Review: THE FOREST OF VANISHING STARS by Kristin Harmel

Review:  THE FOREST OF VANISHING STARS by Kristin HarmelThe Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel
Also by this author: The Room on Rue Amélie
five-stars
Published by Gallery Books on July 6, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

Kristin Harmel is fast becoming one of my favorite authors of WWII historical fiction.  I love how she always manages to uncover and shine a spotlight on some aspect of the war, and in particular of the various Resistance movements, that I was completely unaware of.  In the case of her latest novel, The Forest of Vanishing Stars, Harmel’s subject matter are groups of Jewish refugees who flee from the Nazis and try to survive by hiding in the vast forests of Poland. The author’s note at the end of the novel is just as fascinating a read as the book itself because Harmel shares the details of her research, including information about the real-life groups of Jewish refugees she based her fictional groups on.

The Forest of Vanishing Stars centers on a young woman named Yona who is stolen from her crib by an elderly Jewish woman when she is only two years old.  It is unclear at first what the old woman’s motivation is. She seems to have some mystical powers that allow her to see the future and she “sees” that Yona is destined for something special and that she must teach her so that she is ready when the time comes.  The old woman raises Yona in the forest and gives her what seems like the oddest of educations.  She teaches her all about how to survive in the forest – how to build various kinds of shelters, how to gather and preserve food, how to use plants and herbs for medicinal purposes, and how to defend herself.  She also teaches Yona many languages: Polish, German, and Russian to name a few. The old woman dies soon after Yona’s education is complete and she is left to wonder what exactly she is meant to do with all she has learned.  It soon becomes clear when she encounters a large group of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives deep in the forest.  They are doing everything wrong and if they continue as they are, they will all surely perish.  Yona makes it her mission to ensure that they all survive and begins to teach them everything she knows about living off the land and about how to stay hidden.

The survival aspect of the story is definitely compelling enough in its own right, but I especially adored the character of Yona.  She is such a special young woman and I loved how fully she devoted herself to caring for this group of people even though they are complete strangers and she could be executed if she is caught helping them. I admired her bravery and her selflessness.  I also became quite attached to the group of refugees.  They are all so eager to learn everything Yona has to teach them and they become just as devoted to her as she is to them.  They become a family and it’s just beautiful to see that bond form when everything around them is so dark and treacherous.

Made all the more poignant by Harmel’s characters and her exquisite storytelling, The Forest of Vanishing Stars is a story of strength, resilience, love, family, and sacrifice.  If you think you’ve read it all when it comes to WWII historical fiction, I highly recommend giving Kristin Harmel’s novels a try.  I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read from Harmel so far and The Forest of Vanishing Stars is my favorite yet; it’s a real gem.

five-stars

About Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel is the New York Times bestselling, USA Today bestselling, and #1 international bestselling author of The Book of Lost Names, The Winemaker’s Wife, and a dozen other novels that have been translated into twenty-nine languages and are sold all over the world.

A former reporter for PEOPLE magazine, Kristin has been writing professionally since the age of 16, when she began her career as a sportswriter, covering Major League Baseball and NHL hockey for a local magazine in Tampa Bay, Florida in the late 1990s. After stints covering health and lifestyle for American Baby, Men’s Health, and Woman’s Day, she became a reporter for PEOPLE magazine while still in college and spent more than a decade working for the publication, covering everything from the Super Bowl to high-profile murders to celebrity interviews. Her favorite stories at PEOPLE, however, were the “Heroes Among Us” features—tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

In addition to a long magazine writing career (which also included articles published in Travel + Leisure, Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and more), Kristin was also a frequent contributor to the national television morning show The Daily Buzz and has appeared on Good Morning America and numerous local television morning shows.

Kristin was born just outside Boston, Massachusetts and spent her childhood there, as well as in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Petersburg, Florida. After graduating with a degree in journalism (with a minor in Spanish) from the University of Florida, she spent time living in Paris and Los Angeles and now lives in Orlando, with her husband and young son. She is also the co-founder and co-host of the weekly web show and podcast Friends & Fiction.

