Pam Jenoff, “Kommandant’s Girl”

In 1939, Emma Bau is living a peaceful, happy life with her husband Jacob; when Germany invades Poland, however, her contented world is destroyed. Her husband, an active member of the Resistance, goes into hiding, and her parents are taken to a crumbling ghetto. With help, Emma becomes Anna Lipowsky, secretary to Kommandant Richwalder. As the war continues, and Emma’s world gradually turns into Anna’s, the young woman finds herself fighting attraction to the one man in charge of annihilating her life, her family and her culture. Kommandant’s Girl is a fresh, if disturbing look at one woman’s fight for survival during World War Two.

Plot Overview: Love, Courage and Weakness

Emma Bau is 19 years old and has been married for a short six weeks when German soldiers invade her hometown of Krakow. With help from her husband’s friends, she is taken to Krysia, Jacob’s aunt and a wealthy Catholic widow, where she disguises herself as a young Christian woman, Anna. Krysia also takes in a young boy, Lukasz, the only surviving child of a famous rabbi.

As Emma embraces her role as Anna, she comes to accept Krysia and Lukasz as her new family, one she is not willing to risk or sacrifice. But when the Resistance, and Jacob, urge her to gather information on the Nazis using whatever means necessary – including manipulation, deception and lust – Emma learns the fragility of life, family and love.

Criticisms and Compliments

Kommandant’s Girl is unlike typical World War Two fiction. It does not track the experience of people in hiding; it does not follow the heroics of soldiers; it does not explore widowhood. Rather, it is a look at the bold actions – and emotional turmoil – of a young, naive newlywed. Emma, or Anna, comes across as impossibly innocent, but circumstances, and her own inexperience, force her to mature. As she embarks on a passionate affair with a Nazi, she seems to realize that love is gray, but the value of human life is black and white.

Emma is a sympathetic character in many ways, but her relationship with Kommandant Richter makes her appear, at times, as a traitor to her husband and to her faith. Jenoff has a unique, provocative plot setup with a married Orthodox Jewish woman falling in lust, perhaps even love, with a Nazi commander; Emma is Jenoff’s flawed hero, one for whom the reader feels both compassion and disgust. Kommandant’s Girl is a distinctive look at the courage and weakness that plague human actions.


  • Jenoff, Pam. Kommandant’s Girl. MIRA Books, 2007 ISBN 9780778301448

Harlan Coben, “Play Dead”

In his debut novel, Play Dead, Harlan Coben explores the world of beauty, wealth and professional basketball. In a fairytale romance, Laura Ayers, a former model turned businesswoman, elopes with David Baskin, the star player of the Boston Celtics. But when David goes missing, Laura refuses to accept his death. As she slowly unravels the truth about his disappearance, she learns that no one – not friends, not even family – can be trusted.

Plot Overview: Home, Love and Sports

For Laura, family life is difficult. A daddy’s girl at heart, she struggles to negotiate her love for her father with her resentment towards her mother and sister. For reasons unknown, Laura’s mother strongly disapproves of David Baskin, the one man to whom Laura felt free to give her heart. Her older sister, Gloria, is damaged, emotionally and physically, and Laura feels obligated to shield her from any more pain.

David, a gifted athlete, also experienced a dysfunctional home life: his father was murdered when he was a baby, and he and his unstable brother, Stan, had rough childhoods. As an adult, David is estranged from Stan and looks to his best friend, T.C., and Laura to fill the void.

Complicating matters is the arrival of a new rookie on the Celtics team, one who has David’s moves, skills and natural talent on the court. As Laura deals with grief – and suspicion over the new player – she comes to understand that people will commit horrible, foolish actions, all in the name of family.

Criticisms and Compliments

Play Dead is Harlan Coben’s first novel, and it shows. Coben acknowledges in the forward to this reissue that he has not read Play Dead since it was first published, and he admits that it has its weaknesses. Play Dead doesn’t have the smoothly written plot twists and cliffhangers of Coben’s later novels, and the writing itself can be stilted and awkward, especially in the first few chapters. But, Coben improves as the novel progresses, and, in fact, Play Dead is not a bad book. The characters are well-developed, the story is creative, the descriptions are vivid.

