When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo


Description

In the old house on a hill, where the city meets the rainforest, Yejide’s mother is dying. She leaves behind a legacy that now passes to Yejide: one St. Bernard woman in every generation has the power to shepherd the city’s souls into the afterlife. But after years of suffering her mother’s neglect and bitterness, Yejide is looking for a way out.

Raised in the countryside by a devout Rastafarian mother, Darwin has always abided by the religious commandment not to interact with death. He has never been to a funeral, much less seen a dead body. But when the only job he can find is grave digging, he must betray the life his mother built for him in order to provide for them both. Newly shorn of his dreadlocks and his past, and determined to prove himself, Darwin finds himself adrift in a city electric with possibility and danger.

Yejide and Darwin will meet inside the gates of Fidelis, an ancient and sprawling cemetery, where the dead lie uneasy in their graves and a reckoning with fate beckons them both. A masterwork of lush imagination and exuberant storytelling, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding and hopeful novel about inheritance, loss, and love’s seismic power to heal.

My Thoughts

Every once in awhile, a book comes along that truly leaves me speechless. This is one of those books. The writing, much in the rich dialect of Trinidad, is unlike anything I’ve experienced. I found myself reading aloud just to hear the beautiful sound of the words.

While the expected meeting of Yejide and Darwin doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, the chapters leading to this event build a world inhabited by both families that is as real as the fluttery moths surrounding Yejide’s mother as she passes. As real as Darwin’s shorn locs and as bitter as his mother’s disappointment. Once the two meet, prepare yourself for a whirlwind. You will not be able to put this book down until you read the final word.

I was reminded of one of my favorite books, A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds, which also tells the story of a young woman who can commune with the dead and the man who helps restore her faith. That book is one I recommend constantly; When We Were Birds will be added to that list.

Highly recommended.

Praise

Named a Most Anticipated Book by Time, Harper’s Bazaar, The Observer, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, Essence, Nylon, Good Housekeeping, Apartment Therapy Business Insider, NBC, Bustle, LitHub, BookRiot, Ms. Magazine, and more…
 
“Mythic and captivating… Banwo roots the reader in [Trinidad’s] traditions and rituals, in the sights and sounds and colors and smells of fruit vendors, fish vendors, street preachers and schoolchildren. In the glorious matriarchy by which lineage is upheld. The result is a depiction of ordinary life that’s full and breathtaking.”New York Times Book Review

“[A] masterly debut novel. It announces an important new voice in fiction, at once grounded and mythic in its scope and carried by an incantatory prose style that recalls Arundhati Roy. . . Lloyd Banwo’s literary gift lies in her capacity to transfigure [grief] – to conjure a cosmic landscape where the living coexist among the dead.”—The Observer (Top 10 Debut Novel of 2022)

“A thoroughly original and emotionally rich examination of love, grief and inheritance… When We Were Birds is full of life .  . .The scenes it hosts are packed with drama, colour and tension, particularly in her gripping finale . . Her novel takes flight and soars.”—The Economist

When We Were Birds is an ode to the idea that broken traditions can lead to beautiful new beginnings.”—Time Magazine

“[A] spellbinding novel . . The poetic prose in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel captivates from the start . . .When We Were Birds is a unique love story whose magical setting in Trinidad takes center stage.”Real Simple

“Lloyd Banwo conjures an aching sexual energy, places the lovers in deliciously paced jeopardy and takes the tale to an agreeably thundery climax . . .Lloyd Banwo has written a love letter for Trinidad, to remind all of us that yes, love is still very, very nice indeed.”—The Guardian

A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear


Description

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear’s beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

 October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire—the fastest fighter aircraft in the world—to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing. 

 Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo’s plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs.  Meanwhile, Maisie’s husband, a high-ranking political attaché based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There’s already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.

 To guarantee the safety of the First Lady—and of the soldier being held in police custody—Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own. 

