A lookery at “A Place We Knew Well” by Susan Carol McCarthy

A Place We Knew well

A Place We Knew Well

Susan Carol McCarthy


September 29, 2015

272 pages


It is mid-October, 1963. Homecoming Week in the sleepy town of College Park, Florida. Unbeknownst to the locals, it is also the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy drops the reader into the middle of the terrifying events that held the nation captive for weeks.

Wes Avery is a veteran of World War II, and has seen firsthand the complete devastation wrought by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He owns a Texaco gas station on the main road in and out of town. Not far from the location of his business is the McCoy Air Force Base, which is suddenly much more active than usual.

Charlotte, Wes’ shy, intelligent, Titian-tressed daughter has just been informed that she will be on the high school’s Homecoming Court. Meanwhile, her mother Sarah is frantically trying to cope with the pressure of putting on a bomb shelter display for the local Civil Defense show. And the micro-managing Women’s Club president is driving her crazy with the task.

Emilio Alvarez is one of the Cuban “Pedro Pans” — a program sponsored by the Catholic Church to get youngsters out of Castro’s Cuba. Emilio works for Wes at the Texaco station and attends the local parochial high school.

President Kennedy defines the crisis for the entire country on television and radio. Bordering the Orlando Strategic Air Command Base, all of the Cape Canaveral area is especially anxious and alert. The local residents are either fleeing the area, stockpiling supplies or trying to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy as College Park prepares for the Homecoming festivities and the Civil Defense show. Romances blossom, marriages are strained, others can’t handle the intense pressure of the crisis and other events, and a deep, dark, secret raises its ugly head to threaten the delicate peace of the Avery family.

The author lets us in on the townies’ efforts to remain normal in exceptionally abnormal circumstances. The terror of the time is evident, and McCarthy exposes the emotions of her characters’ strife, trust, camaraderie, fear, anxiety and frayed nerves. Life in the quiet town continues as it brings out the best and the worst qualities of its citizens. During a national emergency, Susan Carol McCarthy shows how human strengths and frailties exist and struggle side by side. Gifts of generosity are evident, as well as selfish, self-serving acts.

In A Place We Knew Well human nature is put to the test by extraordinary circumstances. Susan Carol McCarthy uses this small community to give readers a glimpse of just how frightening these few weeks were for the entire country. Her novel shows the big picture of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the story of a small town in the midst of the stand-off. McCarthy’s talent lies in her ability to bring to life just how heroic and flawed we can be during dangerous times. I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Place We Knew Well, and highly recommend this insightful novel to all with little or great knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bantam for an advance copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “The Scent of Secrets” by Sarah Kennedy

The scent of secrets -- Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets

Jane Thynne

Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine

Ballantine Books

September 15, 2015

448 pages


The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne is a historical mystery set in 1938 Germany as the world waits to see if Hitler will invade the Sudetenland.

Ada Freitag is a passenger on a luxury cruise ship sponsored by the National Socialist Strength Through Joy movement. These cruises are now the only way ordinary German citizens can leave the country. Although the trip is supposed to be a treat for its travelers, Ada finds the strictly regulated schedule and activities too regimented for enjoyment. But she is on this trip with a specific and covert purpose. Bored, she strikes up a friendship with fifteen-year-old Erich, before disappearing from the ship.

Cut to Paris and actress Clara Vine. Daughter of a Nazi-supporting British aristocrat and a German mother, Clara is a rising star in the German film industry. As war looms and conditions deteriorate in Germany, Clara turns down a marriage proposal to work as an agent for British Intelligence. She has the perfect personality for a spy and as an actress has the skills to wear a mask when needed. Her career gives her unprecedented access to the upper echelons of Nazi society — especially to the gossipy and loose-lipped wives of the Third Reich’s most elite officers.

It is Clara’s last day in the City of Lights. The filming of her latest role is finished and she is anxious to explore Paris on her own. Before leaving her hotel room, however, she receives an invitation to meet with a representative of London Films at a local cafe.

Clara is instructed to become friends with Hitler’s rarely seen girlfriend, Eva Braun. She is to pinch Eva’s diary and turn it over to British Intelligence. Because Eva is an ardent film buff and admires Clara’s work, a mutual acquaintance introduces the two. Soon Clara and Eva have a quietly forming friendship. Eva shares her passion for creating perfumes with Clara, designing an original scent for the actress.

It is an on-going balancing act for Clara; spending time with Eva, her godson Erich, Nazi officers and their wives, persistent suitors and acting obligations. The tension she feels is palpable. Yet Clara proves resourceful time and again.