What makes Play Dead weak is the obvious plot line surrounding what happened to David Baskin and who the rookie on the Boston Celtics basketball team is. However, in a smart move, Coben keeps the “why” out of the equation until the end of the book. The result is a suspenseful story with an interesting, if predictable plot. For first-time Coben readers, Play Dead is not the novel to start with; for those acquainted with his work, especially the Myron Bolitar series, it is an appealing read, one that shows his raw storytelling skills.


  • Coben, Harlan. Play Dead. Signet (Reissue edition), 2010 ISBN 9780451231740

Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos, “Lost City”

In another installment of the NUMA series, Lost City follows the Fauchards, a mother-and-son team who are ruthless in their thirst for domination; with an impressively complex plan, the two are planning to take over the world using the Earth’s most precious resource: water. When the NUMA team uncovers their scheme, the mother-son duo will confront their greatest challenge: the world’s go-to James Bond, hero of the day, savior of the seas, Kurt Austin.

Plot Overview: Seaweed, Glaciers and Ambition

With a precious lockbox between his feet and an ancient helmet atop his head, Jules Fauchard is flying to Switzerland. When his plane is shot down, he lands in a glacier and is frozen, only to be discovered by a NUMA team and attractive archaeologist Skye Labelle nearly 100 years later.

Across Europe, Dr. Angus MacLean is seeking refuge in a remote Greek monastery. After working on a top-secret project, MacLean discovers that his colleagues have all died in apparent accidents – and he is next in line. Captured and taken to a remote island off the coast of Scotland, he discovers the horrific effects of his work; MacLean and a group of scientists have inadvertently created cannibalistic, red-eyed mutants.

The Trouts, meanwhile, have recently learned about Gorgonweed, a vicious species of seaweed that threatens to take over the oceans. As they investigate, Paul and Gamay take a side trip to see the Lost City, a collection of underwater towers that contain a useful enzyme, one that the Fauchard family is harvesting for unknown reasons.

Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala, with a bevy of underwater vehicles and tools at their disposal, will unravel the connection between the Fauchards, the mutants and the Gorgonweed. Although their lives will be put in danger, the NUMA team will escape unharmed and save the world in the process.

Criticisms and Compliments

Clive Cussler has an established recipe for his NUMA series: start with one or two historical anecdotes that conclude with a death, disappearance or otherwise unresolved element; add present-day Kurt Austin and his merry band of scientists, busy investigating various oddities that seem unrelated to one another and to the previously mentioned anecdote; toss in a dash of psychopathic or otherwise megalomaniac character seeking world domination; add a pinch of romance with a beautiful woman who cannot help but be attracted to the virile, platinum-haired and blue-eyed Austin; cook for approximately 500 pages. Should serve one reader for a period of two to five days.

Cussler and Kemprecos’s NUMA Files series is predictable, but they stick with their formula for one reason: it works. As the fifth book of the series, Lost City is a fast-paced novel that contains all the thrills and conspiracies guaranteed to entertain a reader. The NUMA Files should not be read for the lackluster quality of the writing, the character development or even the authenticity of the stories; it should be read for the action-packed plots. It doesn’t really matter who Austin, Joe Zavala and the Trouts are; what matters is how quickly, and with what fancy underwater devices, they can thwart an outrageous plan that threatens the world order. This series is a good read for those with a taste for excitement – and corny one-liners.


  • Cussler, Clive and Paul Kemprecos. Lost City (The NUMA Files). Berkley, 2005 ISBN 9780425204191

Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos, “White Death”

When Kurt Austin and his team of investigators stumble upon the mysterious Oceanus Corporation and their greedy plot to seize the world’s supply of fish, they take advantage of every tool, every mode of transportation, every person – and, for Kurt Austin, one attractive woman – to save the planet. Although farm fishing would not appear to be thrilling material for a spy novel, in White Death, with heroic Austin ready to save the day, it is a fresh topic, one that makes for a surprisingly action-packed novel.