My Thoughts

I have so enjoyed following Maisie Dobbs through this wonderful series by Jacqueline Winspear. This entry gives us a supremely adult Maisie who is settling in to a comfortable if somewhat dangerous life during World War II. She’s busy with her investigative work, still in love with her American husband, and learning how to be a loving and effective mother to Anna, her adopted daughter. There’s not much to say about Winspear’s writing that hasn’t already been said. She is one of the best authors of historical mysteries out there today. Her plots are well-constructed, her characters written with depth and attention, and her historical research impeccable. Here, she treats us to an inside look at the work of women pilots in England during World War II, something of which I was not familiar prior to reading this book. I spent several enjoyable hours afterwards researching the female pilots, an activity which for me demonstrates the effects of a great historical novel.

If you haven’t read the series before, start at the beginning and savor every one. I also recommend the audiobook versions, which are extremely well-done.

Published By: Harper
Publication Date: 3/22/2022
Thanks to Netgalley for the the review copy

Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Wilberg

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Description

The envelope was tied with three delicate silk ribbons: “One of the new recruits is not to be trusted…”

It’s 1959 and a new killer haunts the streets of London, having baffled Scotland Yard. The newspapers call him The Florist because of the rose he brands on his victims. The police have turned yet again to the Inquirers at Miss Brickett’s for assistance, and second-year Marion Lane is assigned the case.

But she’s already dealing with a mystery of her own, having received an unsigned letter warning her that one of the three new recruits should not be trusted. She dismisses the letter at first, focusing on The Florist case, but her informer seems to be one step ahead, predicting what will happen before it does. But when a fellow second-year Inquirer is murdered, Marion takes matters into her own hands and must come face-to-face with her informer—who predicted the murder—to find out everything they know. Until then, no one at Miss Brickett’s is safe and everyone is a suspect.

With brilliant twists and endless suspense, all set within the dazzling walls and hidden passageways of Miss Brickett’s, Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose is a deliciously fun new historical mystery you won’t be able to put down.  

My Thoughts

I enjoyed the first Marion Lane adventure so much that I was worried the sequel would be less. My fears were unfounded as the author has delivered another cracking good adventure featuring Marion, Kenny, Bill, and the rest of the crew from Miss Brickett’s.

This time, Marion must unravel the mystery surrounding the mysterious Florist while at the same time figure out what the heck is happening internally with the mysterious posters and clandestine meetings that are splintering Miss Bricketts from within.

One of my favorite things about this second novel is the introduction of Ambrosia Quinn, a minor character who I hope we see much more of in future books.

There’s plenty of action, witty dialog, and enough suspense to support the exploits of our plucky heroine.

Recommended.

Published By: Harlequin Trade/Park Row
Publication Date: 2/1/2022
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Spanish Daughter by Lorena Hughes


Description

Set against the lush backdrop of early twentieth century Ecuador and inspired by the real-life history of the coastal town known as the birthplace of cacao, this captivating #OwnVoices novel from the award-winning author of The Sisters of Alameda Street tells the story of a resourceful young chocolatier who must impersonate a man in order to survive…

Puri inherited two things from her father: a passion for chocolate, and a cacao plantation located in Ecuador. After learning the art of chocolate-making from her grandmother, Puri opened a chocolate shop in her native Spain. But the Great War that devastated Europe has also ruined her business. Eager to learn more about the source of her beloved chocolate, Puri sets out across the ocean with her husband,
Cristóbal. But someone is angered by Puri’s claim to the plantation…

When a mercenary sent to murder her aboard the ship accidentally kills Cristóbal instead, Puri dons her husband’s clothes and assumes his identity, hoping to stay safe while she learns the truth. Though freed from the rules that women are expected to follow, Puri confronts other challenges at the plantation—newfound siblings, hidden affairs, and her father’s dark secrets. Then there are the dangers awakened by her attraction to an enigmatic man as she tries to learn the identity of an enemy who is still at large, threatening the future she is determined to claim…

My Thoughts

The story is just outright captivating. Puri’s disguise – will she or won’t she be discovered?? — had me turning pages as quickly as possible. Her budding relationships with her newly found siblings also add to the tension, and all of this human emotion and action set against the gorgeous backdrop of early 20th century Ecuador’s chocolate plantations make this a winner.

