was in the various accents of this very diverse cast of characters.

Overall, I give this novels 4 stars.

  1. “The Holocaust.” Publish date October 14, 2009, updated September 30, 2020. Access Date October 23, 2020.
  2. “Heather Morris discusses meeting Lale Sokolov.” Bonnier Publishing Australia. January 15, 2018.
  3. “Auschwitz-Birkenau: Crematoria & Gas Chambers.” Jewish Virtual Library. The State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Access date October 23, 2020. September 4, 2018 by HarperAudio; ISBN: 198714564X; Runtime: 7 hrs, 25 mins.

Posted in Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

WWW Wednesday – Oct 21, 2020

Here’s my second edition of this weekly series of posts from Sam at Taking on a World of Words. Check out her blog if you haven’t, as she shares some fabulous content. In this series, each blogger answers the 3 W’s every Wednesday:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

What am I currently reading?

In hardback, I’m reading The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell. Russell is one of those rare authors whose every work I have devoured with absolute glee. She mostly writes historical fiction, but her bestselling novel, The Sparrow, is one of the greatest science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Every detail of her work is meticulously researched, and I highly recommend each one. This one follows a young woman who takes on a powerful mining company in the early 1900’s in the town of Calumet, Michigan. Russell draws on research into her own family history with this work, which lends a very personal touch to the story.

Writer Mary Doria Russell’s newest work of historical fiction is a tribute to the men and women of the Labor Movement in the early 20th Century.

Evidently I’m feeling historical fiction at the moment, because my current audio read is the Holocaust novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. I probably don’t need to tell you this is a difficult subject matter, and I’ll have a lot of thoughts about this book in a couple of days, as I’m more than 75% of the way through the audio. The performance is quite well done by talented actor, Richard Armitage, who flawlessly shifts from the dozens of differing voices and dialects of prisoners at the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps during the period from 1942 to 1945. This is a beautiful story based on the real-life account of Lali Sokolov (Lale in the book), a Slovakian Jew who acts as the camp’s Tätowierer during his tenure at the camp. Ultimately, it’s a love story about finding love and hope during the bleakest of times.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the 2018 debut novel by Heather Morris.

What did I just finish reading?

I recently finished Becoming by Michelle Obama and The Dutch House by Anne Patchett. You can link to my reviews of each to see my thoughts by clicking on each. Both I highly recommend.

What do I think I’ll read next?

On audio, I’ll be listening to the November selection for my book club, Cold Storage by David Koepp. David Koepp is a screenwriter who worked on Jurassic Park, so I would imagine the man knows a little something about suspense. A little apprehensive about this one in the current climate considering it is a pandemic thriller, but maybe this is, in fact, the right time to read it. Check back with me in a few days to see how good an idea this one is!

Cold Storage is the debut novel for veteran screenwriter, David Koepp.

In paperback, I plan on picking back up a book I started and failed to finish due to circumstances unrelated to the quality of the book. It is The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty. I always find Moriarty’s books a delight and thought this to be a good buffer while tackling something a bit more panic-inducing on audio.

Liane Moriarty’s novels are infused with wit, charm, and a whole lot of intrigue.

So, there is me! I’d love to hear what you are reading, have read, and want to read soon. I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on my current selections.

Until we meet again, Happy Reading!

Posted in General fiction, Historical Fiction, mystery, thriller, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments


There is power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.

– Michelle Obama, Becoming

I first picked up Becoming over a year ago. For various reasons, I kept finding myself distracted by other things. Something came available at the library, I had a book club selection to get through, and, if I’m being honest with myself, it was just depressing to read. Not because of the tone of the book, but because of the current tone of America. Cracking open Becoming brought me back to a nostalgic time when my Country had the cool, measured leadership of a caring family. A family that believed all American citizens were worthy of a voice. A family that read books, celebrated individuality, and understood the gravity of the position they held in American society. A family that understood the sheer power in words, the power to cut deeply and the power to heal. That’s all I’m going to say, because I don’t want to make this about the current occupant of the White House. That would be a slap in the face to the beautiful piece of literature that Michelle Obama has created.

