Character Profile: Tony

Here is the last character profile from my upcoming book Out of Ashes.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

If Gus is a long-simmering volcano, and Minh a crack of a whip, Tony Giovanni is a fireworks finale. When angered, his jaw clenches, his round head reddens like a ripe tomato, and his bulging muscles threaten to tear through the T-shirt stretched over his stocky frame. Just as a firework explodes with fury and dissipates in an instant, Tony is as quick to forgive and forget as he is to get angry.

A third-generation Italian who lives amidst a swarm of siblings and cousins, Tony fixes anything with moving parts using nothing but a “good old-fashioned Leatherman.” When he’s not threatening to punch Gus’s face in, “Love Doctor Tony” pounds him with his patented dating rules. Some may call him simple, but Tony couldn’t care less what other people think. He moseys through life with a tender heart, a crooked smile, and a clenched fist.

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Character Profile: Gus

My novel, Out of Ashes, comes out August 4th 2020. Here is a look at Gus, the disgruntled genius.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

Despite what his Germanic name suggests, Gustaf Hein hails from the UK. The son of parents with multiple doctorates each, he was top of his class at an exclusive boarding school until his parents’ scandal at Oxford launched them across the pond. Accustomed to debating the finer points of astrophysics with his peers, Gus now walks the halls with guys who say “dude” and make fart jokes.

Girls may swoon at the sight of tall-blonde-and-handsome’s deep blue eyes, but as soon as he opens his mouth, they scatter like a flock of birds after a gunshot. His tone spews exasperation, and no one understands a word of his prodigious vocabulary. No one except Cathryn. Despite her quirks, Cathryn translates what he says with the naturalness of a bilingual.

To a guy whose expression alternates between a derisive sneer and a disgruntled scowl, Cathryn’s kindness is as foreign as driving on the right side of the road. His stoicism masks a simmering temper, but he doesn’t waste time believing in love.

Then again, Cathryn’s smile is evidence for a lot of things he doesn’t believe.

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Book Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory

For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

Cover Description

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over?” — Amazon Description *

Characters and Plot

As a Minnesota-nice, passive-aggressive people pleaser, I find it difficult to empathize with rebel protagonists. The love story subplot—bitter girl surrounds her heart with walls as thick as they are high; persistent nice guy breaks through them—is one I’ve seen before, most recently in A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi**.

However, Laurie Halse Anderson (LHA) creates empathy for Hayley more effectively than Mafi does for Shirin. While I initially found Hayley’s attitude off-putting, she and Finn were so “adorkable” I couldn’t help rooting for them.

As part of my graduate schooling, I had the privilege to train in the Minneapolis VA Hospital. The VA provided counseling for PTSD along with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. The experience gave me a profound respect for the men and women who serve our country, and a deeper understanding of the effects of that service on the body and the mind. If you would like to learn more, I recommend reading Once a Warrior—Always a Warrior by Charles Hoge.

LHA depicts PTSD with heart-wrenching realism. Hayley constantly evaluates her dad for signs of flashbacks. The story line dives into dark moments of violence, but pops up for a breath of hope often enough to make the reader cry out when it doesn’t last. Between the “adorkable” love story and the progressive intensity of the PTSD, the story is more than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded.

More than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course at Warp 9, where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded. #TheImpossibleKnifeofMemory

My only critique is that the author explains Hayley’s fear of water, but doesn’t divulge the history behind her hatred of the mall. One scene suggests she’s claustrophobic, but I would like to know more.

Writing Style

LHA’s writing style is the opposite of my own. I gravitate towards long sentences that flow across the page. Her prose is punchy and precise. No word joins the others without first proving its worth.

Her unique descriptions characterize her protagonist well. For example, she describes one of Hayley’s classmates as “the same size and shape as a porta potty.” The witty repartee between Hayley in Finn is what won me to Hayley’s side. It was as though they belonged to a linguistic genre all their own.

In short, LHA’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages. @halseanderson

Conclusion

Given the subject, this book is not for readers who want to curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and eat Christmas cookies. For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

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The Impossible Knife of Memory


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**A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a good depiction of the fickleness of high school and the arbitrariness of popularity.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

If you enjoy the music of a well-written metaphor, can pass hours lost in the world of a book, and stop to smell the roses while you read, I recommend this book.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I read so much hype about this book. It popped up in multiple book blogs I follow, including the Spanish ones, where the book’s title is Niña Salvaje, “Wild Girl.” Needless to say, I was thrilled when my aunt gifted me a copy.

