4 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

★ ★ ★ ★

Clarissa Goenawan’s second novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida expands upon the world of Rainbirds, her debut novel. There is simplicity yet depth and elegance when it comes to her prose that is refreshing and something that I appreciate about her writing style. So it was no surprise when I read the entirety of this novel within 5 hours while sick in bed. I would like to thank Clarissa Goenawan and Soho Press for sending me an advanced copy.

It follows three friends of Miwako, a Tokyo university student, who seek to understand why she disappeared to a remote village and committed suicide. Before going further into the review just yet, I want to put a disclaimer that the book does obviously involved suicide and death, which is clear in the synopsis, but also sexual assault. It is not detailed, but it is mentioned so I just want to state that for those who would like to know prior to reading.

The story is told through three parts and character perspectives—Ryusei, Chie, and Fumi, who are all trying to understand what lead Miwako to make the decision she did and what was going on in her life prior to that day. Each part offers a different perspective, but also allows the reader to see the facade Miwako altered depending on who she was around to hide what she was going through. It alternates between past and present, so we also get a glimpse into the others’ lives and how Miwako impacted them. Miwako is a compelling and quite frankly cryptic protagonist, but all of the characters are fleshed out and relatable with their own emotions and personal challenges that they are facing. The story deals with not just death and grief, but sexuality and gender, coming-of-age struggles, sexual assault, and the inner turmoil of secrets and our decisions. There is this lingering sense of hopelessness throughout the book, but by the end of it, there is hope again for the characters, even though you know there are still challenges ahead.

Goenawan’s storytelling takes a tragic or dark history of a character that needs to be unraveled and shows the vulnerability and challenges that people face when they desperately want to uncover the truth but also reveals the strength that they have too. Sometimes, in a way, it had me questioning whether or not what was taking place was actually reality. I find her stories tend to have this otherworldly atmosphere with some mystical elements scattered throughout despite it seeming like contemporary, so part three of this story was not surprising and I enjoyed the way it concluded.

Synopsis

“University sophomore Miwako Sumida has hanged herself, leaving those closest to her reeling. In the months before her suicide, she was hiding away in a remote mountainside village, but what, or whom, was she running from?

Ryusei, a fellow student at Waseda who harbored unrequited feelings for Miwako, begs her best friend Chie to bring him to the remote village where she spent her final days. While they are away, his older sister, Fumi, who took Miwako on as an apprentice in her art studio, receives an unexpected guest at her apartment in Tokyo, distracting her from her fear that Miwako’s death may ruin what is left of her brother’s life.”

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: March 10th 2020 by Soho Press

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

3 Star Reads, Adult Fiction

Book Review: Foe by Iain Reid

★ ★ ★
Foe is described as a “taut, psychological mind-bender” and while that is fitting, for me it was more of a slow burn, character driven story that is centered around relationships and isolation. It had that uneasiness within the first couple of pages that never leaves long after you’ve finished reading it. I cannot discuss too much into the plot, and to be honest, not much actually happens in this story—it relays a lot on dialogue and the thoughts of one character, our main protagonist.

Junior and Henrietta live a quiet life in solitude on their farm. One day a stranger from the city arrives with news: Junior has been randomly selected to travel to space. Henrietta won’t have a chance to miss him though, because she won’t be alone, she will have company that’s already been arranged.

The chapters are short, some less than 2-pages, which I personally like because it makes the story feel like it’s progressing quicker and I can get through a handful of chapters in one go when I’m reading during free time throughout the day. I also found it a well fit for this type of novel due to the lack of events that went on and how this was heavy on inner monologue.

I am torn between a 2 1/2 or 3-star review because while this was lackluster in areas due to not much taking place and seemed to drag on despite being a relatively short novel, it ended on a surreal note that left me as a reader stunned. It was a predictable ending to some, but not one that I had in mind or thought about once while reading the story. The protagonist, Junior, offers a rather distorted narrative due to his troubled psyche and the strain this unwelcoming event has caused on their quiet, isolated farm. There is an unsettling feeling surrounding the surprise guest that seeps into the energy of the farm, and that makes it difficult to analyze the situation and piece together the unknown due to the complexity and uncertainty that builds.

If you are someone who enjoys thrillers with some science-fiction, or just an intriguing, keep-you-guessing quick read that you can read within a day or two, I would say pick up Foe and see for yourself. If you have read it, tell me your thoughts! Did you expect the ending or were you just as surprised?

