January Round Up: Reclusive Authors, Tattooists & JELL-O

2019

The Travel Reading List is off to a cracking start with lots of discussion in our Facebook Community.

Here are some reviews from what we’ve read in January to help you get started on the challenge.

Got that right, Helen!

(This post has Amazon affiliate links, which means that if you choose to purchase, I will make a small commission)

Fresh Reads from January

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

The protagonist Margaret is hired by the immensely successful but reclusive author Vida Winter. Vida wants Margaret to pen her missing “thirteenth tale”, which was left out of a collection that included twelve other stories. The author is ailing and she has a massive secret to share before her death. The book reads like a mystery as Margaret tries to verify the outlandish truth of what the Vida is revealing.

“Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes–characters even–caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you”

What I loved: The writing is quite lyrical and descriptive, the moody, crumbling setting and the bookish setting was great.

What I didn’t: There was just a bit too much surprise in the big reveal which stretched my credulity. 

Challenges Fulfilled by Thirteenth Tale

  • By an author of a different nationality (as long as you aren’t British).
  • With a female main character. While there are several men driving action in the plot, ultimately this is a woman’s story with featuring mothers, daughters, sisters and caretakers.
  • A New Times Bestseller…for a time.
  • But most importantly, it fulfills my favorite challenge: A book about books, bookstores and libraries. There is something so meta about this category and the Thirteenth Tales fulfills all three. Margaret grows up in the bookshop owned by her father. She is asked to pen Vida’s thirteenth tale and much of the story is set in the author’s library.

If you are keen to explore more books on books, bookstore or libraries, check out the following:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris

This book is the semi-fictionalized account of the actual tattooist of Auschwitz. Like so many people who (barely) make it out of the death camps, he felt guilty for surviving and had been reluctant to discuss his experience. But after the death of his wife, like Vida and the Thirteenth Tale, he wished to unburden himself and so he shared his story with the author.

I chose to take the book at face value and assume that the story was accurate as he told it. That’s a tricky business, because anything having to do with Auschwitz is going to be a pretty awful story to tell. Lale was a Serbian sent to the camp in 1942. Because of his language skills, he was given the task of tattooing the incoming prisoner/victims. As the story progresses, he meets and falls in love with a woman, manages to run an smuggling ring which traded confiscated valuables for food and, most importantly, he manages to stay alive.

We read this book for my book club and it was met with mixed reviews. Or rather, my review differed from everyone else’s. We were all riveted by the story and were naturally saddened by what the victim/prisoners had to do to stay alive. Some in my group like the book because the story was “light”. The book is only 257 pages and the plot moves along quickly.

However, it was that brisk efficiency in the narrative which left me wanting. I wanted more descriptive language, however gruesome it may have been. That said, this is a good read for providing a very unique point of view on what went on in Auschwitz.

Challenges Fulfilled by Tattooist of Auschwitz

  • By an author of different nationality (unless you are a New Zealander).
  • A book on the NY Times bestseller list (for a good chunk of 2018).
  • A bestseller from 2018.
  • And primarily…a book set in a war or conflict zone.

If you are interested in reading more WWII fiction, check out my post on books set in Paris. It has a whole historical fiction section devoted to the time period.

What’s Up on Facebook

Natasha read Melmoth by Sarah Perry. She “…devoured it over the weekend” and “…loved the evocation of Prague as a setting!”

Michel read The Tailor’s Girl by Fiona McIntosh. She said of McIntosh’s books “…they always have interesting place settings and good strong women.”

Mary Jo read Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom. According to Amazon, it’s “…a gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune.”

It’s a feminist, family history which would normally be up my alley but the thought of Jell-O gives me the jiggles, so I’ll need to find a different food related book to fulfill that challenge.

What are you reading? Join us in the Facebook group and share your reads with us.

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A Book That Takes Place Somewhere You’ve Always Dreamed of Living

2018

Mary Jo


This addition to the Stone Barrington series is set in several locations that sound fabulous to live in – Key West, Manhattan, and England.

While the plot is thin, Shoot First isn’t the finest in this series, it does provide a fun romp woven around the high drama of technology companies. A good plane read.

 

 

I think many people who’ve visited France come home with the idea of how romantic, exciting, interesting it would be to live there. After a recent week in France, I was reminded again of how much I love it there and would like to spend an extended period of time there.