Back Cover Description

“For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.

But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life—until the unthinkable happens.”

Characters

Kya’s perspective is engaging and endearing. Owns builds sympathy for her by describing her less-than-ideal home life. The story portrays her ascent to adulthood with such intimacy that the reader understands why she prefers nature to “civilization.”

Her two love interests, Tate and Chase, contrast each other nicely. I rather liked her relationship with Tate. Unlike a lot of love story subplots, they had common ground on which to base their relationship. Chase falls into the typical “star quarterback” stereotype, but Owens gets away with it by contrasting him with Tate. The other towns folk are exactly the sort of quirky one expects from a small town.

Plot

The story progresses in parallel timelines—one relating the murder-mystery, the other Kya’s coming-of-age. To me, the murder-mystery lacked the intense “who-done-it” factor that characterizes that genre, but the main point of the book was Kya’s life story. The murder-mystery served to highlight the town’s prejudice, Kya’s motives, and Kya’s development into a successful Marsh expert.

“Let me know what you think of the ending,” my grandmother said when she saw the book on my coffee table. She didn’t like it. It wasn’t quite the twist I expected, but to be honest, I have no strong feelings about it. The book would have been fine without it, but isn’t destroyed by its presence.

Writing Style

This is not the book to squeeze into the 5-minute breaks in your day. Where the Crawdads Sing is a story to be enjoyed while basking in the sunshine at the beach or while curled next to a fireplace, snowed in for the weekend. It took me a while to get into this story because I had just finished a heart-pounding WWII tale.

Owen’s prose is heavily descriptive, but not in a bad way. Her metaphors fit the setting and are so creative they resemble poetry. While the WWII tale shot words out like bullets from an automatic rifle, Owens words languish on the page, making the reader want to savor them before moving on.

I am glad I opted to read this book in English. I would have been lost in all that descriptive language had I read Niña Salvaje. I also think the cultural language of the Southern small town would be lost in translation.

One thing I noted was the author enjoyed describing Kya’s food and clothing in detail. Though they made me hungry, the food descriptions added detail to the setting. The descriptions of clothing helped show Kya aging (skirts fell first to her ankles, then her knees, etc), but struck me as odd.  

Aside from a couple instances of head-hopping mid-paragraph, Owens writing was a joy to read.

Miscellaneous

I wish the girl on the cover drove a shallow boat instead of paddling a canoe. One of the poems in the book mentions a girl in a canoe, but Kya’s boat and its appearance are more relevant to the plot.

Conclusion

If you enjoy the music of a well-written metaphor, can pass hours lost in the world of a book, and stop to smell the roses while you read, I recommend this book. Rather than the heart-pounding staccato of more thrilling tales, this book reads like a legato violin solo. A nice change of pace that I wouldn’t have regretted purchasing if I didn’t have generous family members.

Let me know what you think of the ending.


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Book Review: Butterfly Yellow

Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lḁi

I’m a sucker for books that feature diverse protagonists, especially if the plot involves culture clash. When I saw this in the store, I couldn’t resist. It did not disappoint.

Cover Description

“In the final days of the Vietnam War, Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to America, a place of freedom and wonder. In a split second, Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in a war-torn country.

Six years later, Hằng has made the harrowing journey as a refugee from Vietnam to Texas, a flat, endless expanse dotted with twisty mesquite trees and oil fields. She doesn’t know how she will find her little brother in this foreign land filled with people who speak hissy, snaky English. Then she meets LeeRoy, a city boy with big rodeo dreams.

Hằng is overjoyed when she and Linh are finally reunited. But her heart is crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t remember her, their family, or Vietnam. The distance between them feels greater than ever. But Hằng has come so far and will do anything to bridge the gap.”

Characters

Hằng is a spunky young woman whose determination brings her through the horrors of refugee life to her brother, a true role model for any age. Plagued by guilt, haunted by trauma, and filled with longing, her character garners immediate empathy without being piteous.