Synopsis


“In Iain Reid’s second haunting, philosophical puzzle of a novel, set in the near-future, Junior and Henrietta live a comfortable, solitary life on their farm, far from the city lights, but in close quarters with each other. One day, a stranger from the city arrives with alarming news: Junior has been randomly selected to travel far away from the farm…very far away. The most unusual part? Arrangements have already been made so that when he leaves, Henrietta won’t have a chance to miss him, because she won’t be left alone—not even for a moment. Henrietta will have company. Familiar company.”

Kindle Edition, 272 pages
Published September 4th 2018 by Gallery/Scout Press

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4 Star Reads, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Book Review: Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

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★ ★ ★ ★

One of my reading intentions this year was to read more nonfiction, and this was an excellent choice for my first read of 2019. Dead Mountain is riveting and informative nonfiction through the perspective of documentary filmmaker and author, Donnie Eichar, who sets out to piece together the mystery that is the Dyatlov Pass incident— the unsolved deaths surrounding the nine hikers in the northern Ural Mountains in Soviet Union (now Russia) between February 1st and 2nd in 1959. After coming across the story of the Dyatlov Pass incident, Eichar became fascinated with discovering the truth about what happened to the nine hikers on that fatal trip. The book uses the hiker’s personal journals and photography, government records, interviews with living relatives, and investigator notes to retrace the hikers’ story.

The book is essentially a reversed engineered investigation—told through three different timelines and alternates throughout until focalizing at the end: opening with the hikers in 1959 as they begin their excursion to obtain a Grade III in hiking, the reporting of the hikers missing and the investigation that soon begins, and following Eichar as he investigates the mystery by retracing the hikers’ route for any missed clues to that un-witnessed night.

As someone who doesn’t read much nonfiction and finds it sometimes hard to hold my interest, Eichar does a great job at outlining the day-to-day lives of the hikers and the investigating process that took place, writing it in a way that was not dry or overwhelming with unnecessary information for the reader. What happened to the hikers is still unknown, but Eichar tries to discover a logical theory to what actually took place during that night and eliminate those theories that have stirred up throughout the years. One of his concerns through the entire process of crafting this book was humanizing the hikers who lost their lives and the tragic story, he does it in a way that is always respectful to all those involved.

Dead Mountain is about a very odd tragedy, but Eichar did an excellent job at providing logical, science-based explanations and theory to what could have happened to the hikers, and he does so in a way that was compelling and informative for those curious about the Dyatlov Pass incident.

Synopsis 

In February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened. This gripping work of literary nonfiction delves into the mystery through unprecedented access to the hikers’ own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author’s retracing of the hikers’ fateful journey in the Russian winter. A fascinating portrait of the young hikers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers narrative, the investigators’ efforts, and the author’s investigations, here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.

Kindle Edition, 288 pages
Published October 22nd 2013 by Chronicle Books LLC

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3 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: Northwood by Maryse Meijer

9781948226011★ ★ ★

Northwood is a novella told in beautifully written passages and free-verse poetry, about an artist who flees to the woods to pursue her artwork in isolation. What begins is a tainted, violent love affair with a married man—and the struggle between desire and obsession, and the brutal nature of intimacy. Meijer has crafted an eerie fable that combines fairy tales, mythology, horror, and mysticism into a strange and memorable experience. Fans of Grimm fairy-tales or Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Northwood is the next book you need to add to your list.

I found this to be not just a haunting story, but a riveting journey of a relationship that is conflicted when pain becomes pleasure, and seeking it out desperately despite the risks and impact it has not just physically, but mentally. Meijer creates world-building that is vivid and captivating, with complex and mysterious characters. I found that as the story progressed, the descriptions and character’s mental stay show obvious signs of wither and become disorienting, as the obsession, violence, and desire conflicted and immersed with one another.

Between the beautiful, fiery prose and free-verse poetry and the exquisite style of white-on-black text bound in a vibrate red hardback, this novella is a piece of art. Meijer’s writing is bold and atmospheric, it brings light to emotions and experiences—despair, brutality, desperation, love, vulnerability, and healing—unlike any other written word I have come across.

Synopsis 

Part fairy tale, part horror story, Northwood is a genre-breaking novella told in short, brilliant, beautifully strange passages. The narrator, a young woman, has fled to the forest to pursue her artwork in isolation. While there, she falls in love with a married man she meets at a country dance. The man is violent, their affair even more so. As she struggles to free herself, she questions the difference between desire and obsession—and the brutal nature of intimacy.