I am an impatient reader at times, so I appreciated that the story begins right away. There is no tedious backstory build-up; the author reveals details of the past throughout the book which complement the action taking place.

I have also come to appreciate beautifully descriptive writing that makes the setting pop off the page. This is the second book set in Ecuador I’ve read recently, and I am now captivated by this lush and beautiful country. It’s the landscape that is just as important to this story as the cast of characters., reminding me a bit of the descriptive landscape chapters in Grapes of Wrath.

At its heart, this is a story about family and how choices can build or break a family unit, no matter how tight or loosely connected the individuals. I can see this one making the rounds of 2022 book discussion groups. So well done.

Publication Date: December 28, 2021
Published by: Kensington Books
Thanks to the Publisher for the review copy

The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova


Description

The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—not for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed into a ceiba tree, leaving them with more questions than answers.

Seven years later, her gifts have manifested in different ways for Marimar, Rey, and Rhiannon, granting them unexpected blessings and powers. But soon, a hidden figure begins to tear through their family tree, picking them off one by one as it seeks to destroy Orquídea’s line. Determined to save what’s left of their family and uncover the truth behind their inheritance, her descendants travel to Ecuador—to the place where Orquídea buried her secrets and broken promises and never looked back.

Alternating between Orquídea’s past and her descendants’ present, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a “spellbinding tale, both timeless and fresh, that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Prepare to fall in love” (Kim Liggett, New York Times bestselling author).

My Thoughts

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in August and was immediately drawn to the cover art, which is simply beautiful. I discovered that beauty was carried through to the text as soon as I began reading.

This is the story of a woman who began life as an unwanted child, a burden to her mother and an embarrassment to her stepfather, but beloved among the downtrodden in her village, who became the matriarch of a remarkable family. As a child, Orquidea wanted nothing more than to please her mother and take care of the people who needed help. She is portrayed as a resilient, clever child with a strong will who sees more to the world than most people. Cordova begins building the layers of Orquidea from the beginning, slowly moving towards the action that defines Orquidea’s adult life and the lives of her descendants.

Cordova has mastered the art of magical realism, blending magic with everyday life as naturally as a tree grows and gives life. The tree imagery runs through the story, beginning with Orquidea’s transformation into a ceiba tree, sacred to her people. It is believed that the souls of the dead ascend to the top of the trees to go to heaven. It was also a connection between all three worlds, the underworld, earth and heaven. Here, it is Orquidea, the matriarch, creating links between the past, the present, and the future.

The introduction of the fallen star reminded me of one of my very favorite books of 2020 – Quintessence by Jess Redman, a children’s book that used the fallen star imagery to remind us that we all have a light inside us and we just have to figure out how to ignite it. Orquidea understands that and does her best to help her descendants find their light. She uses the fallen star to wish her way into freedom.

This is also a story about obsession and possession. It’s a familiar trope – a woman running from a man who wants to consume and control her. Here, Orquidea finds the power and courage to escape but not without consequences. She lives with those consequences for 40 years before finally confronting her fear and anger and breaking free of him and it forever.

There are so many things to love about this book, but what brings it all together is Cordova’s gorgeous prose. She has mastered description and dialog and every word and phrase is exactly as it should be to create magic. She is a writer to watch and I look forward to more of her work.

This is my “Best of 2021” pick, for sure. I’ll be recommending this for a long time to come.

Publication Date: September 7, 2021
Published by: Simon & Schuster, Atria Books
Thanks to the publisher for an advanced reading copy

Beasts and Beauty by Soman Chainani


Description

You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong. 

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that free hearts long kept tame, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again. 