LeeRoy is a wannabe cowboy who always thinks of food. At first, his character came off as corny, but his small acts of heroism and kindness won me over by the end. The contrast between Hằng and LeeRoy provides a beautiful example of people reaching each other across cultures. So different, yet perfect friends. Her stubbornness and his cowboy grit collide in adorable spats. By the end, I loved them both.

Plot

Overall, the story was well-paced and kept me engaged throughout. I like that the book begins with Hằng finding her brother, and the story revolves around her difficulty in reconnecting with him. The challenges that arrive after escaping a war zone are an often untold part of the refugee story.

My one critique is that I waited the entire book to learn what happened to Hằng on the island, and the author dumped it all in a series of flashbacks. The story was worth the wait, but I wish she had sprinkled more of it in sooner. I like how LeeRoy supports her during that time, and I love that he never asks her to explain.

Writing Style

I love reading books by poets. I’ve read several by Diane Ackerman and love how descriptive she is. Lḁi’s prose is so full of imagery that reading it is like looking at a painting. Beautiful and imaginative, her descriptions reflect Hằng’s perspective. Reading from Hằng’s point of view makes Texas feel like an alien land, exactly how it seems to Hằng. LeeRoy’s perspective is much more down-to-earth, and I love that Lḁi includes so many forced westernisms for the wannabe cowboy.

The best part, for me, about Lḁi’s writing is her inclusion of Vietnamese and her use of English-in-Vietnamese spellings. Hằng’s dialogue and thoughts seem that much more real. Lḁi uses LeeRoy to “translate” in a way that naturally fits with the flow of the story, not forced. Everything is easy to understand, yet the writing itself adds to the sense of two cultures colliding. As a bilingual speech therapist, I could gush for pages about how much I loved this, but you get the idea.

Conclusion

Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.


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Book Review: The Hate U Give

This book popped up repeatedly on bestseller and recommendation lists. I had to discover the basis for the hype.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This book popped up repeatedly on bestseller and recommendation lists. I had to discover the basis for the hype.

Back Cover Description

“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.”

Characters

Starr is a relatable teenager in that she is still figuring out who she is and where she belongs. While not everybody has lived between two different socioeconomic classes, most people have felt they didn’t belong. I like that the author didn’t put Starr in a single box; instead, she showed us many aspects of Starr’s personality. It was as if Starr says “This is me too. Why should I have to choose?”

The other characters were unique without be cartoonish. I particularly liked Seven’s mother’s small act of redemption toward the end.

Plot

I usually read at a glacial pace, stopping to savor the story as it unfolds, but this book’s pacing is like a galloping horse—steady and strong. Thomas strikes the perfect balance between increasing tension and allowing enough time for development and emotional resonance. The focus on Starr, her family, her choices, and her reactions kept me engaged until the end when everything devolved into a riot. I couldn’t relate to a crowd of angry people and had trouble suspending my disbelief after that. A bit too crazy for a passive-aggressive, people-pleasing Midwesterner like me.

I appreciate the author’s explaining the rap that made the story’s the theme. As a classical music fan, I would have been lost without that.

Writing Style

The strength of Thomas’s writing lies in her delving into ambiguity and forcing the reader to sit there, uncomfortable. She portrays life for the complex, messy thing it is, and I admire her for that. Few books have characters as flawed but human as hers.

One masterfully written scene was when Starr’s family got together to watch the basketball game. Rivalries reared their ugly heads, and each person had their own win-ensuring rituals. I don’t give a rat’s left toe about basketball, but if you replace the sport with hockey and the family with a bunch of sun-starved Minnesotans, this scene could have come straight from my childhood. What family can’t relate to friendly competition?

Pairing such a relatable family event with something so tragic, so wrong, made for a powerful read. This wasn’t my favorite book I’ve ever read, but it was worth reading for that scene alone.

Conclusion

The Hate U Give speaks to a relevant issue in modern American culture and opens the door for discussion. Thomas’s prose didn’t make me swoon like say, Laurie Halse Anderson’s or Diane Ackerman’s, but it was solid, and many of her scenes packed an emotional punch.

Worth the hype?

I didn’t find this book as earth-shattering as other reviewers, but I enjoyed it, and I admit it made me think.

Worth the money/time to read?