Hardcover, 102 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Black Balloon Publishing

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Thank you to Sarah from Catapult for sending me a copy.  I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own. 

4 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: Caged by Ellison Cooper

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★ ★ ★ ★

An impressive debut by Ellison Cooper, Caged was a well crafted and disturbing thriller that felt like an episode from Criminal Minds, with a kickass female lead! Sayer is a neuroscientist with the FBI, who specializes in the brain of serial killers. When a young woman’s body is discovered in a cage in a basement of an abandoned house, Sayer is assigned to the case to track down the killer. The public is in an uproar and the case won’t leave the headlines until the killer is brought to justice, and that’s when the news breaks that another girl has been taken.

The premise of this was interesting and finely executed with a complex female main character who was strong, determined, and bold. Quite the opposite with how many female agents are portrayed, which I loved, because Sayer is a character we need to see more of, and this made for a great groundbreaking introduction into her story. I also found this to be heavy and uncomfortable at times with the violence and trauma that take place, which I can understand is a part of the story, but one thing I want to note that there is torture, to both human beings and an animal in the beginning, which might not be for some readers, which is completely understandable.  The actual premise was executed especially well, to the point you feel claustrophobic with the events happening and as the clock starts ticking.

I loved the fact that there is real science being discussed throughout the chapters, with the author, Ellison Cooper, having a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA, with a background in archaeology, cultural neuroscience, ancient religion, colonialism, and human rights—so the information we are being presented with is accurate, in-depth, and told in a way that any reader can understand. Caged is a chilling and fast-paced character-driven thriller that was one of the best I’ve read this year.

Synopsis 

FBI neuroscientist Sayer Altair hunts for evil in the deepest recesses of the human mind. Still reeling from the death of her fiance, she wants nothing more than to focus on her research into the brains of serial killers. But when the Washington D.C. police stumble upon a gruesome murder scene involving a girl who’d been slowly starved to death while held captive in a cage, Sayer is called in to lead the investigation. When the victim is identified as the daughter of a high profile senator, Sayer is thrust into the spotlight.
As public pressure mounts, she discovers that another girl has been taken and is teetering on the brink of death. With evidence unraveling around her, Sayer races to save the second victim but soon realizes that they are hunting a killer with a dangerous obsession…a killer who is closer than she thought.

Hardcover, 358 pages
Published July 10th 2018 by Minotaur Books

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

3 Star Reads, Adult Fiction

Book Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

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★ ★ ★

When I saw that Claire Fuller was releasing another novel, I could not contain my excitement and contacted the publisher for an ARC, so first and foremost, thank you to Tin House Books for kindly sending me a copy. I’ve had to restrain my thoughts for this review for months now, so I’m glad I can finally share with everyone because Claire Fuller is one of my favorite author’s and Bitter Orange is her latest gem.

A hazy, hot summer read about a woman on her last days, looking back on her life and recalling the memory of summer 1969 where she lived with a mysterious couple in a decaying English estate in the countryside. Frances is the sole narrator for Bitter Orange, one who makes for an unreliable storyteller, which I enjoyed for this. The novel had a very blurry feel, almost like a dream sequence, because of Frances being an unstable narrator and not knowing if what she is saying is true or accurate because in the present day her memory is fading—and even through her recalling that one summer, she appears as a naive and awkward individual which made for a complex and intriguing main character.

Unusual things begin happening around the estate and we do not know if it is haunted, if it’s in Frances’ mind, or if the newly arrived couple who’ve caught Frances attention has something to do with it because they are a strange couple and Frances becomes quite obsessed and with that comes blurred lines and might induce some delusional behavior. Claire Fuller writes beautiful prose that is always atmospheric and eerie, and this was no exception. While this almost feels suffocating and cloudy, almost like a scorching hot humid summer day, it would make for the perfect fall read because of that disoriented and foggy perspective about what went on during the summer of 1969.