Becoming is broken into 3 parts. The first, Becoming Me, centers on her growth as a person before meeting Barack. It follows her from childhood in the South side of Chicago on to Princeton as she learns to define herself. Readers are immersed in intimate details of how it felt to always feel out of place, never really fitting in completely in any world in which she found herself. She lays bear insecurities that any of us could understand, as we all have them. I grew to love Michelle’s family and friends, and I felt the heartbreak when she encountered loss, often way too soon. It’s easy to see how she came to be so resilient in heart and mind.

The second part, titled Becoming Us, shows her journey with Barack prior to his tenure as President. This section resonates so completely with many working women. Michelle is brutally honest about her struggle to remain true to herself while finding her place as a wife and mother, often finding her own desires and choices swallowed by her husband’s rapid transitions in his career. She vents her frustrations about feeling alone and apprehensive about Barack’s potential entrance into the political sphere, something for which Michelle had nothing but disdain. All the while, her narrative is infused with nothing but admiration for his intellect and his thirst to do good in the world no matter what it costs him. Theirs is a very authentic and inspiring love story. Nothing is perfect, but it’s still right. And much of marriage is about perseverance, never losing sight of the things you originally loved about a person no matter how much difficulty you face later on.

The third section was, I felt, often the more tiresome section. In Becoming More there is a lot of campaigning and details about life in the White House, navigating an environment that is simultaneously steeped in privilege and suffocation. Many of the events discussed I remember quite vividly, and it was fascinating to get a look inside. There are a lot of beautiful, touching moments in this section which saves it from the occasional monotony of the politics. It’s also the saddest section, because as the book drew to a close I knew what was to come. Despite knowing how the story ends, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread. But Michelle has a way of infusing hope into even the darkest of times.

Every section of this memoir is made better by the lyricism of Obama’s prose and the authenticity of her voice. She’s an amazing human who approaches life with a humble appreciation for what it means simply to exist. She never wanted power or influence, but she managed to do wonderful things upon obtaining both. Overall, this book is inspiring and infinitely quotable. It’s definitely one to keep and cherish, a book to pull off the shelf when life feels a little too weighty.

I want to end this on a very happy note. I found myself worried about Michelle’s beloved garden, so I did a little research to find out how completely the Obama’s legacy was wiped out by the current administration. *I’m happy to report that the garden still stands. The garden is not maintained by the Trump family, but Michelle arranged for private funding and maintenance by the National Park Service before leaving the White House. I choose to see this as a symbol that there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. Perhaps I should end it with Obama’s own words, as she says it much more eloquently than I ever could.

Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.

– Michelle Obama

5 Stars for this stunning memoir.

*Friedman, Sarah. “Here’s How the Garden Michelle Obama Started is Faring in Melania Trump’s Hands.” Bustle. Sept. 15, 2018.

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The Dutch House

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Anne Patchett

Perhaps, if you’re like me, you’ve had the experience of going to a winery. Compared to the rest of the world, in your mind anyway, you have a bit of an unsophisticated palate. You know you like things that taste pleasant, which pretty much translates to sweet regardless of price tag, variety of grape, or tapestry of complicated flavors involved. But here you are, and you’re going to see it through. So you order something that looks nice. The glass is set in front of you with little fanfare and, on the surface, it looks like any other glass of wine. You take a slow sip at first. Honestly, it’s unremarkable to your tastebuds. There’s nothing overtly pleasant about this wine, but it was expensive and it’s wine, so you forge on. You keep sipping, and with each sip you notice something you didn’t notice before. Flavors that whisper on your tongue and a new warmth that spreads through your body, lightening your mood and drawing your mind to introspection. It’s not until you tip back the very last dregs of the glass that the thought occurs, “this is some damn good wine.”