Plot Overview: Murder, Conspiracy and Frankenfish

During the Spanish Inquisition, Diego Aguirrez, a Basque sailor known for his extraordinary skills on the sea, has two precious relics in his possession. With a ruthless investigator tracking him, he charts a course as far from Spain as he can get. Later, during the 1930s, a German Zeppelin crashes in the Arctic, not far from where Aguirrez was “lost” at sea.

Off the coast of the present-day Faroe Islands, the Sea Sentinel, a ship belonging to a radical environmentalist group, is protesting a local custom of capturing and killing pilot whales. When the Sea Sentinel suddenly powers toward a Danish cruiser, Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala are called on to rescue those trapped in the sinking ships.

Austin and Zavala quickly learn that the Sea Sentinel was sabotaged, and the crash was manipulated by an outside power source. As they follow clue after clue, the two men, and Paul and Gamay Trout, learn of the “Frankenfish,” a horrific species of otherwise harmless salmon that has been genetically altered. The Dr. Frankenstein of genetics, Frederick Barker, and his band of violent Inuit tribesmen will stop at nothing, not even Kurt Austin, to release the mutant fish into the world’s fresh water resources.

Criticisms and Compliments

White Death is a novel not so far-fetched, not so fantastic and not so removed from reality that it is plain unbelievable. It has elements of the ridiculous – like the so-called Frankenfish – but the plot and the dialogue are entertaining. Austin and Zavala have a collection of cheesy one-liners to pull out at every occasion, but they are, in this novel, humorous, adding levity to what are usually action-packed, sometimes violent scenes.

Like all of the NUMA Files novels, there are several plotlines that need to be tied together; in White Death, the connection between each plot is not too thin or outrageous, and Cussler and Kemprecos provide a neatly-tied bow of story threads at the end of the novel. White Death is an exciting, interesting read, one that features classic heroes and fantastically-depraved villains.


  • Cussler, Clive and Paul Kemprecos. White Death. Berkley, 2004 ISBN 9780425195451

Claire Avery, “Hidden Wives”

Forge Books; and Sara Shaw are best friends, half-sisters and members of a severe polygamous sect known as the Blood of the Lamb. As the two girls prepare to be wed, one to her uncle and the other to the community’s sinister leader, Prophet Silver, they begin to question the paths their lives are taking.

Sara, gawky and plain, thirsts for knowledge and dreams of escaping her abusive household; Rachel is beautiful and a deep believer in her faith – at least until she meets a newcomer, one who forces her to question her future within the sect. Hidden Wives is an intense and disturbing look at the cruelty two girls are forced to endure.

Plot Overview: Victimization, Ignorance and Freedom

Sara Shaw is a girl suffocating in her own life. Her parents have transferred her from the local public school – her personal sanctuary – to the sect’s religious school, and Prophet Silver has decided that she will be bound in a celestial marriage to her uncle. Terrified of having deformed children and of being trapped in a loveless relationship, Sara plans to escape. With the help of her secret friend, Irvin, a quirky African-American boy with a speech impediment, Sara will take her first terrifying steps towards freedom.

Well-known throughout the small Blood of the Lamb community, Rachel is a stunning girl. Complementing her beauty is her natural kindness and optimistic spirit; unfortunately, these qualities make her vulnerable, particularly to the predatory men in her life. When she meets Luke, a new member who questions the legitimacy of the faith, Rachel finds herself struggling to negotiate her own beliefs with his. For Rachel, true love should conquer all, but in the Blood of the Lamb sect, can such love even exist?

Criticisms and Compliments

Hidden Wives is difficult book to read; although the subject matter is interesting and trendy, the graphic descriptions of incest, molestation and abuse are deeply disturbing. For a book describing a polygamous sect called Blood of the Lamb, Hidden Wives certainly offers up its two protagonists as the proverbial sacrifices. Innocent teen girls Sara and Rachel are just on the brink of womanhood, yet they are forced to view themselves as objects, victims subject to the whimsies of men. In this particular sect, women are vessels with no individuality or freedom to call their own. Their duty is to bear children and be at the beck and call of their husbands. It is, frankly, a sad way to live.

