‘Force of Nature’ by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #2)

When I read The Dry, Jane Harper’s first instalment in a mystery series set in Australia featuring Aaron Falk, I was so excited because I was looking forward to more from this author. The Dry was so compelling, atmospheric, beautifully written, and had me at the edge of my seat the whole way. So I got the second instalment as soon as I could, but sadly it did not live up to my expectations. Force of Nature was just not as good as The Dry. If you haven’t read The Dry, by all means read it, but if you have, give the second one in this series a pass in favour of The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens. Both are about a group of hikers entering the bush, but coming out minus one. What happened on the trail and why is actually hugely compelling, but in this case Lansens did a much better job of a great premise than Harper did.

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

“The ones we love…are enemies of the state.” Sophocles

A contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone (which I was unfamiliar with until I wiki-ed it), deals with clashes between family, society, and religious faith. It is a tragic tale of two very different Muslim families in Britain, in an age of terror.

This year’s winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. Most Bailey’s selections are readable, but this one was also suspenseful to the end and had an epic feel, despite its relatively short length. The author looks at love and loyalty with the backdrop of today’s immigration issues and ‘home-grown’ terrorism. It’s so easy to paint people from other religions and cultures with the same brush, but there is of course such considerable difference and nuance in each person’s story.

“Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.”

Each of the main characters in this story gets their turn to be the narrator which is a style that really works well for this type of novel. After all, seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint is the most crucial element in empathy and understanding. I like how one reviewer described this book, as “…a novel that poses weighty questions about British politics and society through their impact on the most elemental levels of the state: the family and the human heart.”

‘The Baker’s Secret’ by Stephen P. Kiernan

There’s been a lot of novels written about the second world war. I especially have liked the ones that feature strong women characters like Code Name Verity, The Nightingale, and The Alice Network. This is another.

Kiernan, author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity, handles this historical fiction beautifully. The characters in the book are well drawn, with apprentice baker Emma at the center. Though heartbreaking and brutal as the stories of war can be, the dignity and triumph of the spirit in hard times is evident and makes the book still an uplifting one.

Set in France during the occupation, Emma silently and stealthily finds ways to alleviate the suffering in her coastal village. With quiet calm but with brilliant resistance, she fights back by blessing her villagers in a myriad of ways. Emma is a baker and is given a ration to bake loaves for the Germans. By grinding straw, and adding it to the flour, she is able to bake two extra loaves which help to feed hungry neighbours and that’s not all. Even under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she risks her life to build a clandestine network of barter and trade that sustains the village and thwarts the occupiers. But much more importantly than food or supplies, Emma brings hope.

‘How to Walk Away’ by Katherine Center

“When you don’t know what to do for yourself, do something for somebody else.”

Hugely predictable yet surprisingly compelling, this humorous and adequately inspirational unsentimental romantic novel is a  ‘feel good’ read. It reminded me a little of Me Before You by Jojo Moyes because it struck a similar tone. A good one to bring to the cottage or pack in your carry-on. Even as the bestseller headline screams “Unforgettable love story in the darkest of circumstances!” this is not great literature, but I give it credit for readability and almost making me miss my stop on the subway. For this genre, it is well done.

The flyleaf describes the storyline best:
“Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her: a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment. In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that love might find her in the last place she would ever expect.”

‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ by Bryan Stevenson

“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

From one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time, this is an unforgettable true story about the redeeming potential of mercy and a call to fix a broken system of justice. Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor and wrongly convicted on death row. This book reads like a John Grisham novel, it is hugely compelling and engaging. It is a moving and personal account of stories of courage and integrity that will keep you riveted. I listened to the audio version which is narrated by the author himself. This is a great interview with the author:

If we think problems such as slavery and racism are any better in 2018, we are fooling ourselves. Stories of police violence and racial profiling tell a different story, which is why this is such a critical and important book. Some people even refer to mass incarceration of black people in America as contemporary slavery.

Walter McMillian was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman who worked as a clerk in a dry clearing store in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against Mr. McMillian. He was held on Death Row prior to being convicted and sentenced to death. His trial lasted only a day and a half. Three witnesses testified against Mr. McMillian and the jury ignored multiple alibi witnesses, who were black, who testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. The trial judge overrode the jury’s sentencing verdict for life ​​without parole and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death.

Anthony Ray Hinton, another one of Stevenson’s clients, just released a book called The Sun Does Shine, which Oprah Winfrey has endorsed and has already hit mainstream book outlets like Costco. It is a memoir of how Hinton was falsely convicted and released after 30 years. How he talks about a lifetime on death row is truly remarkable.

‘The Story of Arthur Truluv’ by Elizabeth Berg

If you liked A Man Called Ove, you’ll love this one. And it’s not derivative or completely similar. Elizabeth Berg has always been a favourite author of mine over the years, because her books are charming and personal without being sentimental or cliché. This is her latest.

Arthur brings his lunch and a small folding chair each day to the cemetery where he has lunch with his wife Nola. He finds comfort in this ritual and seems to be dealing well with his grief. I love this line in the book, “…it took a long time for him to shift things around so that he could still love and honor Nola but also love and honor life.” More immediately open and curious than Ove, Arthur enjoys visiting other graves as well, imagining details about the people who have passed on and what their lives might have been like. One day he meets Maddy, a troubled teen who is avoiding school by hiding in the same cemetery. Though the story plays out fairly predictably at this point, I still enjoyed the ride which was comfortable and entertaining.

‘The Sea Glass Sisters’ by Lisa Wingate (Carolina Heirlooms #1)

A prelude to the Carolina Heirlooms series, this is contemporary women’s fiction set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Now seriously, go look it up, because how is it even possible that people live on this thin string of islands that circles the mainland far out to sea? It’s a popular tourist destination because of the subtropical climate and endless beachfront, but it also is hammered by hurricanes and was once nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the number of shipwrecks that have occurred there. What a unique location for the setting of these novels! This novella was a great ‘amuse-bouche’ for the collection, which I will surely carry on with because I am hooked!

Elizabeth Gallagher is devastated when she believes she may have made a tragic error at work as a 911 operator where she lives in Michigan. In addition to that there are worries and conflicts at home, and she feels she is falling apart at the seams. A trip to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks is unexpected and turns out quite differently than she had imagined!