Why am I rambling about wine, you ask? Because this book is that for me. It’s not a pleasant wine. There were times, honestly, I wondered why, exactly, I was reading what I was reading. But the true genius, I believe, of the writing of Anne Patchett is in the subtle creeping of her narrative. This novel is an incredibly intimate character study. I’ve seen some reviews that dub this novel as “a modern fairytale.” I get the reference, certainly. Open scene on a glorious 1920’s Dutch mansion in Philadelphia, a relic complete with the ghostly images of the VanHoebeek family whose portraits bear witness to the tragic dramas of our hero and heroine, Danny and Maeve Conroy. Upon the disappearance of their mother and the untimely demise of their father, Danny and Maeve are cast out by the evil stepmother. In a matter of hours, they are cast from the elegant gilded confines of their mansion onto the street to begin anew. Ok, I’m overdramatizing a bit. They do have one thing left from their father. He left an education trust to be split between Danny and the step-mother’s two daughters.

Much to the delight of Danny’s older sister, Maeve, it’s not required for the trust to be used in equal parts by all three, which means Danny can do as much school as is humanly possible in a bid to potentially empty the trust before the daughters of their nemesis can even think of touching it. It doesn’t matter that Danny has absolutely no desire to go to med school, he WILL be a doctor, at least on paper, for the sole purpose of sticking it to their father’s widow in a slow-burning revenge. What the reader is left with is a comically sad realism. In expert fashion that only a writer with Patchett’s skill can exhibit, we aren’t told what to think about all this. We are shown little by little and layer by layer until everything falls into place. And though this is a slow burning narrative, the effortless flow of her prose ensures that we readers don’t ever really get bored. We don’t grow to love these characters in the same way readers usually love characters, but we do love them. As with members of our own families, we see both sides of them, their affable and admirable side juxtaposed against their apathy and low emotional maturity. We understand them and, consequently, feel for them in a way we otherwise wouldn’t in a less effective narrative. In my case, this is accentuated by the fact that I enjoyed this one on audio, and the first person narration is performed by the incomparable Tom Hanks, whose depiction of Danny was both endearing and authentic.

I think the true power of this story is it causes us to examine our own relationships and resentments. It’s about a reconciliation of the past and present, casting aside the demons that followed us from the past so as to forever alter the course of our lives. It’s about letting go and moving on. In the long run, a house is just a house. A painting is just a painting. The meaning we ascribe to everything that touches us is of our own making. Our resentments and anguish will define us, but we are in control of how those things define us. As with the glass of wine and the good book, will we walk out the other side appreciating the things we gained more than we regret the things that didn’t go our way?

Overall, I give 4 stars to this ultimately moving and lyrical novel.

Pub. date: September 24, 2019 by HarperAudio; ISBN: 9780062963703; Runtime: 9 hrs, 53 mins

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WWW Wednesday – October 7, 2020

I love the idea of sharing reading experiences with fellow writers and bloggers, so I’m participating in the challenge from Sam @ Taking on a World of Words.

Along with other bloggers, I’ll answer the three questions and share my blog and visit others to see what they are also enjoying. Yes, I’m aware I’m a day late, but shhh…..


The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading: I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama in hardback and The Dutch House by Anne Patchett on audio. I’ve been reading Obama’s book for quite some time. #1 my time for actually sitting and reading has been woefully rare between the pressures of work, kids, and the multitude of distractions I seem to find myself with of late. I’m also savoring it. I revel in her inspiring and effortless prose and I’ll be sad when I’m finished. The Dutch House is, so far, a very lyrical book. It’s narrated by the incomparable Tom Hanks. It’s a very intimate narration. A slow burner that I feel is probably building to a satisfying conclusion. Check back with my blog in a few days to see if I still feel this way. 🙂

Recently finished: I recently finished Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. I absolutely loved it, and for more detailed thoughts, please see my entry from October 7 for a full review.