Although Claire Avery – the pseudonym of two sisters – paints a bleak story, her characters are well-drawn and appealing, especially Sara; as a non-believer and skeptic, she provides the voice of reason for the novel, putting the seemingly outrageous plot in perspective. Moreover, it is clear that Avery has done her homework as the descriptions of the Blood of the Lamb rituals and ways of life are vivid.

Hidden Wives is not a light-hearted read and should not be approached as merely an inside look at a polygamous sect. Rather, it is an unsettling exploration of the horrific actions people make in the name of faith.


  • Avery, Claire. Hidden Wives. Forge Books, 2010 ISBN 9780765326898

Alexander McCall Smith, “La’s Orchestra Saves the World”

La’s world is beginning to change: just as she leaves her family home to start a life with her new husband, she is left abandoned and alone, rejected by the love of her life for another woman. Escaping to the country, she accepts a life of simplicity while relations in Europe become increasingly complex. As England enters World War II, La finds herself struggling to contribute to the war effort. With the help of friends, she will have a greater impact on peoples’ lives than she could have imagined. La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a passive tribute to the tireless efforts of everyday heroes and heroines.

Plot Overview: Love, War and Simplicity

Lavender, or La as she is known, is a proper, if old-fashioned English girl. While at Cambridge, she reluctantly marries Richard, with whom, two years later, she is deeply in love. When he suddenly leaves her for a woman in France, La’s sympathetic in-laws give her their country house. Seeking solace, La moves to Suffolk, only to find that she really does not have the skills for country life.

When World War II starts, La begins to feel impotent, unable to make a significant contribution to the war. With a little help – and a little faith – she forms an orchestra made up of local musicians and embraces the healing power of music. La’s world gradually expands, and with love on the horizon, she discovers who she really is.

Criticisms and Compliments

Alexander McCall Smith is a beautiful writer, and his prose reads almost like poetry. The author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, McCall Smith has well-established his ability to create unique and memorable characters, and he has an uncanny ability to capture how women feel and think.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is more than just a novel; McCall Smith seems to use it as a platform to reflect on the consequences of human actions, both with love and with war. As a result, La’s Orchestra Saves the World is not really about La or her orchestra, but rather a thoughtful take on how people, including one widow leading a simple life in the English countryside, can and will endure, no matter what conditions exist.

As well written as La’s Orchestra Saves the World is, the title itself is misleading as La does not think of, or even create, her orchestra until the middle of the novel, and it seems to play only a minor role in her life. Moreover, La’s love interest, Feliks, reads a little flat, and there is very little passion in what is marketed as a love story. Instead, La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a quiet, understated take on what should be heavy emotions: love, lust, violence and war.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a good book, though the pacing is slow, and the plot tends to drift along various tangents. The overall message of the novel, however, makes it a worthwhile, thought-provoking read.


  • Smith, Alexander McCall. La’s Orchestra Saves the World. First Anchor Books, 2010 ISBN 9780307473042

Scott Mariani, “The Mozart Conspiracy”

The second novel of Scott Mariani’s series, The Mozart Conspiracy follows Ben Hope, a hero in the manner of James Bond, as he searches for the reason behind his friend Oliver’s death. Working together with Oliver’s sister, Ben uses all the tools at his disposal – including pistols and nail guns – to find his friend’s murderer. With elements of love, friendship and graphic violence, The Mozart Conspiracy is a wild ride of a novel.

Plot Overview: Conspiracies, Murder and Mozart

Ben Hope is a stoic, tense man, one who spends his life rescuing kidnapped children. When his ex-girlfriend, popular opera singer Leigh Llewellyn, reaches out to him following her brother’s murder, the soft-hearted and hard-bodied hero agrees to meet. Together, the two trace Oliver’s last steps and the origins of a mysterious letter written by Mozart.

