Newest review: The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

By Ekta R. Garg

February 17, 2021

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: February 2, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A woman moves across the country to get a new start in life. What begins as a situation with minor quirks becomes an earth-shattering reality, in more ways than one. Author Susan Meissner excels both in historical fact and compelling fiction in her newest book The Nature of Fragile Things.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sophie Whalen knows she needs to get out of New York City. She left behind her beloved Ireland to start life afresh, but the cramped, dingy living conditions in her tiny shared apartment are making it difficult to imagine anything clean and new. Add to that the horrible work in the factory, and Sophie is desperate to leave.

When she sees an ad in the newspaper offering her a way out, she jumps at the chance. A gentleman in San Francisco is looking for a mail-order bride. A widower, he needs a new wife to take care of his daughter. Sophie doesn’t even blink; she answers the ad, packs up her meager belongings, and jumps on the train across the country.

Sophie isn’t blind to the eccentricity of her situation, and she isn’t looking for romance. She just wants a quiet life in a home of her own, and she gets it with Martin Hocking…more or less. Martin doesn’t talk much, and his daughter, Kat, doesn’t talk at all. Martin confides in Sophie that Kat thinks her mother’s death is her fault but reassures Sophie that in time things will get better.

After bringing both Sophie and Kat to a new house in San Francisco, Martin leaves for a business trip. So starts Sophie’s new routine: getting to know her new home city and her new step-daughter. In no time, both charm her. Kat begins to open up to Sophie, and it seems as if life will finally start settling down. Although Sophie can’t quite figure out why Martin needs to be away so much for his job and why he’s so stiff around Kat, she decides not to question what is arguably a situation that favors her.

The questions do come from someone else, however. On an ordinary April day, a woman shows up on Sophie’s doorstep asking for answers that Sophie can’t provide. Within twelve hours, Sophie, the woman, and Kat barely survive a deadly earthquake and forever become tied to one another. As Sophie fights for survival, she starts to put together the odd pieces that make up her husband in a brand new picture that first frightens her and then emboldens her.

Author Susan Meissner grounds her book in such authenticity that readers will feel like they’re standing right next to Sophie as she disembarks the train in California at the start of the story. Meissner also chose to tell the story in flashbacks, a risky endeavor, but here it works. The scenes in the “present,” as short as they might be, propel the narrative forward and readers will be flipping or swiping pages as fast as possible to find out what happens next.

The entire book is a gem, but the sections that hit the hardest come during the earthquake itself. One of the most devastating events in California history, Meissner gives readers a virtual tactility with the disaster. The descriptions are incredible, offering readers all five senses before, during, and after the tragedy.

Sophie will win readers over as the determined protagonist, and Meissner doesn’t make things easy for her main character. The harder Sophie fights for answers, though, the more readers will cheer her on. Kat’s mutism is heartbreaking, and all of the women Sophie gets to know along the way show the strength of having a village full of loved ones.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction or a book about strong women will thoroughly enjoy this book. I recommend readers Binge The Nature of Fragile Things.

Blog tour! The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

By Ekta R. Garg

February 3, 2021

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: February 9, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A female spy for the Allies during World War II must remain vigilant against the memories of those she lost. As she moves from place to place, she finds herself improvising her way through challenges and bolstering the spirits of people who no longer believe in deliverance from the Nazis. Author Erika Robuck returns with the profile of another incredible woman in history in the brisk, efficient novel The Invisible Woman.

In March of 1944, Virginia Hall is going back to France, and she’s living on borrowed time. Most people survive an average of six weeks in the field as a “pianist” before getting caught. A key part of the resistance against the Nazis, a pianist uses wireless radios to transmit information back to London regarding covert agents in the field. The Germans keep a vigilant ear out for anti-Nazi transmissions and arrest anyone sending them.

Pianists also make sure agents receive the supplies they need. Often this means coordinating a “drop,” a middle-of-the-night fly-by when Allied planes sweep across open spots decided by the pianist and actually shove cargo out their doors. Drops include everything from weapons to food, personal packages to messages.

Despite the danger, Virginia is almost desperate to begin. She lost one team of agents in Lyon, France, and feels immense guilt for being one of the few survivors. Years earlier she lost part of her leg in a shooting accident, and her prosthetic leg makes her limp when she’s overly tired or in too much pain. After Lyon the Gestapo put a price on her head and nicknamed her the “Limping Lady.” For that, if nothing else, she wants to fight against them.

She’s sent to a small town in France for her first job as a pianist, disguising herself as an old woman and using only code names with other agents as they’ve been trained. Not all the other agents are as skilled, trained, or careful as Virginia, and she fights to maintain an emotional distance from them. She didn’t know how attached she was to her team in Lyon until they were captured, and she can’t risk that again.