One thing I noticed while dining there was that kids were seamlessly integrated into the dining experience. While I don’t consider myself a picky eater – I will try anything once – there are just some tastes and textures that I don’t like. And so I avoid them whenever I can.

Kids get the rep for being notoriously picky eaters, but it didn’t seem so in France. I picked up this book after returning home and found it as much about kids learning what they like (and don’t) as it is about adults learning to try new things and expanding their culinary repertoire. A good read even if you don’t have kids.

A Book That is a Classic

2018

Mary Jo

Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, this is a retelling of the classic story of Hansel and Gretel.

In The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, two Jewish children are sent into the forest by the parents, hoping that this will save them from capture, imprisonment, and probable death at the hand of the Nazis. The traditional story arc follows, including putting the children in the oven, but this version of the classic tale gives a different meaning to who is sinister and who is not.

And, this is another book dealing with the WWII theme, something I don’t seem  to be able to pass up these days.

A Book With an Animal in the Title

2018

Mary Jo


An espionage thriller centered around a highly trained team of lethal assassins as they prowl the streets, hunting their prey. Bullseye is formulaic, as these often are, but is an easy read perfect for hours on an airplane.

There are better from James Patterson, but this wasn’t a complete write-off. And, I was having a hard time finding something to fit this reading prompt.

A Book That is an Adventure Story

2018

From Mary Jo

Eve of a Hundred Midnights is the true story two married journalists on an island-hopping run for their lives across the Pacific after the Fall of Manila during World War II—a saga of love, adventure, and danger.

Hopping between the Philippines, Japan, China, the United States, and more, this is a close-up look at Asia during WWII. History has given some of the events a different brush stroke than Mel and Annalee, and it was interesting to read about their experiences in real time, rather than looking backward.

If you’re at all interested in this era of history, you’ll want to pick up this book. It took me a while to get through it, but I’m glad I did.

 

I’ve heard it said that people move to Alaska because they’re either running from something of to something, and that sums up the premise for this book as a family moves to the hardscrabble Alaska wilderness.

In addition to family issues at the core of the move, the book touches on issues related to isolated living – self-sufficiency, living off the grid, transportation in a harsh environment, community and reliance, and more.

I’ve spent time in Alaska, although mostly in its cities, but have taken brief peeks into the wilderness area. I’m not hardy enough to live there, so experiencing it through this book is as closes as I’m going to come. This is one of Kristin Hannah’s best.

A Book That’s Perfect for Reading Over Lunch

2018

From Mary Jo

I got hooked on the Maise Dobbs series of books following the recommendation from a librarian. An Incomplete Revenge, the fifth in the series, finds Maise dealing with a series of crimes in the rural area outside of London.

I’m not sure what it is about this series that I find so compelling. Maise is a difficult protagonist, and at times not even very likable. But in this installment of the series, a more intimate side of her comes out. We learn a little more about her background and family, and we start to see another side of her.

Set in the post WWI era, these are fairly easy to read (although more indepth than a cozy), and would make for good lunchtime reading. I’ve already started on the next book in the series.

 

I think of a book that you’d read over lunch as similar to a book that you’d read on a plane. It’s got enough to hold your attention but is not so complicated that you can’t put it aside for a P.A. announcement or dinner service.

Since this installment in the Stone Barrington series has an aviation term as its title, it seems a good fit for this reading challenge prompt. This series continues to frustrate me, some plots are too trite and easy, but I continue to read them and am a fan.

A Guidebook

2018

From Mary Jo: 

Eventually, I will get to all 50 states. I keep a list and am a little over halfway there. I haven’t added on a new state for awhile, so I was excited about a trip to Nashville and a visit to the Grand Ole Opry. My first time in Tennessee!

Although I had some activities already on my itinerary, I was still looking for ideas about what to see and do (and eat and drink) and looked for a guidebook to take along on the trip. Nashville doesn’t get covered in a lot of the guidebooks, but I did find the 100 Things to Do series of guidebooks that seemed to cover a lot of destinations not found elsewhere.

So I ordered 100 Things to do in Nashville Before you Die and packed it along for the trip. I flipped through it on the flight, made some notes, then passed it over to Tony for his input. We used it to add ideas to our to-do list and referred to it a few times while there.