Sarah Kennedy’s The Scent of Secrets is actually the third book in a series featuring Clara Vine. The U.S. publisher released this novel first in the States. I have not read the previous two novels in the set, which have been printed in the United Kingdom. It is my feeling that the back story would have been strengthened by releasing the books in order, but The Scent of Secrets can be read on its own. The background information in the first  two books would probably convince me more of Clara’s motivation to serve the British intelligence community and to remain in Germany in spite of her perilous position.

Kennedy develops several plots within the story that recreate the atmosphere of fear and confusion the German population must have felt without being sentimental or sappy. The insight she shares into typical and not-so-typical German lives is thought-provoking and interesting. The author uncovers the hardships of Nazi Germany and exposes some of the ridiculous and restrictive rules, as well as the harsh treatment of those who do not fit the Aryan ideal. Even the perks and punishments of the Nazi elite are revealed.

The Scent of Secrets by Sarah Kennedy can be read as a stand-alone novel. The book would have been enhanced by the release of the first two novels in the series, but on its own, The Scent of Secrets is captivating, and the ending will leave the reader begging for more of Clara Vine.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart

St. Martin’s Press

Minotaur Books

September 1, 2015

336 pages


Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.

Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.

But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.

There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.

The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.

Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.

It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.

False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.

At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.

However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.

The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.

Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.

With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “We Never Asked for Wings”

We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Ballantine Books

August 18, 2015

320 pages



From Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the best-selling author of The Language of Flowers comes a new novel, We Never Asked for Wings. It is a marvelous story in which Diffenbaugh takes on the challenges of today’s society. While weaving an absorbing tale of a family at risk, the author grapples with parenthood as well as the multi-generational connection between children, their parents and grandparents. She explores various styles of family units, young love and young love revisited, complicated adult relationships, the struggles of undocumented immigrants and the daily fight for a better future.

As the story opens, Letty is in a panic. Her mother has followed Letty’s father to the family home in Mexico. Letty has no idea how to care for her own children, Alex, nearly fifteen, and Luna, six. Grandmother Maria Elena raised the children while Letty held down several jobs to support the entire family. She is desperate for help.

So what choice does Letty have but to sneak out after the kids are asleep in their San Francisco Bay area apartment in the neglected Bayshore wetlands and drive to her father’s home deep in Mexico?

Alex awakens to find his mother and grandmother gone and determines that he and Luna should be okay on their own for a week until the women return. But the week stretches on, and it is getting harder for Alex to manage headstrong Luna and feed the both of them. He is much more interested in his blossoming relationship with his pretty neighbor Yesenia than playing babysitter. The young teen also has questions about his absent father.

When Letty returns home without her mother, she takes bold steps to improve her family’s position and future. Alex also takes a chance on bettering life for Yesenia. Trouble brews for the teens, and it is at this point that the support of family and friends becomes essential.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is an extraordinary novel of relationships, love, hope and personal discovery. It is poignant, delving deep into the hearts, souls and minds of each of the individuals in the story. The author guides her characters with grace through their struggles, creating a realistic and strong story line that is believable and touches the reader. We Never Asked for Wings is destined for best-seller lists everywhere (and if you haven’t already done so, read her novel The Language of Flowers for further proof of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s talent as a writer and storyteller).

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A lookery at “Circling the Sun: A Novel” by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel

Paula McLain

Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

July 28, 2015

384 pages


Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun: A Novel is the fictionalized memoir of Beryl Clutterbuck Purves Markham, a woman ahead of her time. This novel of Beryl Markham’s youth takes you deep into the soul of this unusual and unconventional woman.

Abandoned by her mother before the age of five, Beryl is a maverick from the get-go, spending most of her childhood in the bush with her toto friend, Kibii, learning the skills of a young Kipsigis boy. Alongside her father “Clutt”, she learns how to assess, raise and train thoroughbred racehorses.

Beryl could not be tamed by Emma, the housekeeper her father brought into the home, nor by a governess, nor by a boarding school in Nairobi that expelled her after two and a half years.

When Clutt’s farm fails in her mid-teens, Beryl marries neighboring farmer Jock Purves, but is quickly disillusioned. She leaves her husband, who won’t grant her a divorce, determined to make her way as a trainer of thoroughbreds. Guided by a family friend with a vast stable, she is allowed to prepare for a license as an English Trainer; the first woman in Africa to do so. At the age of nineteen Beryl becomes the first licensed female racehorse trainer on the continent.

But Beryl is not schooled in the unique and unwritten social standards of the 1920’s colonial ex-pat community of the British East Africa Protectorate (eventually, Kenya). Her affairs, including an on-going secret relationship with Denys Finch Hatton — the lover of the Baroness Karen Blixen, who would later pen Out of Africa as Isaak Dinesen — become scandalous even in this loose society. She flees to England to escape the disgraceful reputation she has created.