Reading next: I will next be picking up Mary Doria Russell’s newest work, The Women of the Copper Country. I’ve had the pleasure of reading every novel of Ms. Russell’s, and I’m really looking forward to diving in to this one, as her historical fiction is typically quite spectacular.

Thanks for stopping by to visit me, and feel free to share your reads in the comments and follow me if you’d like to see what I think about my current reads!

Happy Reading,


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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

With this book, Balli Kaur Jaswal has created a delightful, charming, and ultimately moving novel about female identity. Perhaps I should have expected it based upon the title alone, but admittedly I didn’t anticipate just exactly HOW erotic this little tale would be. Get your water spritzers ready, because this is one spicy read. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The eroticism in this book is done quite well, and it effectively lends itself toward the topic of female empowerment.

Nikki is a woman stuck between two vastly different worlds: the more traditional world of the Sikh community and the busy modern world of London. Nikki, at age 22, finds herself at odds with just about everyone. She’s a disappointment to her family after she drops out of law school with no clear plan in mind, and she’s a disappointment to the Sikh community as a woman with no desire to marry the first eligible Sikh man to come along, something her more traditional sister, Mindi, is actively seeking.

Nikki struggles with these issues of personal identity and family identity while she struggles to make ends meet by working at a depressing little pub in London located just below her meager flat. Fearing for the longevity of her job at this struggling pub, she takes a job teaching a group of Punjabi widows in London’s Southall community what she believes will be creative writing. What greets her are a group of mostly illiterate widows who just want to learn how to read and write in English. The class takes a completely different turn, however, when the widows find a collection of erotic stories in Nikki’s bag. They begin to pass the time in class by narrating and recording explicit tales of lust to one another. And, with that, I’ll never see vegetables the same way again.

As amusing as this sounds on the surface, this is a vitally important narrative. As one of the widows proclaims, “Nobody eavesdrops on old lady chatter. To them it’s all one buzzing noise.” These are women who, in traditional Punjabi society, have been written off as tired, old and sexless. Women, in general, are expected to be sexless. Sex is for the purpose of procreation. Lust and desire are taboo subjects relegated to the bedroom of a married couple, if they exist at all within a traditional marriage. What Nikki finds through her relationships with these women is a surprising kinship. Additionally, she discovers that her “traditional” Punjabi parents are much more modern than she’d ever considered, and that most of the women in her class would never have been given the kinds of opportunities or freedoms she and her sister were afforded. Over the course of the novel Nikki and the widows find their voices, both individually and collectively. They bridge a divide between two worlds seemingly opposed. Through their relationships with one another they are able to come to terms with and heal relationships with family and friends outside of their circle. Additionally, as the women in the Sikh community finally begin to speak out, we readers begin to see the healing power honesty and communication can have within a toxic culture bent on silencing women. Perhaps not everyone will be convinced immediately, but we have to start somewhere.

To accentuate this feminist undercurrent, Balli Kaur Jaswal spices things up a bit further by adding a bit of intrigue. Nikki and the widows find themselves embroiled in the mysteries surrounding the suspicious deaths of three young Punjabi women. They are also forced into secrecy of their illicit meetings due to the presence of the Brotherhood, a group of young Punjabi thugs who lurk about Southall threatening and intimidating women into remaining proper and submissive. Adding this detail was, at times, unnecessary, but it also accentuated exactly how dangerous subversiveness can be within traditional Sikh culture. It also helped to highlight a hidden truth about the unlikeliness of justice for young women whose lives are cut short because they dare to speak out against the powerful rulers in a toxic patriarchal society. Sadly, this part is not fiction.

When you piece all the details of this book together, it’s not difficult to see the link between women gaining the strength to talk about sex and women gaining the strength to talk about more complex issues surrounding women’s rights. A woman deserves a voice in the bedroom and a voice in the board room. Considering such, I’m surprised I don’t see more reviewers mention how vital Kulwinder’s place is in this narrative. Kulwinder plays two roles. She’s a respected member of the community who hires Nikki to teach the class, and she’s also the grieving mother of one of the dead girls. She’s juxtaposed with Nikki in an interesting way. While Nikki is a modern girl trying to find her place in Punjabi culture without losing her voice, Kulwinder is a more traditional woman attempting to gain a more powerful voice for Punjabi women within the confines of traditional culture while not sacrificing her respectability. It’s an admirable goal, but in the beginning she lacks both the courage and the tools with which to make her demands in a way that’s effective. While she initially has nothing but disdain for Nikki, Nikki is exactly the influence she needs to reach her eventual goals. And the reader can’t deny that Kulwinder’s initial harshness toward Nikki is due, in part, to the young girl’s similarities to Kulwinder’s daughter for whom she is still grieving.

On the surface this is a fun light-hearted read that’s more than a little bit raunchy. A deeper analysis shows this as an important book about female identity. It’s a testament to the fact that a woman is never too young or old to find her voice. Additionally, it provided a critique of many of the antiquated ideas of gender roles in the Sikh community while simultaneously celebrating the positive aspects of the community as a whole. Overall, I give this one 4 stars.

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The Mountains Sing

Human lives were short and fragile. Time and illnesses consumed us, like flames burning away these pieces of wood. But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

A good book tells a story that keeps your attention and brings a smile to your face or a tear to your eye. But you find yourself walking away from a good book without giving it much more than a passing thought. It was a leaf on the wind whose beauty touched you for a moment and then faded from your memory as quickly as it came. But a great book? A great book seeps into your brain and imprints something. You don’t just feel emotion, you become deeply entrenched in that emotion. You aren’t just reading about a person and their experiences. You are living those experiences along side them, and you feel intimately their terror, their loss, and their triumph. You see with their eyes and feel with their skin in a truly visceral way. For a brief moment you can’t separate yourself from this person who only exists on a page but whose existence has become so vital to your own.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has created such a book. It’s greatness lies predominantly in a lyricism that immediately pulls the reader in and and won’t release them. Don’t get me wrong, I had to put this book down on some occasions. The events in this novel are horrifying. This is a family saga that spans The Vietnamese Land Reform from the years following WWII through the Vietnam War to the present. At one point I didn’t know if I could take anymore death, torture or starvation. But I see that as a testament to the power of this book. It cuts deep, and it should. What use is showing the horror of war if you don’t give an accurate glimpse into the truth of it? There’s no truth in delicacy. There’s only artifice, and artifice is a slap in the face to people who endured pain and suffering in order to bring a better tomorrow.

One thing Mai does expertly is crafting the perfect character. I deeply understood the love Guava’s Grandma had for her children and her children’s children. I felt her pain when she had to make sacrifices, even going so far as to leave them behind in the care of others to ensure they survived. I could imagine myself in that position, walking away from my children as my heart broke knowing it was the only choice I had. The terror of not knowing if I’d ever see them again. And I felt deeply her intense resolve to return to them and to provide the life that all children deserve, no matter how old they may grow or how far away they may be, both literally and figuratively. I could only aspire to be as brave and selfless in my own actions as this astounding woman. Though it was difficult to understand, I grew to know her heart enough to be able to accept and admire her capacity for forgiveness. Her faith was unshakable. Even at her darkest moments, she was still able to say, “as long as I have my voice, I am still alive.”

I realized that war was monstrous. If it didn’t kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again. – Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Another impressive thing about this novel is that it doesn’t present a good or a bad when it comes to war. Beneath the surface is pain and desperation, good people and bad people making the only choices they feel they have to make. We all have the capacity for good and evil, and desperate times force us over a precipice. Which way we go depends upon whether we have the strength to do good or the will to do harm. Whether we are willing to fight to regain our own happiness or whether we seek to steal the happiness of others through cowardice.

