Layered Pages Top 2020 Reads

Favorite Books Read in 2020

Last year my Goodreads challenge was to read twenty fiction books. I surpassed that goal and read thirty. However, I read more than thirty books. Beyond that was research books for my writing project and other research projects. I did not count those on goodreads because I’m continually referring to them.

The fiction books below are my top favorite reads, though not in a particular order. This year’s reading goal is much bigger. I will be talking about that more a little later on. What were your favorite 202 reads? -Stephanie Hopkins

Top Favorites

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon

Be sure to check these titles out on Goodreads and Amazon!

Favorite Covers:

Here are my favorite covers out of the bunch. Which covers do you like?

Learning to Speak Southern

What are you up to now, Stephanie?

On NetGalley, often times, book reviewers can, “wish-for,” books to review. When I spotted, “Learning to Speak Southern,” I knew this one was for me. Ha!

Why?

For several reasons really. I’m a southern girl, I love journaling, writing and family is very important to me. Oh, and I love the cover of this book!

Did the publishers grant your wish?

Yes! I was quite surprised really. I usually old my breath when I wish for a book. So delighted and thankful.

I thought you are trying to catch up on your back-list? What are you thinking?

Err…I am. I promise. This one looked too good to pass up. I know, I know…I can’t keep doing this. In my defense, Sourcebooks rarely disappoints in their reading selection and looking at my back-list, I’ve realized I’ve put myself in a corner of-sorts with my selection. One needs options so you don’t get burned out. That is my story and I’m sticking to it.

Thank you, Sourcebooks Landmark for a galley copy of this story! Looking forward to diving in very soon. -Stephanie Hopkins   

Learning to Speak Southern

by Lindsey Rogers Cook

SOURCEBOOKS Landmark

General Fiction (Adult) | Women’s Fiction

Pub Date 01 Jun 2021 

Description

A searing Southern story about confronting the difference between the family you’re born into and the family you choose, from the acclaimed author of How to Bury Your Brother

Lex fled Memphis years ago, making ends meet with odd jobs teaching English around the world. She only returns when she has no choice, when her godmother presents her with a bargain she can’t refuse. Lex has never understood her mother, who died tragically right before Lex’s college graduation, but now she’s got a chance to read her journals, to try and figure out what sent her mother spiraling all those years ago.

The Memphis that Lex inhabits is more bourbon and bbq joint than sweet tea on front porches, and as she pieces together the Memphis her mother knew, seeing the lure of the world through her mother’s lush writing, she must confront more of her own past and the people she left behind. Once all is laid bare, Lex must decide for herself: What is the true meaning of family?

The Power of Words

Words are a sequence of letters. They evoke expression, meaning and language. Words build sentences that form into paragraphs that lead you to numerous writing mediums. In short, words are powerful. They are a language that is a part of what defines our world. They bring people together to form a common ground. Often times, they can even divide people. How one chooses to use their words makes all the difference.

Imagine a collector of words and the knowledge they hold in their grasps. I’ve always been fascinated with people who collect them. Are you a collector of words?

I’m really looking forward to reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams and sharing my thoughts about it. Thank you, Ballantine Books for a copy. -Stephanie Hopkins

Be sure to check out before the second sleep’s cover crush and thoughts of this book! Her thoughts are really insightful.

Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

Historical Fiction

Pub Date 06 Apr 2021

Description

In this remarkable debut based on actual events, as a team of male scholars compiles the first Oxford English Dictionary, one of their daughters decides to collect the “objectionable” words they omit.

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so, she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco has been an interest of mine for quite some time. The earthquake only lasted less than minute but the devastation was complete. The fires that broke out due to the quake were disastrous, leaving half the cities’ residence homeless and thousands, dead. I’m looking forward to seeing how Meissner weaves this unfortunate historic event into her story. Thank you, Berkley and NetGalley for a copy of this powerful story. -Stephanie

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

Berkley Publishing Group

Historical Fiction | Women’s Fiction

Pub Date 02 Feb 2021  

Description

April 18, 1906: A massive earthquake rocks San Francisco just before daybreak, igniting a devouring inferno. Lives are lost, lives are shattered, but some rise from the ashes forever changed.

Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and agrees to marry a man she knows nothing about. San Francisco widower Martin Hocking proves to be as aloof as he is mesmerizingly handsome. Sophie quickly develops deep affection for Kat, Martin’s silent five-year-old daughter, but Martin’s odd behavior leaves her with the uneasy feeling that something about her newfound situation isn’t right.

Then one early-spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a transforming chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything she once loved.

The fates of these three women intertwine on the eve of the devastating earthquake, thrusting them onto a perilous journey that will test their resiliency and resolve and, ultimately, their belief that love can overcome fear.

From the acclaimed author of The Last Year of the War and As Bright as Heaven comes a gripping novel about the bonds of friendship and mother love, and the power of female solidarity.

Book Review: The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…

My thoughts:

Simone St. James is among my favorite suspense writers and when I spotted this book on NetGalley, I might have almost fell out of my desk chair. I was overjoyed! I must confess I read the story last year and for whatever reason I failed to write a review. I do remember having a few issues with it and I couldn’t remember some details of the story. This prompted me to read the story again for a fresh start.

St. James is brilliant at setting the stage for a creepy story! Reading Sun Down Motel definitely gives one pause about staying in a road side motel! The location and the people of the story are intriguing and you do sympathize with their troubles. Like the first time reading the book, the second time around, I still had trouble with some parts that were dragging. I felt there were too much detail in the telling and not enough showing. Maybe that is just me.

Viv and Carly’s story were so similar that at times, I became confused who I was reading about. Maybe it was because of the lapse of time when I wasn’t reading the story? Not so much the second time around.

There was a scene in the story where I guessed what happened to Viv. It actually was a small detail and I was actually surprised to pick up on it. Towards the climax the story started to weaken and I was really disappointed in the ending. It fell completely flat in my opinion.

Don’t allow my thoughts on Sun Down Motel sway you from not reading this story. It is a good premise, atmospheric and over all I enjoyed it.

I’ve rated this story three stars and I obtained a galley copy from the publishers through NetGalley.

Stephanie Hopkins

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Book Spotlight: The Orphan’s Island by Kate Hewitt

I have confessed before that I’m really not into romance novels. I do like some love relationships woven into stories but not as the main focus. Light romance-if you will. I spotted this book on NetGalley and I like the cover and elements of the book description interest me. I’m tempted to read a few reviews seeing as this book has been previously published. -Stephanie

About the book:

Publishers: Bookouture

Historical Fiction | Women’s Fiction

Pub Date 30 Nov 2020

Description

1904: Ellen Copley is still a child when she leaves behind the sooty rail yards of Glasgow, and crosses the Atlantic Ocean with a heart full of dreams. Yet within weeks of their arrival in America, her father has disappeared—leaving Ellen with resentful relatives, feeling alone and scared for her future.

But then her kind Aunt Rose invites Ellen to stay with her large family, in their rambling house on beautiful Amherst Island, which nestles like a jewel in the blue waters of Lake Ontario.

There Ellen finally begins to find the love and acceptance she has long been craving – both from Aunt Rose’s boisterous family, and from the boys next door, Jed and Lucas Lyman. It’s Jed she’s drawn to… the one with the twinkling eyes, who teases her, and laughs with her, and soon steals her heart…

But does Jed love her back? Because—even though Amherst Island feels like home—Ellen knows she can’t stay there with a broken heart…

“This is the first book in the unmissable Amherst Island Trilogy that follows the life and love of Ellen Copley from the magic of Lake Ontario to the bloody battlefields of the First World War and beyond. Perfect for fans of The Oceans Between UsThe Orphan Sisters, and My Name is Eva.”

Previously published as Down Jasper Lane.

Book Review: The Vines by Shelley Nolden

About the book:

Pub Date 23 Mar 2021

In the shadows of New York City lies forbidden North Brother Island, where the remains of a shuttered hospital hide the haunting memories of century-old quarantines and human experiments. The ruins conceal the scarred and beautiful Cora, imprisoned by contagions and the doctors who torment her. When Finn, a young urban explorer, arrives on the island and glimpses an enigmatic beauty through the foliage, intrigue turns to obsession as he seeks to uncover her past—and his own family’s dark secrets. By unraveling these mysteries, will he be able to save Cora? Will Cora meet the same tragic ending as the thousands who’ve already perished on the island?