She returns to Kenya with a sponsor, and begins to repair her status as a young woman of society and as a trainer. Eventually, Jock divorces Beryl, and she later marries Mansfield Markham.

A trail blazer, Beryl breaks barriers for women in the world of horse training, and later as the first professional female pilot in Africa. She has a deep love of the lush country she lives in — its wilderness as well as the natives who live on the land and who remain her lifelong friends.

Paula McLain shows us the beauty of the wild country as Beryl experienced it, and we feel Beryl’s passion for all things wild and untamed, much like Beryl herself. Beryl channels her energy into her love for the land and into challenging boundaries. The author’s storytelling in Circling the Sun: A Novel is as remarkable as the woman she writes about. Deeply visual, visceral, entrancing and exciting, Circling the Sun: A Novel is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite some time. As an author, McLain is a true thoroughbred.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher Random House Group – Ballantine for a preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at Lauren Willig’s “The Other Daughter”

The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter

Lauren Willig

St. Martin’s Press

July 21, 2015

304 pages


Rachel Woodley, raised in a remote English village by her widowed mother Katherine, is employed as a governess in France. After several years abroad, Rachel receives a telegram, maliciously and intentionally delayed by a member of the household staff. The news is horrible. Rachel’s beloved mother is bedridden with influenza and Rachel is summoned home.

She arrives home to find her mother dead and buried, and receives notice from the landlord that she has but a few days to move out of the home she has shared with her mother since the death of her father Edward, a botanist. Amongst her mother’s belongings Rachel discovers a recent photo of her father, now called Lord Ardmore, escorting his daughter Lady Olivia to a debutante ball.

Suddenly, the only life Rachel has known is a lie. Her father is an earl, her mother his mistress, and she has a half-sister — the legitimate daughter — she has never met or heard of.

A visit to her Cousin David, keeper of the family secrets, confirms that the Woodleys have been quietly living a lie for decades. Rachel storms out of her cousin’s digs, determined to confront the father she remembered so fondly, and who abandoned his by-blow family.

A chance encounter with gossip columnist Simon Montfort gives Rachel the opportunity to enter London’s aristocratic social circle of Bright Young Things under the assumed name of Vera Merton. Simon supplies the flat, the attire and image that Vera needs to gain a toehold with this crowd, and Simon gains a new subject for his column. Rachel’s ultimate goal — to be given an invitation to her father’s estate where she will challenge Lord Ardmore’s duplicity, and force him to acknowledge her.

Rachel soon finds out that there are a myriad of rules governing the behavior of the BYTs, and struggles to remain herself while pretending to be one of the fast crowd. She learns that even the most superficial and shallow of her new friends are complicated companions. Vera also discovers the far-reaching effects of The Great War on soldiers, their families and friends, nearly ten years after the Armistice.

In The Other Daughter, Lauren Willig displays a flair for societal and historical details, develops complex and conflicted characters, presents surprising plot twists and delves into the manner in which deceit and lies become tangled, taking on a life of their own. The conclusion of the novel is surprising and satisfying, and in keeping with the true personalities of the characters.

I have wanted to read one of Lauren Willig’s novels for some time. Courtesy of NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, an advance copy of Willig’s latest novel The Other Daughter, was made available to me in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A lookery at “The Flying Circus” by Susan Crandall

The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Susan Crandall

Gallery Books

July 7, 2015

368 pages


Author Susan Crandall first caught my attention with her recent novel Whistling Past the Graveyard, which I always recommend to readers looking for a wonderful title. Her newest novel, The Flying Circus is likewise excellent.

Set in the Midwest shortly after the Great War, a trio of misfits come together by accident to form an aeroplane and motorcycle barnstorming act. Meet Henry Schuler Jefferson, on the run from his Indiana foster home and in great fear of being arrested for a heinous crime; Cora Rose Haviland, a tomboy of a socialite who escapes on her brother’s motorcycle the stultifying life as a marriageable debutante; and Charles “Gil” Gilcrest, a daredevil pilot and veteran of World War I — with a past, a secret and a death wish — who flies from town to town earning his living as a barnstormer. The new act, Mercury’s Daredevils, features Gil as the pilot, Cora as the racing motorcyclist with a mutt, and Henry, who acts as the show’s mechanic. The little group has modest success with their act until they encounter Hoffman’s Flying Circus — a professional air show featuring several pilots with shiny new planes.