Yes. I checked a copy out from the library, but purchasing it wouldn’t be a waste. It makes a good discussion book, so it’d be good to loan to a friend.


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Book Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea

I picked up this book because I love reading about people who are different from me. Not a lot of young adult novels feature Muslim protagonists, so I grabbed this as soon as I saw it available the library.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

I picked up this book because I love reading about people who are different from me. Not a lot of young adult novels feature Muslim protagonists, so I grabbed this as soon as I saw it available the library.

Back Cover Description

“It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.”

Characters

I love that Shirin breaks so many stereotypes. She’s a fashionista and break-dancer. I appreciate the author’s describing the break dance moves for a neophyte like me. I also liked that the author portrayed a varying level of piety. One of my favorite passages was when Shirin’s mother asks her and her brother if they said their prayers, and they lie and say they did. The mom rolls her eyes and says to do better with their afternoon prayers, and they lie and say they will. That’s an exchange a lot of young people can relate to.

If I had met Shirin in real life, her “back off” vibes would have scared me away long before I got to know the wounded heart inside her. Shirin is so disillusioned and bitter she is difficult to like. I have trouble immersing myself in that much anger.

The author mentions Shirin writing in her diary a lot. I wish she had included some of those entries in the book to show her softer, vulnerable side. Without that, getting to know Shirin is like singing Christmas carols to the Wicked Witch of the West. We see more of her inner self later in the book, but I almost didn’t make it that far.

Plot

The tough girl falling for a sweet guy is a common theme in young adult literature, but I always have trouble believing the guys are that persistent. Perhaps that comes from being an invisible wallflower in high school. Mafi gets away with it by making Shirin beautiful and stylish and orchestrating the circumstances such that the leading male finds her lack of interest in basketball refreshing. Still, as far as this trope goes, I much preferred Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory.

The plot’s main asset is an excellent portrayal of the arbitrariness of popularity. I won’t spoil it by including details, but it exposes the hypocrisy of high school (and adult) social circles. Much like real life, the characters transition from social lepers to reigning sovereigns with the speed of a viral video.

Writing Style

The author’s tone was consistent with the protagonist’s voice—short sentences and curt language. Not a style I gravitate to, but well-executed and fitting for the story. The plot moved at an acceptable pace, and I got a decent sense the setting. As Shirin often moved from school to school, I felt it appropriate that the setting didn’t receive too much attention. After so many moves, she wouldn’t care enough to invest in making it home.

Other

The cover image is hard to read, and it doesn’t reveal the premise of the book. I first discovered this book on a recommendations list, so I already knew what it was about, but a browsing reader wouldn’t.

Conclusion

If you are into tough-girl protagonists, or if you have a similar life experience to the main character, then this book is well-written enough to warrant spending money. For shy girls like me who have trouble relating to that type of character, it’s a library read. Either way, worth reading.


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Book Review: True Colors

I haven’t yet read a book by Kristin Hannah that I didn’t love.

True Colors by Kristin Hannah

I have yet to read a book by Kristin Hannah that I didn’t love. My favorites remain The Great Alone and The Nightingale, but this was a worthwhile read.

Back Cover Description

The Grey sisters had only each other when their mother died years ago. Their stern, unyielding father gave them almost no attention. Winona, the oldest, needs her father’s approval most of all. An overweight dreamer, she never felt at home on the sprawling horse ranch that had been in her family for three generations. Aurora, the middle, is the peacemaker. Vivi Ann, the youngest, is the undisputed star of the family. Everything comes easily to Vivi Ann, love most of all.

A terrible crime will shatter their family and tear their beloved town apart. Accused is Vivi Ann’s new husband, an outsider. For the first time, the sisters will be pitted against each other.

Characters

Each of the Grey sisters embodies common family roles—the misfit, the peacemaker, the little princess—but the struggles in their personal lives prevents the books from falling into clichés. A former lawyer herself, Hannah often includes lawyer characters. I liked Winona, especially since so many books are filled with skinny beauties. Winona’s bull-like personality gives her the strength through the entire book, but her sisters balance her out, and her admission of her own mistakes at the end is authentic. Once again, Hannah has done an incredible job creating relatable characters with depth and personality.