The series isn’t a comprehensive list of restaurants and hotels and museums. It’s a curated collection of recommendations in a number of categories. Lists are popular, we buy them, time to get over talking smack about them. I’d check out this series again if I was headed to a destination that wasn’t covered by other sources.

A Book that is Also a Movie

2018

From Mary Jo: 

I have a love/hate relationship with books and movie – I love both mediums, but rarely do I love both the book and the movie (notable exception: To Kill a Mockingbird). So I decided to put a spin on the reading prompt and found a book about the movies.

The Girls in the Picture is about the early days of Hollywood when silent films were on the way out and talkies on their way in, and the “girls” are actress Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. I knew a bit about Mary Pickford, of course, but I had no idea that Frances was the most renowned female screenwriter of the 20th century.

This novel tells about the emerging male-dominated film industry through the close friendship and interactions between the two women. It could be a story out of Hollywood today – women fighting to have a seat at the table, to have respect from their industry peers, to have control of their career choices, and to find work/life balance. Although it took me awhile to finish this book, I enjoyed it.


Every time I was on a plane, I saw people reading this book. When I heard that it would be released as a movie (it’s now out), I had to read it before seeing the movie (I still haven’t seen the movie).

The book plays on every possible stereotype of the wealthy in Hong Kong. Every. Single. One. It was funny and over-the-top, often in what seemed like a politically incorrect way, and I bounced between laughing and outrage.

Fun!

A Book Published in 2018

2018

From Mary Jo:

I generally like the genre of psychological thrillers, and The Wife Between Us was immensely satisfying.

Like others with strong female characters (Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train come to mind), I found myself drawn into the plot both emotionally and intellectually. And like any good thriller, there were plenty of plot twists – including one very big “I didn’t see that coming” moment. It was such a twist that I had to go back and read several pages because I missed all the foreshadowing. It was there, and obvious now that I know about it. I expect we’ll see this as a movie, too.

Trigger warning: This does involve domestic abuse, so if that sets off unresolved issues, you may want to skip this one.


From Mary Jo

Here’s another one from 2018, a historical period piece set in New York in the late 1800s – The English Wife.

It’s full of family secrets, scandal, oppressive social norms and mores, and a murder. The reveal was surprising to me, but as I thought back about it, the signs were all there.

The ending was a little too neat and tidy, but I still enjoyed it.

 

 

This was, at times, a very hard book to read. It’s a memoir of a young woman who raised in a survivalist community, who wasn’t allowed to attend school, and who lived preparing for an eventual invasion by the government. Indoctrination into the survivalist movement was near complete.

Then, she broke away from home to attend college (after lying and saying that she graduated from high school).

Following this young woman as she tried to maintain a relationship with her dysfunctional family, while being ostracized by them for her more liberal (but still conservative) beliefs was frustrating and painful. Knowing that there are hundreds more boys and girls who are caught up in this similar life and seclusion is even more painful.

I’m not sure if the ending is a happy one, it’s a mixed bag, but I think she’s in a much better place than at the beginning of the book.

 

Not my favorite of the many Baldacci books and/or series, this one seems a little more contrived with a character with a perfect memory and recall. It’s too cliche of an arc for me to care much about the plot.

There are better Baldacci books to read.

 

 

 

I didn’t see this expected twist coming. It’s sort of like the movie the Sixth Sense, I didn’t realize that he was dead until nearly the very end.

It would be easy to just relegate this to the rom-con or rom-drama, but it has a little bit more grit that fits neatly into those genres. Ultimately, it’s a book about family and our relationships within and among our families.

 

This book appeared on so book club, bestseller, and favorite lists that I was really looking forward to it. The topic is timely – the way a Muslim family from India integrates into the United States in a pre- and then post- 9/11 era.

This should have been something that I could really sink my teeth into. The plot centered around family dynamics and the generational differences in a Muslim family. Okay, good, there’s some meat here. It was the characters that did me in. I just didn’t care about them. In fact, they annoyed me to no end (especially the brother who was front and center of much of the story). It took me forever to finish the book, in large part because I just didn’t care, but I slogged on.

I’m the odd person out on this, though. Most reviews and bookclubs have fallen in love with it. Meh – not the first or last time that I didn’t love something everyone else did.