Synopsis 

From the attic of Lyntons, a dilapidated English country mansion, Frances Jellico sees them—Cara first: dark and beautiful, then Peter: striking and serious. The couple is spending the summer of 1969 in the rooms below hers while Frances is researching the architecture in the surrounding gardens. But she’s distracted. Beneath a floorboard in her bathroom, she finds a peephole that gives her access to her neighbors’ private lives.
To Frances’ surprise, Cara and Peter are keen to get to know her. It is the first occasion she has had anybody to call a friend, and before long they are spending every day together: eating lavish dinners, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, and smoking cigarettes until the ash piles up on the crumbling furniture. Frances is dazzled.
But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up, and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand their lives forever.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 9th 2018 by Tin House Books

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

3 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: The Girl From Blind River by Gale Massey

bookcover★ ★ ★

Blind River is a town you would not want to be caught in but makes for the ideal atmospheric thriller that everyone should be reading this fall. Gale Massey takes you to a small town in America where we focus on the Elders family—Jamie Elders is nineteen-years-old, trying to escape from the small town of Parsons, New York and away from her family’s reputation after her mother’s conviction. One choice leads to her landing in a large debt to her uncle, Loyal, which continues to unravel and put her in even more danger after he demands she clean up a mess one night—disposing of a dead man and covering up his connection to the town’s powerful judge.

A slow burn for me, but still, I enjoyed the entire story. I found Massey’s style of writing easy flowing, with rich and detailed world-building behind this character-driven story. The protagonist, Jamie, is not the only complex character in this novel, and I liked that each character had layers, even if they were rough and gritty and people you would not want to encounter in real life. You really end up rooting for Jamie, even with her mistakes and questionable choices, because Massey brings a connection between the reader and main character, who is trying, despite her rough upbringing, to have a better life for herself away from the grim small town.

I am not a card player, so the terminology was often overlooked and I found myself skimming those sections, but that wasn’t really a negative on the book, because I can see as a reader why it was incorporated. This was leaning more on a 3.5 star read for me because I did really enjoy it—it just wasn’t a favorite, but I do recommend it—it held my attention, and I was intrigued by the premise and what was the outcome. You can tell it was well thought out when it came to the book as a whole with characters, setting, and premise in mind, and was executed strongly with beautiful writing.

Synopsis 

Everyone says the Elders family are nothing but cheats, thieves, and convicts—a fact nineteen-year old Jamie Elders has been trying desperately to escape. She may have the natural talent of a poker savant, but her dreams of going pro and getting the hell out of the tiny town of Parsons, New York are going nowhere fast. Especially once she lands in a huge pile of debt to her uncle Loyal.
At Loyal’s beck and call until her debt is repaid, Jamie can’t easily walk away—not with her younger brother Toby left at his mercy. So when Loyal demands Jamie’s help cleaning up a mess late one night, she has no choice but to agree. But disposing of a dead man and covering up his connection to the town’s most powerful judge goes beyond family duty. When it comes out that the victim was a beloved athlete and Loyal pins the murder on Toby, only Jamie can save him. But with a dogged detective on her trail and her own future at stake, she’ll have to decide: embrace her inner criminal, or defy it—and face the consequences.

Hardcover, 329 pages
Published July 10th 2018 by Crooked Lane Books

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

peopleshistory★ ★

A panoramic thriller that begins with a missing body from a small town morgue, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising was a title that I was anticipating when I heard about it. As soon as my summer semester wind down, I reached for this, unable to wait any longer, but after a few chapters, I lost the momentum to continue on. A crafty plot that had a lot of potential that unfortunately fell flat in execution. Told through multiple POVs, this story started off strong, beginning with Dr. Lauren Scott from the CDC investigating the virus, but each chapter with a different narrative became dull, repetitive, and echoed the thoughts and emotions of each character with the virus overrunning the nation.

I don’t consider this a vampire “uprising” but rather an overview of the NOBI virus that is at times intriguing but often felt unorganized without a real plot. About a third of the way through, I started to skim the remainder because even at that point, I didn’t feel the thriller factor, there was no action and not much progress with the story to keep my attention. It felt like a premise that came to the author’s mind—which was unique and clever—without much time put into planning before the writing process began. Two aspects that I liked included Dr. Lauren Scott’s POV, which I preferred out of the rest, and the format of the novel with eyewitness reports, magazine articles, blog posts, congressional testimony, and interrogation transcripts. However, it was just too long and by the end, it didn’t feel much like a conclusion to what was supposed to be A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising.