The Vines intertwines North Brother Island’s horrific and elusive history with a captivating tale of love, betrayal, survival, and loss.

My thoughts:

If I remember correctly it was last year when I discovered North Brother Island. A documentary of the Island popped up on my YouTube feed. I watched it and learned a few details about its history and thought-at the time-I would love to read a fiction story that included the history elements. Low and behold, writer Shelley Nolden wrote a dual time-line story that takes place on the mysterious Island.

I must admit I was briefly hesitant at first to read the book based on the story’s topic of contagions. It’s not that I lacked interest in that subject but because of our current world-wide state of a pandemic. I thought it might be too sensitive of a story to read at the moment. However, my curiosity had gotten the better of me and I changed my mind.

When I opened to the first page on my Kindle, it wasn’t long before I became fully absorbed in the story. Finn Gettler arrives-more like sneaks-to North Brother Island and becomes immediately intrigued with the nature reclaiming the Island. He soon comes in contact with Cora. A woman who is not only trapped on the Island but, unknown to him , a prisoner of his family.

Cora is a fascinating woman and I enjoyed how the author developed her character as the story unfolded. Her experiences and circumstance had me connecting dots about real life, past and present, medical science I’ve often thought about.

When I discovered Finn’s last name is, “Gettler,” it struck a chord. I had heard of that name before but couldn’t remember where. I delved in little research and I was stunned at what I discovered to say the least! Nolden brilliantly balances real people and events into her story.

I experienced countless emotions reading this book. Many of them were sorrowful and feelings of anger on behalf of what was happening to Cora. The other emotions, I felt strongly, were for the absolute lack of humanity of a few of the characters. What makes this story good, yet all too disturbing, is the relevancy of the subject contagions and the evil that exists in this world.

There were moments I felt a few scenes were boggled down by just a little too much detail but overall, it was a worthwhile read. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series!

I’ve rated this story four stars and obtained a galley copy from the publishers through NetGalley.

Stephanie Hopkins

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Book Review: The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

About the book:

Expected publication: April 13th 2021 by Lake Union Publishing

Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a final whisper…Venice. Caroline’s quest: to scatter Juliet “Lettie” Browning’s ashes in the city she loved and to unlock the mysteries stored away for more than sixty years.

It’s 1938 when art teacher Juliet Browning arrives in romantic Venice. For her students, it’s a wealth of history, art, and beauty. For Juliet, it’s poignant memories and a chance to reconnect with Leonardo Da Rossi, the man she loves whose future is already determined by his noble family. However star-crossed, nothing can come between them. Until the threat of war closes in on Venice and they’re forced to fight, survive, and protect a secret that will bind them forever.

Key by key, Lettie’s life of impossible love, loss, and courage unfolds. It’s one that Caroline can now make right again as her own journey of self-discovery begins. 

My thoughts:

When we hear of Venice, we think of, art, music, festivals, food, religion, beautiful architecture and the Grand Canal. In the late 1930’s there was a war looming but many of the people of Venice thought surely with their rich culture, and Mussolini’s pact with Germany, they wouldn’t be affected

Juliet “Lettie” Browning, an English woman, is a woman of strength and courage. The life she experienced and saw during her stay in Venice were during uncertain times. Her will to behave uprightly puts her in many dangers but her resilience is an example to us all. I will say at times I felt that she might be too perfect to be true but those thoughts didn’t take away my admiration of kindness towards others.

I enjoyed reading about the people Juliet met and formed relationships with in Venice. They are such extraordinary people in their own unique ways, you begin to feel kinship to them. The author’s character development is superb.

As an artist I appreciate the author’s focus on much of the arts in Venice. Reading about the people’s love and their understanding and importance of art brought richness to the story. There was a scene where Juliet was taking an art class and her professor, in so many words, talked about forgetting everything she learned and turn the objects, she was drawing, into one design. Bravo!

With dual time-lines, Caroline’s story intertwines perfectly with Juliet’s and find yourself fully immersed in their lives. I know this may sound like a cliché but I truly did not want the story to end. In fact, there are several character’s in the book that I would love to read more about their back story.

There were previous comments from me stating that I was burned out on Word War II stories but when I saw this one, I knew that I had to read it. Bowen does a marvelous undertaking in portraying the Venice culture and spirit of the people. I was not disappointed one bit and I highly recommend this story.