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

My Thoughts

I’ve read a lot of fairy tales retold and reimagined, but nothing – nothing! – like this. Chainani completely disrupts the old tales and rewrites them ferociously for all those readers who never once saw themselves in those stories.

There is power here – power of women and girls, power of color, power of sex – all woven together into a dark and delicious fist raised to the traditional, exclusionary tales.

Little girls with onyx skin and springy curls will see themselves here, as will beautiful boys who prefer red-haired thieves to brittle wives.

There is anger here, but there’s also righteousness. These are tales for our time.

Highly Recommended.

Publication Date: September 21, 2021
Published By: Harper Collins Childrens Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling


Description

Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has done the calculations, and decided that the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town.

Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a pitch-black rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man—one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him. By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to.

Set in a dark-mirror version of post-war England, Caitlin Starling crafts a new kind of gothic horror from the bones of the beloved canon. This Crimson Peak-inspired story assembles, then upends, every expectation set in place by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca, and will leave readers shaken, desperate to begin again as soon as they are finished.

My Thoughts

Whoa, I did NOT expect this book to be what it is. I was expecting a 21st century version of the gothic horror/romance. What I found was this weird and terrifying blend of Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, and even a little of Castle of Otranto thrown in for good measure. Still not quite sure how I feel about it.

The characters of Jane and Augustine are well-developed, a task that becomes increasingly difficult and hard to follow as they descend into madness or whatever state the author intended at the end. Jane especially goes from confident, determined, buttoned-up partner (not wife initially) as she negotiates her future, to her highly emotional state at the end. (Not really a spoiler because the ending is just HOLY HELL!)

The text is somewhat dense, but not weighed down by the flowery descriptive conventions of 18th and 19th century gothics which can truly dull the senses until – WHAM – the author hits you with a scene that makes your hair stand on end. Starling follows that path, but her writing is far more accessible.

Fans of gothic horror will enjoy this.

Publication Date: October 5, 2021
Published by: St. Martin’s Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

A Dead Man’s Eyes by Lori Duffy Foster

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Description

Lisa Jamison has done well for a single mom who got pregnant at fifteen. She’s a reporter at a well-respected newspaper and her teenage daughter is both an athlete and honors student. Though their relationship is rocky these days, Lisa has accomplished what she set out to do. She has given her daughter the kind of life she never had.

But all that changes when Lisa sees her daughter in the eyes of a dead man.

The cops call it a drug killing, but Lisa doesn’t believe it. She knows her ex-boyfriend was no drug dealer even though she hadn’t seen him in sixteen years. Lisa ignores warnings from her medical-examiner friend. She fails to heed barely veiled threats from the sheriff of a neighboring county. Instead, she risks her life and the lives of her daughter and their closest friend on a dangerous quest for answers.

The investigation leaves Lisa fighting for her family in a morbid, black market world she never knew existed. She learns that trust is complicated and that she, despite her cynical nature, has been blind. She trusted the wrong people and now she might have to pay with her life.

Review

Lori Duffy Foster’s real-life experience as a crime reporter shines through in this gripping debut. She paints a gritty, vivid picture of a family that has had its share of sorrow and is now drawn into an even more horrifying world of crime when one man tries to do the right thing. From the opening scene in an autopsy room to final fight-for-your-life, Foster keeps the reader turning page.

Since this is billed as “A Lisa Jamison Mystery” I am assuming it will be the first in a series, and I predict it will be one that many readers will welcome and enjoy. Lisa is the quintessential tough girl with a soft touch, committed fully to raising her daughter on her own, but also very willing to step in and stand up for what’s right.

Duffy Foster is a skilled writer, delivering witty and sharp dialog, decent character development (I really want to know more about Lisa and her family), and good descriptive prose. Fans of Kathy Reichs, Janet Evanovich, and Lisa Scottoline will enjoy this new mystery series.

Publication Date: April 13, 2021
Published by: Level Best Books
Thanks to the author for a review copy

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan


Description

From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes an unforgettable novel of a BBC-sponsored wartime cooking competition and the four women who enter for a chance to better their lives.