It becomes obvious to the three friends that they must join the larger group in order to survive as an act and to keep flying. Cora has learned to fly, becoming a rare female pilot. She also has a strong desire to pursue daring stunts in the air. Henry signs on as part of the mechanical crew and a stunt coordinator and is thrilled to be on the move farther away from Indiana. Gil begrudgingly joins the Flying Circus too, moody as always with his secret past hidden at the bottom of a bottle.

When winter arrives, Hoffman’s Flying Circus goes on hiatus. Gil returns to his home while Cora and Henry strike out for Santa Monica, California. There, Cora hopes to find a career in films as a stunt pilot. What Henry and Cora find in California astonishes them and brings unwanted pain and attention to the fugitive and the debutante.

Each character is hiding a secret. As they return to their base camp, secrets and lies begin to unravel. Crandall slowly, teasingly, offers up bits of information on each intricately designed character. By the time all three of the show people are back together, it is uncertain how Henry, Gil and Cora are going to fare. The three of them are caught in their lies as their lives fall apart just in time for an air race in Miami with a big cash prize.

Susan Crandall brings to life both the post World War I prejudices as well as the flashy and phony life of early Hollywood. Her characters are flawed but genuine human beings, who have banded together to form a family. The awe-inspiring world of early aviation is explored in detail, illuminating the glory, the wonder and the disasters of flight.

The Flying Circus gives a glimpse into the current and future states of aviation. It also exposes the effects of war and narrow-mindedness in both the upper echelon of society and the working class. Susan Crandall’s novel shows her readers that everyone has a past and secrets that bring out the best and the worst in people. It also depicts the importance of family and friendship, which make us better human beings. One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, The Flying Circus will entertain readers on every page. And once you’ve finished The Flying Circus, read Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, too. Neither novel will disappoint.

With thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for a preview copy of this novel in return for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman


My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrick Backman

Atria Books

June 16, 2015

384 pages


Precocious seven-year-old Elsa, and her seventy-seven year old Granny, who is quite possibly bonkers, are inseparable. Elsa is very different from other children her age, but Granny says that it’s okay to be unique. Granny is a retired surgeon, Elsa’s greatest champion and a superhero with a wicked sense of the absurd. The pair have their own secret language, which Granny uses to entertain Elsa with fairy tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas.

Elsa and Granny live in a large house with several flats. Among the residents of these apartments are oddball characters with quirky personalities such as a rigid rule enforcer, a taxi driver, a drunkard, a woman who bakes dream cookies, a boy with a syndrome, and perhaps most frightening of all, The Monster and Our Friend the Wurse. Granny delights in teasing some of their neighbors while giving preferential treatment to others.

But when Granny dies, she sends Elsa on a hunt through each of the lands, delivering letters apologizing for her ways. It is the adventure of a lifetime, and one full of peril and danger to Elsa. Still, Granny has provided protection for Elsa as she goes about her journey. With each letter, Elsa meets the natives of each of the seven lands in the fairy tales, and learns more about herself, her mother and others in her real life. The journey transforms not only Elsa, but reveals much about her grandmother’s secret life as a superhero.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman, author of the best-selling novel A Man Called Ove, is both humorous and heartbreaking. The characters are intricately drawn, the plot is engaging and moves at a rapid pace as Elsa makes good on Granny’s last wishes. Beautifully translated and impeccably developed, the charming novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is not to be left on the shelf unread.

With thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for a preview copy of the novel, in exchange for an honest review. 

A Mother’s Day lookery at “The Mapmaker’s Children” by Sarah McCoy

Mapmaker's Children

The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

Crown Publishers

May 5, 2015

320 pages


In honor of Mother’s Day today in the United States, this lookery examines two women who redefine “mother” and “children” in Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.

To be frank, the opening paragraph of this historical novel did not appeal to me. If I had picked up the book in a bookstore, it would have gone right back onto the shelf. However, because Crown Publishers were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review, I stuck with it — and I’m glad that I gave this novel another chance. The following pages were well worth reading.

Sarah Brown is a daughter of abolitionist John Brown. Her story starts in New Elba, New York in 1859. Although her age is not revealed, she seems to be in her teens. She has barely survived a wide-spread plague of dysentery, only to overhear her physician tell her mother that Sarah would never be able to have children. Mrs. Brown is devastated by the news. Who would love and marry her barren daughter?

Fast forward to 2014, New Charlestown, West Virginia, where Eden and Jack Anderson have moved into an older suburban home. Like Sarah, Eden is not been to conceive, in spite of years of trying and enduring various fertility treatments. As much as she loves Jack, Sarah’s mood swings and other treatment side effects have left her feeling hopeless and on the verge of proceeding with a divorce.