Even with these safety measures around her heart, Virginia can’t help connecting with the people she meets. They include a young boy who uses his wagon to drop weapons at remote locations to resistance fighters; a confused veteran of the Great War who suspects her of treachery; two young agents who, even with the backdrop of danger, have fallen in love and gotten engaged; and a whole host of Jewish children being smuggled to a sleepy village to keep them from the concentration camps.

Virginia works with other agents, trains teenage boys how to blow up bridges used by the Nazis for transport, and reassures people the Allies are, indeed, coming. After years of promises, many French citizens don’t believe it. By her example and by her words, Virginia helps them witness Liberation.

Author Erika Robuck shares in a note that one of her greatest challenges in writing this book was making Virginia Hall likeable. Virginia does, in fact, come across as likeable but also as brusque and even a little stand-offish. The title makes sense on many levels; in some situations it feels like Virginia is hiding even from herself.

On an intellectual level Virginia’s distance make sense, though, and Robuck does justice to the danger of the era. As an amputee marked by the Gestapo, Virginia takes a greater risk than most by continuing her work with the intelligence community. She never loses sight of the ultimate goal, however, making her a real-life inspiration for anyone struggling under oppression.

At times Virginia stops in her tracks for a vivid recollection of past assignments and agents, a convenient method but overly obvious way of giving readers back story. Also, while she goes on different assignments throughout the book, her way of keeping everyone—including readers—at arms’ length makes it all feel like one continuous mission. Fans of WWII fiction may not mind so much, because ultimately the mission was to defeat the Nazis. Robuck’s descriptions are lovely, and she does justice to this real-life heroine of war. I recommend readers Borrow The Invisible Woman.

Brand new review: Savage Road by Chris Hauty

By Ekta R. Garg

January 27, 2021

Genre: Political thriller

Release date: January 5, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A White House aide races to find the source of several cyber attacks on the U.S. before the terrorist can strike again. As other government officials fight for their own agendas, the aide must make sense of all the information coming her way while staying true to a higher mission. Author Chris Hauty follows up last year’s Deep State, the debut in the Hayley Chill thriller series, with the commendable sequel Savage Road.

Hayley Chill has had a year. Or two, that is. First joining the White House as an intern, she got a big promotion after thwarting an assassination attempt on President Richard Monroe. Now she’s the chief of staff for a senior advisor to the president, which puts her in the direct line of communication with the Commander-in-Chief.

Her “eye-on-the-ball” approach is becoming more and more important. Monroe is starting to crack under the pressure of running the country, and the recent threat to the U.S. isn’t helping. Someone is attacking America’s cyber security. First the printing presses of the biggest newspapers in the country go offline. Then it’s the derailment of a train heading into D.C. Before the government can get a handle on things, their own servers start to tank.

It’s clear to Hayley that the attacks are intensifying, but she keeps getting orders to focus on Monroe. The president seems to spend more time wringing his hands than he does anything else. To Hayley, his hand-wringing is just a symptom of the larger problems at hand. If no one else is going to figure out what’s going on, then she’ll have to take up the cause.

But that won’t be easy when everyone at the highest levels of government seems intent on advancing their own causes. The head of the Department of Homeland Security keeps requesting increased oversight of private sector cyber security. The director of the National Security Agency wants to go on the offensive based on incoming data on which foreign power might be responsible for the cyber attack.

While Hayley works to guide the president in the midst of growing hostility in the West Wing, she runs across information regarding her father who died while serving in Iraq. She made peace a long time ago with it, but the memories won’t leave her alone. Using her contacts, Hayley starts digging for more information and realizes her personal life and professional life might be connected in more ways than she’s ever understood before.

Author Chris Hauty uses his screenwriting skills to full effect in this second installment in the Hayley Chill thriller series. His descriptions make it easy to picture the action, and his character building of protagonist Hayley could easily be translated to the big screen. Long chapters—just 12 in this novel—go against the tradition in thriller writing of short chapters and many of them, but Hauty clearly wants to set a visual stage for his readers just as a camera would for an audience.

Hauty’s biggest risk comes in the information or “info” dumps that happen throughout the book, but the risk pays off in spades here. Readers will get fun tidbits about characters, settings, and historical events that work together to build suspense. Lesser skilled authors would leave readers bored or turn them away altogether by using the technique; instead, Hauty’s writing style and use of the omniscient voice compel readers to stick with the story.

As a protagonist, Hayley Chill is a winner all the way. Her standoffishness with her coworkers and romantic partners endears her to readers. The more she tries to hide behind her stoicism, the more readers will want to know about her. Even with an absolute dedication to country and cause Hayley has faults, which make her all the more appealing as a character

The first book in the series, Deep State, ended on a fun twist, and Hauty comes up with an even bigger one for Savage Road. Fans of political thrillers who enjoy books that mirror reality while still maintaining an adequate distance will enjoy this one. I recommend readers Binge Savage Road.