Historical Fiction Review: THE PARIS LIBRARY by Janet Skeslien Charles

Historical Fiction Review:  THE PARIS LIBRARY by Janet Skeslien CharlesThe Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
four-stars
Published by Atria Books on February 9, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a huge fan of WWII historical fiction and I’ve read a lot of it over the years. For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for books that bring a fresh perspective or a story that I haven’t heard yet, and that it exactly what Janet Skeslien Charles does with her new novel, The Paris Library.  Based on a true story, The Paris Library shines a light on a part of the French Resistance movement that I was not familiar with, that of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris (ALP).  While the Nazis occupied and terrorized their city, the men and women of the ALP risked everything to keep the library open at all costs, even sneaking books across Paris to their beloved Jewish patrons who were barred from entering the building.  For these librarians and their book loving patrons, books were both an escape and a symbol of hope and so the librarians wanted to do their part to keep hope alive no matter how dark life seemed.

One of the things I enjoyed most about The Paris Library was how the story unfolded.  We are presented with a dual timeline, one in the 1980s that follows Lily, an awkward and lonely high school student living in a small town in Montana.  Lily becomes intrigued by her neighbor, an elderly woman named Odile who keeps to herself and has an air of mystery about her.  All anyone really knows about her is that she’s originally from France.  Lily decides she wants to get to know Odile better and so, under the guise that she’s doing a school project on Paris, she approaches Odile and requests to interview her.  A lovely friendship develops over time between Lily and Odile, and it is through this interview that we are introduced to Odile and the second timeline, which reveals that as a young woman, Odile worked as a librarian at the ALP and was a very active member of the Resistance.

While I loved watching the relationship blossom between Lily and Odile because Odile becomes almost like a second mom to Lily, I was of course most drawn to the incredible story that takes place during WWII.  The author had me fully invested in the lives of Odile and her fellow librarians.  I loved how committed they were to their cause, as well as how devoted they were to each other and to their patrons.  I never would have guessed that there was an actual Resistance movement within the walls of a library and was glued to the pages each time the librarians faced danger or the risk of betrayal since one never knew who might be a Nazi collaborator.  Even though the WWII timeline was the most engaging of the two, the author still manages to make the 1980s timeline compelling in the sense that there is some mystery surrounding Odile and why she keeps to herself and why she has never returned to Paris, not even once, after all these years.  I loved the scrappy and determined Odile of WWII so much that I really wanted to know what had happened to send her to live in isolation in Montana of all places.

The Paris Library is a beautiful story of friendship, family, resistance, and resilience.  If you’re looking for a WWII historical fiction that brings something new to the table, I highly recommend The Paris Library.

four-stars

About Janet Skeslien Charles

Janet Skeslien Charles is the award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa and The Paris Library. Her shorter work has appeared in revues such as Slice and Montana Noir. She learned about the history of the American Library in Paris while working there as the programs manager. She divides her time between Montana and Paris.

Review: IN THE GARDEN OF SPITE by Camilla Bruce

Review:  IN THE GARDEN OF SPITE by Camilla BruceIn the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce
four-stars
Published by BERKLEY on January 19, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Man Shall Inherit the Earth…Unless She Kills Him First.”  I’ve been wanting to try one of Camilla Bruce’s books for a while now and when I saw this attention-grabbing tagline on the cover of her latest novel, In the Garden of Spite, I knew I had to read it.  In the Garden of Spite is a work of historical fiction that follows the life of Belle Gunness, perhaps better known as “The Black Widow of La Porte,” one of the most famous female serial killers in American History.

Let me start by saying In the Garden of Spite isn’t for the faint of heart.  Belle’s preferred methods of dispatching her victims ranged from poisons to cleavers, and she quite literally butchered them, chopping them into manageable pieces to make it easier to bury them in her backyard.  So yes, it’s gory and gruesome at times, but if you can get past that, this story is a fascinating, in-depth look inside the mind of a serial killer.  I was equally repulsed and riveted the entire time I was reading.

The author takes us through about thirty years of Belle’s life, from when she was a child living in poverty in Norway all the way through to the height of her killing spree once she has immigrated to America.  Belle’s early life was not an easy one and the author paints a vivid portrait as to how abuse, trauma, and poverty could have shaped her into the very disturbed woman we meet in this book.

Belle is a truly fascinating character and I found myself drawn to her more than I expected to be.  She’s not an especially likeable character, being a serial killer and all, but wow, her resourcefulness and determination is impressive! As twisted as she could be most of the time, I frequently found myself quite impressed by her at other times.  How she managed to spin her way out of trouble time and time again, and how she is constantly able to reinvent herself.  Normally an unlikeable main character would derail my enjoyment of a book, but Belle is just so fascinating that I found myself glued to the story in spite of myself.