This book is so infinitely beautiful and worthwhile despite the sheer heft of the weight it places on your soul. It’s one I will never forget.

5 stars.

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The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

One of the things I value most about being a part of a reading group is that I’m exposed to books that I otherwise may have never stumbled upon. This next selection is one of those, so a big thank you to the member who chose this book as our September discussion selection. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a fascinating piece of historical fiction. Richardson has crafted at once a nostalgic and searing look at life in the Kentucky hills in the 1930’s in the latter part of the Great Depression. Kentucky is presented as thoroughly and as bravely as are the other characters in this book. She’s cruel, twisted, and astonishingly beautiful. The power she wielded against the fragile inhabitants that occupied her hills was both awe inspiring and frightening. One moment draining the life from the hill people through starvation and sickness only to cradle them to her bosom the next with a whisper of comfort. Sleep, child. The new day dawns soon if you can make it through the night.

I applaud the authenticity with which Richardson presents every fine-tuned detail of this story. Not that she didn’t take creative license, as she changed certain aspects of the historical record to suit the narrative. In the author’s note she points out these edits and pays homage to the real individuals whose lives in the mid-to-late 20th century were affected by the true events which inspired this book. One won’t get very far before giving in to the compulsion to set the book down for a bit to google “the blue people of Kentucky.” Your first instinct is to say that sounds like a big ole’ load of Kentucky manure. But you’re wrong, because the blue people were as real as you and I. Though the name Fugate was changed to Carter and a new heroine was presented, their story played out much the same way. They experienced the same vilification by the townsfolk and encountered an unimaginable amount of prejudice simply because of the color of their skin. It’s no surprise that one of the few people in this story to see clear to Cussy Mary’s heart is her fellow pack horse librarian, Queenie. Queenie is also vilified for her blackness, but she’s one of the only characters with the strength of character to seek friendship with someone unlike herself. Queenie was undoubtedly one of my favorite characters in a book teeming with richness and authenticity. She’s second only to Junia, whose ability to judge character is purely unrivaled. There wasn’t one superfluous individual among the pages of this book, even those that made me want to scream and slap them about. Lord amighty, there were plenty of those. (Looking at you, Harriett, you mean ole’ cow.)

Ok… sidenote about Harriett. As horrid as she was, Cussy Mary saw the value of education for all, and we get a glimpse of this in one of her interactions with Harriett. Sure, we realize that Harriett will probably always be a wretched beast of a woman, but we do feel a twinge of softness for her when Cussy discloses, “I loved the way Harriett loved her books. It changed her into something different, better.” This is, in a way, a foreshadowing of the future hope. That books and knowledge were the antidote for the ignorance that was the true plague of the hill folk. Though many of them detested her for reasons beyond her control, Cussy Mary was one of those hard working women and men who risked their safety and their comfort to bring knowledge to the people who were desperate and starving. She fought for them. She loved them fiercely despite their faults. She believed in a better tomorrow. And through her and the other librarians of the Works Progress Administration’s Packhorse librarian project, they’d find their hope and their will to live in the pages of books. Some would successfully navigate the starvation and desolation to live another day. Some would not. Also, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to hear the name Peter Pan without shedding a tear. “All children, except one, grow up.”

Plenty of children died in the hills of Kentucky with a gnawing hunger that burned in their bellies. That was one of the hardest aspects of this book. But if we didn’t see the harshness of their reality, we would never fully grasp the sheer resilience of these amazing people. Not just Cussy Mary. Jackson Lovett. R.C. Cole. Miss Loretta. Angeline. Elijah. Queenie. Oren Taft. One of the most beautiful moments in this book came during Cussy’s conversation with Mr. Taft, a simple hill man from one of the poorest communities on the mountain who walked miles to meet the book woman every Friday so he could bring knowledge to his people. He tells her that she reminds him of Picasso’s blue lady and asserts that God chose for her the color he’d reserved for the sky, one of his most beautiful creations. It’s a simple but wonderful connection, and it’s precisely what Cussy Mary needed to hear. Through Taft and these others we see the power of caring. Simple actions and words can hurt or they can save. We merely have to ask ourselves in life if we want to be one of the weak, mindless fools or if we want to be one of the brave souls that risk our own comfort for the sake of others. Only then does the world truly become a better place. History is full of these people but most don’t make it into the history books. However, we are where we are today thanks to the hard work and the perseverance of these fine people. And Kim Michele Richardson has done a remarkable job of paying homage to them.