Jack attempts to enlarge their household with the addition of a dog. Eden is NOT amused, and rejects the pet at once. Jack travels for work, so he hires Cleo, a ten-year-old girl to care for Cricket until he can find the mutt a new home. Although Eden and Jack have lived in the small town for some months, Eden’s unsettled health kept them housebound. Cleo becomes Eden’s guide to life in the hamlet of New Charlestown.

The author alternates between Sarah’s and Eden’s stories. Sarah stumbles upon her father’s secret Underground Railroad (UGRR) activities late one night. She draws a map to guide an illiterate group of slaves to safety. John Brown and his select group of trusted friends of the railroad are so impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of Sarah’s map, that they swear her to secrecy and set her to work on creating pictures with hidden codes and symbols directing escaping slaves to freedom in the North.

Eden and Cleo become close friends as Eden drifts away from Jack. Soon the two are cooking organic dog food for Cricket. Keeping her strange eyes on the cooks is an antique porcelain doll’s head found when Cricket discovered a forgotten root cellar beneath Eden’s home.

Back in the nineteenth century, John Brown is arrested for his part in ambushing the Harper’s Ferry armory. Sarah, her mother and sisters rush to Virginia to see the horribly wounded prisoner before his death sentence is carried out. The Hill family are their hosts in New Charlestown, and also trusted friends with an active role in the Freedom Train. George Hill and his son Freddy accept Sarah’s involvement as well, although her family remains ignorant of her activities. The Browns return to their home in New York, but Sarah and Freddy maintain a lifelong friendship and correspondence.

McCoy traces the life of Sarah and the Brown and Hill families based on documents and research into the families’ histories. She ties Sarah’s life to Eden’s, a century and a half later using compellingly believable creative license as well as historical facts. Both women’s stories are intriguing — one real, one fictional. With letters, newspaper articles and other devices, author Sarah McCoy has created an exceptionally readable novel of two women’s struggles to define themselves in their personal lives and communities. Meticulously researched, but never dry or boring, The Mapmaker’s Children is a testament to the abilities of women to take on the mantle of motherhood without being broodmares both one hundred fifty years ago and today.

A lookery at “Inside the O’Briens” by Lisa Genova

Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Gallery Books

April 7, 2015

352 pages


A preview copy of this novel was provided by NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Prepare yourself for an emotional wild ride when reading Lisa Genova’s novel about a family coping with the devastating affects of Huntington’s Disease in Inside the O’Briens.

Joe O’Brien is an officer on the Boston PD, a third generation Irish “Townie” of the Charlestown neighborhood in Boston, and a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. Fearing that he will end up like his mother Ruth, who was rumored to have driven herself to drink and the nuthouse, and who died when Joe was only twelve years old, Joe never allows himself more than two beers. Except, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Joe and his wife Rosie have four children in their twenties. All of the children live in the family home — a “triple decker” — with three separate units. Katie and Meghan occupy the top floor as roommates, JJ and his wife Colleen live in the middle, and Patrick still has a room in his parents’ home on the first floor. The close-knit Catholic family gathers in Joe and Rosie’s kitchen each week for Sunday night dinners.

As a police officer, Joe is always “on”; aware of his surroundings, activity in the home and Charlestown, and always in control of his emotions. Very slowly, Joe seems to be losing some of that control. He begins to misplace items, including his service firearm, finds it difficult to write reports at work, becomes confused and clumsy, and experiences involuntary body movements that he doesn’t notice. He begins to make mistakes at work, and loses his temper at home.

Finally, he agrees to see a doctor about his symptoms, and is referred to a specialist in movement disorders. Joe’s diagnosis is devastating. Joe O’Brien has Huntington’s Disease. Inherited from a parent, Huntington’s Disease is a rare illness that usually starts in the prime of life, slowly killing a person by their mid-fifties. The worst news — each of Joe and Rosie’s children have a fifty percent chance of already having the disease.

Genova’s novel delves into each of the family members’ reactions to the diagnosis of their father, and their individual struggles whether or not to be tested for the presence of the disease in themselves.

JJ is a firefighter and his wife is expecting their first baby. Is he affected, and if so, what about his unborn child? Patrick is a bartender, and still trying to find his way in life. A positive diagnosis for Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, could end her dream career, and yoga instructor Katie has just fallen in love.

Even the most hardened of readers will have a difficult time not tearing up or outright sobbing at the challenges and decisions the family members face. Genova’s ability to evoke such strong emotions in her readers is masterful. Inside the O’Briens not only tells the story of a family, but deftly and simply educates the reader about Huntington’s Disease. Lisa Genova’s novel is a fantastic book and is exceptional on all levels. She has definitely hit a grand slam with this book.