Synopsis

The body of a young woman found in an Arizona border town, presumed to be an illegal immigrant, walks out of the town morgue. To the young CDC investigator called in to consult the local police, it’s a bizarre medical mystery.
More bodies, dead of a mysterious disease that solidifies their blood, are brought to the morgue, and disappear. In a futile game of catch-up, the CDC, the FBI, and the US government must come to terms with what they’re too late to stop: an epidemic of vampirism that will sweep first the United States, and then the world.

Hardcover, 432 pages
Published June 5th 2018 by Mulholland Books

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: English Animals by Laura Kaye

isbn9781408708255

★ ★ ★ ★

Laura Kaye’s novel, English Animals, is an impressive debut. A domestic drama set in the English countryside that gives a fresh perspective on art, belonging, temptation and sex, physical and emotional violence, and cultural differences. Mirka is a Slovakian woman who believes she has accepted a job as an au pair for Sophie and Richard, but upon arriving learns that she will be Richard’s taxidermy assistant while also helping Sophie run their many business ventures as their estate is used as a B&B, wedding venue, and gathering spot for shooting parties.

Told through the protagonist, Mirka’s, perspective, we get an intimate and delicate look into what life is like at Fairmount Hall. English is not Mirka’s first language, and the author did brilliantly at depicting that difficulty of understanding and communicating for a non-native speaker, but also the progress that she makes the further along in the story as time goes on.  The style of writing is easy to read, I breezed through this in two sittings. It’s beautifully written in its own simplicity that makes this domestic drama feel like a light read despite the topics and subplots. Sophie and Richard are unconventional, quite toxic in their own ways that seem to feed off of each other, and then there is Mirka, who is complicated and vulnerable but straightforward and observant–and when it comes down to it, trying to discover herself while being in a country that is far different from her homeland.  I thought the character development for Mirka was immense by the closing page of the novel, it truly showed her growth despite being in a difficult position that was deceptive and detrimental.

At times it was a bit tedious because of how simple it is written, but it was authentic when it came to seeing this story through Mirka’s perspective, considering she is not a native English speaker. It is a rather slow, character-driven story, which I quite like but some may not. And while this book pulled in all sorts of directions in its short length, in the end, it was a compelling story with complex characters that were engaging and believable.

I do want to note that if you are not comfortable with the animal subject matter, like taxidermy or animal deaths, this may be a book that you want to read. While I do not support either,  I was intrigued by the plot to pick it up and I thought it was well handled and done respectfully. It is actually discussed in the novel that Mirka is against taxidermy at first and then throughout as time goes on, she addresses it and tries to come to an understanding.

Synopsis 

When Mirka gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her. Richard and Sophie are chaotic, drunken, frequently outrageous but also warm, generous and kind to Mirka, despite their argumentative and turbulent marriage. Mirka is swiftly commandeered by Richard for his latest money-making enterprise, taxidermy, and soon surpasses him in skill. After a traumatic break two years ago with her family in Slovakia, Mirka finds to her surprise that she is happy at Fairmont Hall. But when she tells Sophie that she is gay, everything she values is put in danger and she must learn the hard way what she really believes in.

Paperback, 368 pages
Published September 7th 2017 by Abacus

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4 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

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★ ★ ★ ★

What a breathtaking introduction to Susan Meissner’s novels. A thoughtful, heartwrenching story set in 1918, Philadelphia during the Great War, as the Spanish Flu makes its way to the shores of America. It’s told from the perspective of the Bright women; Pauline and her three daughters, Evie, Maggie, and Willa, as they make their way to a new city for a better life.  What comes is the tragedy of war and loss, the journey of coming-of-age and grief, and a miracle baby that brings hope to a distraught family during one of the darkest times in history.

It usually takes me a couple days to get through a book, but I read this in one night. In fact, I stayed awake until 6am to finish it because I could not put it down and would not rest until I read the last page. Then I laid in bed for half an hour thinking about the story and how I was going to put my thoughts into perspective for this review. While it was a slow burn for me, it was captivating and picked up about 2/3 the way through. Even when it came to the characters I did not particularly like, I felt for them in those difficult times because Meissner’s writing reaches you as a reader and you can’t help but want peace for all of them.

There is so much heartache and sorrow in this novel, but there is also perseverance, hope, and growth. Even when it came to an end, I wanted to know what came next for the Bright family. Whether you are new to historical fiction or looking for a story that pulls at your heart-strings but comes together in the end, Bright as Heaven is one to pick up.

Synopsis 

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

Hardcover, 387 pages
Published February 6th 2018 by Berkley Books

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