Plot

The plot begins with a bit of a love triangle, then switches to the crime, then takes a decade-long break and returns to the crime. A lot of set-up, but it comes together in the end. The author leads the reader through one link in the chain at a time. While exploring the darker side of the criminal justice system, the story centers around themes of family, prejudice and reconciliation.

Writing Style

Hannah has a gift for describing the passage of time without boring the reader. She can span months in a single paragraph. Instead of saying “and then summer came,” she describes which flowers come into bloom, what chores the townsfolk do, and what weather plagues the city. This maintains the magic of the story while still allowing us to fast-forward through time.

Other

The cover image is similar Between Sisters, though I like the sharp contrast between the horse silhouette and the background. The horse relates to the plot and symbolizes one character, so works well for the cover.

You can tell the author is writing what she knows when she describes the setting, and that she has a great deal of affection for the Pacific Northwest. Much like her depiction of Alaska in The Great Alone, her descriptions of the ranch made me want to pack my bags and hop on the next flight there. That’s the highest compliment I can give a book’s setting.

Conclusion

Another excellent book by Kristin Hannah, well worth the price to buy and the time to read. If you are deciding between True Colors and Between Sisters, I’ll say that I liked Between Sisters, but they are similar. The Great Alone and The Nightingale are still my favorites by Kristina Hannah, but True Colors earns its place on the shelf.  



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True Colors

Other books by Kristin Hannah I enjoyed

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Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Cleave wields words like a miner wields a pickax: he strikes hard and sharp. His descriptions leave you feeling as if you experienced the setting not from the comfort of your living room sofa, but in all the grit and passion of place itself.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

As I wrote in this post and this post, I never tire of WWII stories. Everyone Brave is Forgiven tells the story from the perspective of those who stayed in London and experienced the war on their own front porches.

Back Cover Description

“The day war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up. Tom Shaw decides to ignore the war—until he learns his roommate Alistair Heath has unexpectedly enlisted. Then the conflict can no longer be avoided. Young, bright, and brave, Mary is certain she’d be a marvelous spy. When she is—bewilderingly—made a teacher, she finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget. Tom, meanwhile, finds that he will do anything for Mary.

And when Mary and Alistair meet, it is love, as well as war, that will test them in ways they could not have imagined, entangling three lives in violence and passion, friendship and deception, inexorably shaping their hopes and dreams.”

Characters

Mary North is a delightfully rebellious socialite who has more backbone than many soldiers. Her relationship with her disenfranchised students—African Londoners and children with disabilities—shines a light on the period. Even Nazi bombs couldn’t destroy prejudice. It’s no wonder Tom Shaw, a soft-hearted sloth of a man, falls for her. She loves him too, until Alistair’s quick wit sticks to her heart and forms a love-triangle that crosses oceans.

Mary’s high society rebellion, Tom’s “why’s everyone so upset about all this” attitude, and Alistair’s stark irony each give a striking perspective on the war. Cleave’s characters are well-rounded and realistic.

Plot

The plot reminds me of digging in the rocky soil of my landscaping. Every page reveals a stone, a new ugly truth about the war. From prejudice, to war crimes, to overblown bureaucracy, Cleave leaves no room to romanticize war. This book made me think.

As a romantic myself, I wanted things to work out better for Tom, Mary, and Alistair. Like all well-written characters, they became my imaginary friends, and I wanted a fairy tale ending for them. Don’t misinterpret this to mean that I didn’t like the ending. It was a satisfying ending, but like the rest of the plot, reflected the difficulties of life at war.

Writing Style

Cleave’s writing has a no-nonsense feel to it that differs from the female authors that I typically read. He is particularly gifted at Alistair’s wit, which reminds me of my older brother. His writing style reflects the overall tone of the novel. With little in the way of flowery fluff, Cleave wields words like a miner wields a pickax: he strikes hard and sharp. His descriptions leave you feeling as if you experienced the setting not from the comfort of your living room sofa, but in all the grit and passion of place itself.

Other

I like the cover image, though I wish it showed London in its damaged state. That was one of the more striking parts of the book, experiencing the bombings of London.

Conclusion

My grandmother loaned me this book, but it would be worth buying a used copy, unless you’re one of those people who can’t resist that new-book smell. If you’re stingy like me, this could be a library read, though I wouldn’t have regretting purchasing it.


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