I’ve rated this book five stars and obtained a galley copy from the publishers through NetGalley. My opinions and thoughts of the story are my own.

Stephanie Hopkins

Books to Read Before the Year is Up

Stephanie Hopkins

Time is flying considering the year we’ve all had! Well, in terms of reading one might say. How many weeks do we have left? Let’s see…If this blog post is posted on the expected date, we have six weeks left of the year. I think. My gosh! Which makes this to-read book list all the more exciting!

I have selected the books to read for the reason of needing to chisel away at my backlog on NetGalley. Yes, to my dismay, I admit I’m rather behind. I know many of you can relate! This fact actually encourages me to read more and start a whole different level of organization of my writing and note taking.

It is entirely true that you can take something that is not so great-such as my backlog-and turn it into a positive existent. You might ask why I got behind? My normal reading habits slowly evaporated and I took some time off to focus on other pursuits. Furthermore, I’ve admitted before that I was experiencing burnout. My brain needed a rest. Despite that, I’ve missed my past reading habits. The important lesson, to keep in mind, is to not get discouraged. Certain life situations tend to be temporary. Now that I’m back in the game and forming new habits, life of a book blogger and reviewer are looking brighter.

These projected books to-read are not in any particular order or are my current reads. I’ve also began some of these books and put them aside for one reason or another. Honestly, I don’t remember why.

Six more books sounds like an appropriate goal and doable if I keep to my new reading habits I blogged about HERE.

I want to wish you all a lovely and productive week!

Stephanie Hopkins

Book Review: Madam by Phoebe Wynne

About the Book:

For 150 years, high above rocky Scottish cliffs, Caldonbrae Hall has sat untouched, a beacon of excellence in an old ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls, it promises that the young women lucky enough to be admitted will emerge “resilient and ready to serve society.”

Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie: a 26-year-old Classics teacher, Caldonbrae’s new head of the department, and the first hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose is overwhelmed to be invited into this institution, whose prestige is unrivaled. But she quickly discovers that behind the school’s elitist veneer lies an impenetrable, starkly traditional culture that she struggles to reconcile with her modernist beliefs—not to mention her commitment to educating “girls for the future.”

It also doesn’t take long for Rose to suspect that there’s more to the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor—a woman whose ghost lingers everywhere—than anyone is willing to let on. In her search for this mysterious former teacher, Rose instead uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, forcing her to confront the true extent of the school’s nefarious purpose, and her own role in perpetuating it.

A darkly feminist tale pitched against a haunting backdrop, and populated by an electrifying cast of heroines, Madam will keep readers engrossed until the breathtaking conclusion.

My Thoughts:

I must confess that this book was a horrible start for me on several accounts. Not only was it dragging, for a lack of better word, I couldn’t make sense of what was going on with the people at this school. It was as if Rose stepped into the twilight zone. The movements and the speech of the characters were not natural. The dialogue was clunky and the conversations between the characters were confusing at times. Nothing was making sense but something was telling me to push on.

I kept reading and my frustrations grew. To my dismay, I couldn’t relate to any of the characters nor did I sympathize with them. I was about to give up on the story and almost half way through, there was a change…

The story takes a turn to an interesting development and I began to see the reasoning of the oddness of the story in the first half of the book. As I read on, I must say that I still didn’t care for any of the characters or their situation. But I was pleased the dialogue had improve somewhat and I didn’t feel so disoriented!

If there ever was a character you wanted to grab and shake and yell, “What is wrong with you? Wake up and snap-out of it!” It would be Rose. When she first arrived at the school, everything started off wrong for her and her lack of gumption made things worse for her. I would not portray her as a heroine. While she saw the horrible things going on around her, and at times spoke up, she just wasn’t strong enough to handle anything! I believe you will find interesting who the true, “Heroines” are.

I would also like to point out that in the second half of the book, there are two disturbing scenes that might be too sensitive for some readers. While I understand the context was important to drive the plot, I could have done without it. It made me feel extremely uneasy.

I give this story three stars solely on the reason that the school’s purpose makes for a relevant story but creepy read and the setting has all the right elements of a Gothic tale.   

Stephanie Hopkins

Side note: The book description gives away too much information about the story.

I obtained a galley copy from the Publishers through NetGalley.