Two years into World War II, Britain is feeling her losses: The Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is holding a cooking contest—and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the competition would present a crucial chance to change their lives.

For a young widow, it’s a chance to pay off her husband’s debts and keep a roof over her children’s heads. For a kitchen maid, it’s a chance to leave servitude and find freedom. For a lady of the manor, it’s a chance to escape her wealthy husband’s increasingly hostile behavior. And for a trained chef, it’s a chance to challenge the men at the top of her profession.

These four women are giving the competition their all—even if that sometimes means bending the rules. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together only serve to break it apart?

Any book about cooking is one I’m probably going to pick up and in The Kitchen Front I found a delightful examination of the relationships of 4 women in a small English village during World War II. There are the usual colorful village characters but it’s the four women – sisters Audrey & Gwendoline, Nell, and Zelda – who are the beating heart of this story.

Ryan does an exceptional job of untangling and renewing the relationships between the women but also of dissecting the patriarchal culture of mid-century Britain where an accomplished female chef is given no respect, an ambitious woman is cast as a bitch because she has a logical mind, a woman who chose a chaotic family life is looked at with derision, and a woman having a child out of wedlock worries her entire life is ruined. Ryan explores the fear and frustration each woman experiences, but also dips into the joy and sisterhood they find through the Kitchen Front contest.

Fans of Ryan’s earlier work and of Tracy Chevalier and Mary Ann Shaffer will enjoy this.

Off the Wild Coast of Brittany by Juliet Blackwell


Description

An unforgettable story of resilience and resistance set during WWII and present-day France on a secluded island off the coast of Brittany

Natalie Morgen made a name for herself with a memoir about overcoming her harsh childhood after finding a new life in Paris. After falling in love with a classically trained chef, they moved together to his ancestral home, a tiny fishing village off the coast of Brittany.

But then Francois-Xavier breaks things off with her without warning, leaving her flat broke and in the middle of renovating the guesthouse they planned to open for business. Natalie’s already struggling when her sister, Alex, shows up unannounced. The sisters form an unlikely partnership to save the guesthouse, reluctantly admitting their secrets to each other as they begin to heal the scars of their shared past.

But the property harbors hidden stories of its own. During World War II, every man of fighting age on the island fled to England to join the Free French forces. The women and children were left on their own…until three hundred German troops took up residence, living side-by-side with the French women on the tiny island for the next several years.

When Natalie and Alex unearth an old cookbook in a hidden cupboard, they find handwritten recipes that reveal old secrets. With the help of locals, the Morgen sisters begin to unravel the relationship between Violette, a young islander whose family ran the guesthouse during WWII, and Rainier, a German military customs official with a devastating secret of his own.

This gentle exploration of the relationships between sisters and friends provided a lovely interlude on a gray, rainy Sunday for this reader. I’ve long been a fan of Blackwell’s Lily Ivory series which is hip and witchy, but have come to appreciate her novels set in France for their relatable characters and clever plots.

Here the story flips between the present day and World War II. Each era features a female protagonist who struggles with love, ambition, and curiosity about life outside the small worlds in which they grew up. Our present day heroine, Nat, is an influencer who has made a career out of traveling the world and asking “Porquois Pas?” However, she finds that the lifestyle that landed her on a remote island off the coast of France is no longer fulfilling. Having her sister show up unannounced leads her down a different path, one that ends in truth for both of them.

The World War II era story features a previous tenant of the guest house Nat runs in the present time. Violette longs for something more than the primitive and remote island life, but the influx of German soldiers flips her reality upside down. The story of how these island women channeled the magic of earlier inhabitants and used their own imaginations and determination to trick the Nazis is one of the most enjoyable tales I’ve read in a long time.

Blackwell does a nice job of knitting the past and present together, leaving me feeling sad the story ended. Fans of Blackwell’s previous work will not be disappointed; fans of Jenny Colgan will also find this an enjoyable read.