5 stars for this richly beautiful novel.

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Chasing Fireflies

Every now and then you come across a book in which, despite its possible flaws, you can find nothing but beauty. Chasing Fireflies is one such book. First, before getting into anything else, I want to talk about metaphor.  If an extended metaphor is done well, deep within you it’s thoroughly understood without the author having to completely spell it out for you. Within Chasing Fireflies we find several beautiful and complex metaphors that are woven within the story to make an intricate tapestry. Firstly, the title. The title winds up being both a literal and a metaphorical interpretation. We see our characters bonding and healing old wounds by participating in this age old southern tradition. It’s expertly crafted, and it’s not until the very end that the reader understands the vital importance of the chase, the discovery, and the capturing of enlightenment. We see how the firefly blinks, intermittently pulling you closer, illuminating for a brief moment before succumbing to darkness again. Briefly you fear that you’re again lost in darkness, losing hope, only to see once again the glow of the thing that eludes you. It’s that hope that keeps you chasing when all else seems swallowed by darkness.  Martin didn’t have to tell me this, but I knew it. I felt it.

Now here’s where I’ll talk about one way in which this book is an odd choice for me. Martin is often considered as a Christian fiction writer. However, I wouldn’t classify this book as Christian fiction though others may disagree. Sure, it’s fairly sentimental, has some various mentions of the Bible and faith, and there’s no overtly inappropriate content that would make a good protestant woman fetch her smelling salts. But it’s not preachy or over the top. Now I would vehemently disagree with Unc that the firefly’s butt blinks because of God’s divine intervention. I’m on team science. But I also appreciate that there are people in this world who hold to a faith that propels them. They need that. They crave it. Honestly, I think we all have those things, but they take completely different forms.  Unc is one of the most complex, quirky, and lovable characters I’ve ever read, despite the fact that I don’t share his ideas about the universe and all its creations. But I admire his integrity and his ability to think rationally and honorably in the face of severe obstacle. I also absolutely love his little words of wisdom, or “Willyisms.” One way Unc and I do agree is in seeing the beauty of the natural world as a reflection of our character. Unc treasures the land that his father treasured, and he detests seeing the way his brother rolls over it for the sake of greed without returning what he took. I wish more self-professed Christians were like Unc instead of like Jack. We wouldn’t be where we are today.

Back to metaphor, I’m not a chess player, but I know enough about it to understand that sometimes you can’t just play the aggressive game. You have to play the long game. You have to give a little and take a bit of a beating, but you can’t lose sight of the end. That one final move that will decide the whole thing.  Now there will probably be people standing over your shoulder wondering what the hell you’re doing. They’ll think you’re useless. They’ll think you’re stupid. They’ll jump ship and root for the other guy. But you know what they don’t. And you’re saving it for the right moment. And when you play that final move, everything will change. At the same time, you’ll lose a lot to get there. Is it worth it? How much of the army on your board will be left after that final move? How will that have changed you?

I’m going to avoid saying much more about this book, because it’s one that should be experienced.  I was caught off guard by some details, and I love that, because I hate it when I can see the end coming even if it makes me feel good that I figured it out. Ultimately this is a book about identity, family, and finding your voice. It’s ultimately a bit unbelievable, but that’s ok.

Sometimes it’s ok for something to just feel right.

4.5 Stars

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