Our 7 Most Favorable Reviews in December 2023

  • January 3, 2024

We came, we read, we gushed. Here’s a recap of the titles that left us especially warm and swoony last month.

Our 7 Most Favorable Reviews in December 2023

From Dust to Stardust: A Novel by Kathleen Rooney (Lake Union Publishing). Reviewed by Bárbara Mujica. “Rooney’s beautifully written novel captures the enchantment and promise of early Hollywood as well as the nefarious forces lurking in the shadows. Above all, From Dust to Stardust is an anthem to the power of the human spirit to transcend the everyday, the negative, and the debilitating — those realities that drag us down — and to dream.”

The Lies of the Land: Seeing Rural America for What It Is ― and Isn’t by Steven Conn (University of Chicago Press). Reviewed by Stephen Case. “Picturesque, pleasurable, and problem free: That’s serene, rural America, populated by ‘Jeffersonian yeomen’ with ‘integrity…not…found among city dwellers.’ Its residents are a ‘central source of civic virtue’ living ‘in close communion with…nature.’ Right? Not quite, contends Steven Conn in The Lies of the Land, an engaging, lively, comprehensive, and provocative study of ‘the Big Empty,’ the area between the Appalachians and the Sierras. Despite its bucolic look, ‘four powerful forces of American modernity’ permeate the Big Empty: militarization, industrialization, corporatization, and suburbanization. The so-called ‘lies of the land’ are the easy-to-miss, pervasive effects of these forces — effects that show the existence of an idyllic, real-America America has always been a myth.”

Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins by Jennet Conant (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Thomas W. Lippman. “Conant’s chronicle is entertaining from beginning to end. She is an experienced writer, and Higgins gives her plenty of material to work with, beginning with an unusual childhood. Higgins was born in Hong Kong to an American father and a French mother, lived for some time in France, and attended a tony prep school where she felt out of place among rich classmates (who teased her because her French was better than her English) and where she drew ‘poor marks for deportment.’ At Berkeley, she ‘openly flaunted her sexual liaisons’ and had an abortion at 19. Determined to prove she was as good as any man at whatever she did, she never let anybody else’s rules govern her.”

The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis (Oxford University Press). Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski. “The level of detail in such an epic catalog of people, places, and events is staggering and delightful by turns. As one reads about the fire that swept through Constantinople in 476 AD, Kaldellis shares the eclectic fact that among the tens of thousands of books burned in the Basilica library was ‘a complete Homer written in gold letters on the intestine of a serpent.’ Strange how the real-life past can read like something out of The Lord of the Rings.”

Artifice by Sharon Cameron (Scholastic). Reviewed by Emma Carbone. “Amsterdam, September 1943: Isa de Smit has learned to walk the fine line required to stay beneath notice during the Nazi occupation. With her mother dead and her father retreating more and more into his art, it falls on the 18-year-old to keep her family afloat. Hiding in plain sight, Isa and her father live above the Gallery de Smit — long since closed for displaying so-called degenerate works. But hiding doesn’t fill the ration books or generate the Reichsmarks Isa needs to pay taxes on the building.”

The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I by Steven Ujifusa (Harper). Reviewed by Ken Ackerman. “For Jews, who represented about 1.5 million of those immigrants, the story has special poignance. The Jewish migration was a product of the era’s violent antisemitism, particularly in Russia, and a fleeting promise of shelter in America. This is the story Steven Ujifusa relates in his new book, The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I. The subtitle is a mouthful, but Ujifusa is an expert on historical vessels and shipping firms, giving him a unique wheelhouse: the business side of very big boats. Through a wealth of research and skillful storytelling, he has managed to weave together a business tale and a classic-era American immigration tale to create a compelling, character-driven drama.”

1932: FDR, Hoover, and the Dawn of a New America by Scott Martelle (Citadel Press). Reviewed by Andrew M. Mayer. “Martelle does a masterful job in 1932 of telling the story of the Hoover/Roosevelt face-off, fleshing out events with timelines, the personal diaries of ordinary citizens, and copious details about farms, industry, and generalized anger to illustrate just how split and destitute America was at the time. Hoover fundamentally misunderstood the depth of pain in the country and underestimated Roosevelt’s determination to do something about it. As much as anything else, that misunderstanding cost the incumbent a second term.”

Subscribe to our newsletter here, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Bluesky. Advertise with us here.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus