Scene | Great Reads
A Ballad of Love and Glory
By Reyna Grande
Inspired by the true story of the Irish regiment that fought alongside the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War, this historical saga follows the love story of a Mexican army nurse and an Irish soldier fighting for survival. John Riley, an Irish immigrant who joins the U.S. Army after escaping the famine and poverty of his homeland, soon finds that his commanding officers are not so welcoming to incoming Irish. Forced to the breaking point by the atrocities he sees committed, John deserts and joins the Mexican army, forming the St. Patrick’s Battalion. There he meets Ximena, a skilled healer who joined the war effort after Texas Rangers forced her family off their land. Together they are swept up in a dangerous conflict, and their love may not be enough to survive the brutal conditions of war.
She Came from Mariupol
By Natascha Wodin
Newly translated into English, this is the captivating, and oftentimes haunting, memoir of Natascha Wodin’s efforts to discover the history of her family. Born in 1945 in Germany in a camp for “displaced persons”, Natascha would have little opportunity to learn about her mother’s past before her unexpected death when Natascha was just 10 years old. All she knew was that her parents left their home in Ukraine in the Nazi forced labor program in 1943. Growing up in Germany as an outsider, Natascha never fully understood her Eastern European roots or the horrors that her mother undoubtedly witnessed. Now, she recounts her journey to rediscovering her past, and the stories of millions of others whose lives were uprooted during World War II.
Under Lock & Skeleton Key
By Gigi Pandian
This cozy mystery is a delight of secret rooms and hidden passages. For Tempest Raj, a young stage magician from Las Vegas, illusions and secrets are rarely a mystery. After a near fatal mishap on stage derails Tempest’s career, she returns home to regroup and help at her father’s company. Tempest’s father specializes in making hidden rooms at his construction business, but things go terribly wrong when the body of her former stage double is discovered at one of his renovation projects. Tempest can’t shake the feeling that she was the intended victim. She must figure out if a murderer is afoot, or if the family curse is real after all, and whether she might be next.
“My childlike conception of my mother’s hometown survived for decades in the inner darkrooms of my mind. Sometimes I was not even certain if [Mariupol] truly existed, or if, like so much else that had to do with my origins, I had simply invented it.”
Natascha Wodin, “She Came From Mariupol”
By Isabel Allende
Violeta is an exquisitely detailed novel about the life of one South American woman, told through her own words in a letter to her grandson Camilo. Born in 1920, Violeta begins her life just as the Spanish flu finally crosses the Atlantic and reaches isolated South America. Her life begins in upheaval, and the theme only continues as the passing century brings the Great Depression, war, the rise and fall of tyrants, the arrival and passing of family and friends, and culminates in the second pandemic of her life, in the year 2020. This sweeping and emotional story of a life lived by a strong, determined woman is just another reminder of all that has come to pass, and all that is yet to come.
M, King’s Bodyguard
By Niall Leonard
As a member of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, Irishman William Melville has proven himself time and again as a loyal and capable bodyguard to the British Royal family. The year is 1901, and Queen Victoria has just passed. Her funeral will draw one of the greatest gatherings of European royalty to British soil. Turn of the century Europe is in the grips of crisis as threats of anarchists, revolutionaries, and anti-royalists grow. The crown enlists Melville’s help to investigate rumors of a plot to assassinate one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren at her funeral; none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Melville must enlist the help of allies and enemies alike to root out the plot before it’s too late and prevent Europe from being thrown into a bloody war of retribution. Rich with historical detail, political intrigue, and espionage.
Iron Empire: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America
By Michael Hiltzik
The premiere of HBO’s “The Gilded Age” had me itching to learn more about this period of rampant expansion and growth in U.S. history. “The Gilded Age” marks the years in the U.S. from about 1870 to 1910, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 firmly cementing the beginning of a new era of mobility and wealth. The expansion of railroads in the U.S. led to the making, and sometimes breaking, of family fortunes and catapulted a mass of wealth into the hands of an elite few. Some of the biggest players, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and E. H. Harriman, would upend the nation’s financial institutions and forever change the relationships between business and government.
“I’ve trained many officers to work undercover, and the very first lesson is talk freely and be utterly boring. With a little practice one can chatter all day and say absolutely nothing.”
Niall Leonard, “M, King’s Bodyguard”
The Anthropocene Reviewed
By John Green
This collection of nonfiction essays from popular author John Green contains a wide variety of topics based on his podcast of the same name. The anthropocene is the geologic name for the time period we live in, where humans have been the dominant influence on our environment. In Green’s trademark style of humor and empathy, he explores everything from large concepts, like emotions, to how computer keyboards are designed. He also incorporates experiences from his own life, including living through the COVID-19 pandemic. As his first work of nonfiction, it’s a great exploration of the shared human experience and some of the little wonders of life on Earth.
Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes
By Jessica Pan
This hilarious memoir details one writer’s decision to push herself outside her comfort zone. In between jobs, with her friends moving away, Jessica struggles to come to terms with her life in a new city. She thought London would be the perfect fit, but instead, she finds herself becoming even more closed off. She decides to switch things up and live life like an outgoing extrovert for one year. She gives herself a series of challenges – some successful and some laugh-out-loud funny misadventures – all to discover whether she can change her natural impulses to shy away from new people and experiences.
Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life
By Ole Thorstensen
Norwegian master carpenter and contractor Ole Thorstensen discusses his life, work, and philosophy in this simple story of an attic renovation. From the start of the project to completion, Ole explains every detail and nuances that goes into his consideration when working as a tradesman on a job. All the trials, from dealing with sometimes persnickety architects and engineers, to the regular problems that come up during any renovation, all come together to fuel his refinement of his craft. He provides invaluable insight into a working community that transcends his life in Norway and shows his pride in his craft and the simple pleasure of doing a job well.
““We all know how loving ends. But I want to fall in love with the world anyway, to let it crack me open. I want to feel what there is to feel while I am here.”
John Green, The Anthropocene Reviewed
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina
By Zoraida Córdova
When the beloved and obstinate matriarch of the Montoya clan beckons her family to come to her own funeral, her children and grandchildren are far from surprised. Mystery and magic have followed Orquidea Divina and her family through generations. When they return to the family home to find her transformed, the secrets they had hoped would be answered seem now lost forever. Years later, magic begins to return to their lives in unexpected ways. But there is darkness, too. With their family suddenly in danger, four of Oquidea’s descendants must go back to Ecuador to discover where it all began and learn how to save the rest of their family.
By Marie Benedit
Industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie would be remembered as one of the greatest philanthropists of his time. But what inspired such a man to devote so much of his time and resources to charity? “Carnegie’s Maid” is the fictional narrative that seeks to explain that inspiration through Irish immigrant Clara Kelley. Still struggling after the Great Famine, Clara’s family sends her to America to seek her fortune. Through a case of mistaken identity and some willful determination, Clara finds herself serving the Carnegie family in 1860s Pittsburgh. She develops a rapport with Andrew, and her struggles help push Andrew to reassess his view of the world and drive him to help serve the poor. Through Clara Kelley, Benedict gives voice to the immigrants and working class of the 19th century.
The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
By Martin Edwards
For most of us, the old tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas often begins and ends with Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” For those of us who enjoy a good thrill during the holiday season, we can turn to the much wider availability of British mystery stories set at Christmastime. This anthology of short stories from the golden age of detective novels (think Agatha Christie) explores the darker side of the holiday season. In this collection of classic sleuthery we find tales of murder amidst a Christmas party, jewel heists, murderers lost in snowstorms, and much more. If you can’t get enough of British mystery television, I heartily recommend exploring the breadth of work available through the British Library Crime Classics series.
“My afternoons with him were the only moments of authenticity in a world brimming with artifice. Minutes where I could build a pathway to hope.”
― Marie Benedict, “Carnegie’s Maid”
It’s Over or It’s Eden
By Rebecca Zornow
The debut science-fiction novel from Rebecca Zornow is perfect for fans of dystopia. The story is told from the alternating points of view of two women who couldn’t be more different. Arwen Cruz is a soldier, wandering through what’s left of Earth after the rest of her battalion has fallen. The humans of Earth are losing a war against a far more powerful alien force. Wandering north to survive, Arwen meets Marah Bennett, a young woman living with a small community that secluded itself in the Rocky Mountains long before the first alien attack. Arwen realizes she doesn’t belong in this strict, cultish community, but when winter sets in, she knows that surviving without them is impossible. The cult is full of secrets, including one that may be the key to the planet’s survival if Arwen can survive long enough to uncover it.
By Sherryl Woods
Come for a relaxing stay in the small community of Serenity, South Carolina and meet the Sweet Magnolias. Friends Maddie, Dana Sue, and Helen are lifelong friends, growing up and raising families in their hometown. When Maddie’s life is rocked by her husband of 20 years ending their marriage, her friends decide it is time for a change. Together, they create a gym and spa for the women of Serenity to gather, relax, and be. Though Maddie struggles to balance her new job and role as a single parent, what she doesn’t expect is to kindle a romance with her son’s baseball coach, Cal Maddox. This romance is a perfect balance of love, family, and community. “Stealing Home” is the first book in the Sweet Magnolias series that inspired the Netflix original series, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this warm and comforting series.
If You Tell
By Gregg Olsen
This harrowing true-crime account of the survival of sisters Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek is not for the faint of heart. For more than a decade, the three sisters were subjected to abuse by their mother. Despite the odds, the sisters formed an unbreakable bond that allowed them to band together and survive the unspeakable abuse subjected by their mother, Shelly. Living in a small community of Raymond, Wash., their mother committed heinous acts of violence that escalated to multiple murders. The sisters give their account of the events to Olsen about how they finally managed to find the strength to escape from the abuse and control of their mother and survive together.