As Ben and Leigh begin to discover who murdered Oliver and why, their lives and those of the people around them are threatened. Joining forces with a local Austrian police detective, Ben and Leigh fight off vicious thugs who are members of the sinister Order of Ra. Outnumbered, the trio will stop at nothing, not even murder, to find the truth.

Criticisms and Compliments

Mariani’s The Mozart Conspiracy is written in the same vein as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or Harlan Coben‘s Myron Bolitar series. Mariani, like Coben, provides a trickle of clues, each one guaranteeing the reader only knows as much as the characters. Both Mariani and Coben also appear to have such power over their plots, casually doling out information that leads to explosive reveals. And like Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, The Mozart Conspiracy exposes the secret and sometimes corrupt actions of an ancient society.

Mariani, who is a musician himself, thoughtfully explores the world of music as only someone with experience can. He writes with accuracy and a depth of feeling, and his background in music makes his proposed link between Mozart and the Freemasons that much more plausible. It is accepted knowledge that Mozart was a Freemason in his time and that The Magic Flute contains various Masonic symbols; Mariani, however, takes it one step further, suggesting that not only was Mozart an upstanding member of the society, but his death was also at the hands of a sinister side group.

The Mozart Conspiracy is a fast, page-turning read. Although Mariani does not shy away from describing violence and murder, his novel is terrific, both in its plot and in its protagonist, courageous Ben Hope.


  • Mariani, Scott. The Mozart Conspiracy: A Novel. Touchstone, 2011 ISBN 9781439193365

Marian Keyes, “The Other Side of the Story”

Set in the world of publishing, Marian Keyes’s The Other Side of the Story explores the lives and loves of three women, each connected to the other. Gemma Hogan is a wannabe writer who abandons her social life to care for her newly single mother; Jojo Harvey is a curvaceous and ambitious book agent who is having an affair with her married boss; and Lily Martin is a new mother with a runaway bestseller. A mammoth novel at almost 600 pages, The Other Side of the Story is an inside, almost voyeuristic look at publishing, infidelity and success.

Plot Overview: Love, Betrayal and Writing

Gemma Hogan’s world has been turned upside down: her boyfriend, Anton, left her for her best friend, Lily, her father just left her mother for his secretary, and her new haircut is anything but flattering. Bitter by the betrayal of Anton and her father, Gemma is now forced to sacrifice her social life to care for her emotionally needy mother. As her life settles into a new rhythm, Gemma begins to accept the punches life has thrown at her and turns to writing as release. Soon after, her friend, Susan, to whom Gemma has been sending her tales of woe, passes on her emails to ball-breaking literary agent Jojo.

Lily Wright, guilty of stealing Gemma’s boyfriend, is trying to find a balance between happiness and shame. Although she has a beautiful daughter and a man who loves her, Lily can barely hold herself together. When her first novel takes off and the pressure mounts for her to write a second, she finds that she can’t care for her life, her finances or her career.

Jojo Harvey’s life is a mess. She is deep into an affair with her boss, and her most successful writer, Lily, isn’t churning out a second bestseller. Jojo is also gunning for a promotion, but her coworker, slimy Richie Gant, is heavy competition for the position. As Jojo’s career and love lives collide, she must face the morality of her actions and decide if she wants to continue being a woman in a man’s world.

Criticisms and Compliments

The Other Side of the Story reads as three novels in one; Gemma, Jojo and Lily each deserve their own story, and at a hefty 528 pages, The Other Side of the Story is no quick, chick-lit read. It is, however, funny and charming, and Keyes has a wonderful ability to weave together various plot lines. The result is a smoothly written, clever novel.

Like This Charming Man, The Other Side of the Story features women with unique voices and distinct senses of humor. Keyes’s characters are not silly and absentminded like those of chick-lit writers Helen Fielding or Sophie Kinsella, and she easily explores the absurdities of love and life. Moreover, in a satisfying resolution, Keyes briefly hints at where each character stands after having confronted the complications of her life. The Other Side of the Story is a terrific read; the only disappointing part is that the novel comes to an end.


  • Keyes, Marian. The Other Side of the Story. Avon A, 2006. ISBN 9780060731489.