One of my favorite parts of the story though is how Belle’s life is presented.  The author uses two perspectives, 1) Belle’s and 2) Belle’s older sister, Nellie, who also lives in America.  With Belle’s perspective, we obviously get that intimate look into what she’s thinking and feeling as she commits each heinous murder.  With Nellie’s perspective though, we get the perspective of a family member who loves her sister deeply, but who is also torn between her desire to protect her baby sister from the world and her increasing suspicion that there is something truly broken in Belle and that she may be forced to do something about it.  I just loved the contrast in these two points of view.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Black Widow of La Porte, I highly recommend In the Garden of Spite.  It’s a dark and grisly, yet truly riveting tale.

four-stars

About Camilla Bruce

Camilla Bruce is a Norwegian writer of dark speculative and historical fiction.

Her debut novel, You Let Me In, is out now from Bantam Press (UK) and Tor (US).

Her dark historical, In the Garden of Spite, will be published by Berkley (US) and Michael Joseph (UK) in 2021.

Review: THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Alix E. Harrow

Review:  THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Alix E. HarrowThe Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
five-stars
Published by Orbit on October 13, 2020
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fiction, Paranormal
Pages: 528
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alix E. Harrow’s new novel The Once and Future Witches is at its heart a story about reclaiming one’s power, specifically power that men have historically denied and/or taken from women.  The story is set in 1893 in the town of New Salem and right in the heart of the women’s suffrage movement.  The Once and Future Witches is also a story about sisterhood, both in the sense of the sisterhood of women fighting to make their voices heard at the ballot box, and in the sense that the three protagonists are actually sisters and specifically sisters who have been raised to embrace magic even though magic and witches have been gone for a long time.  Although they have been separated for years, the sisters find themselves inexplicably drawn to the location of the latest suffragette rally and therefore back to each other.  When an unexplainable event also happens at the rally, the sisters take their reunion and this supernatural occurrence as a sign that magic is trying to return and that they should help it along and perhaps recruit some suffragettes to their cause, thereby combining the women’s movement and the witches’ movement into one major force to be reckoned with.

I honestly adored everything about this book!  I thought the overall theme of women reclaiming their power, whether through magic or through securing the right to vote for themselves, was wonderful and I thought using the women’s movement as well as witches and magic to symbolize that theme and bring it to life was brilliant since it highlights both the historical and modern society since as women, we are still having to fight for equality at almost every turn.  I also loved that Harrow truly brings this theme into the present by having a diverse cast that features both women of color as well as LGBTQ characters.

Speaking of the cast of characters, while I don’t want to give any details of the plot itself away, I do want to talk about the three sisters because they were all such incredible characters, just so well drawn and complex.  James Juniper is the first sister we meet. She’s the youngest and is a bit of a wild child. She’s incredibly brave and forthright and has no filter whatsoever. You just never know what’s going to come out of her mouth.  She also holds a major grudge against her two older sisters because they both ran away from home and left her behind to contend with an abusive father.  Then there’s Beatrice Belladonna, the oldest and most wary of the sisters. Beatrice is into books and not much else, although she does have an interest in magic. She works as a librarian and in her spare time has delved into the library’s collection of books from Old Salem, trying to find hidden or long-forgotten spells.  Lastly, there’s Agnes Amaranth, the middle sister.  She’s the most nurturing of the sisters, practically taking on the role of Juniper’s mom after their mom died.  The dynamic between Juniper, Beatrice, and Agnes is so complicated and I found myself completely invested, both in their adventures to bring back magic and witches, and most especially in their emotional journey to work through the pain of the past and get back to each other.

The overall themes of The Once and Future Witches are compelling and the characters are fabulous, but I can’t forget to mention the real stars of the show, Harrow’s masterful ability to weave together a beautiful, atmospheric, and intricate story and her gorgeous prose.  This book was an absolute dream to read from start to finish, and I especially loved her use of popular childhood nursery rhymes as a way to camouflage witchy spells.

If you’re into witchy reads and feminist themes, you definitely want to check out The Once and Future Witches. It’s the best of both worlds. Truly a magical read!

five-stars

About Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow has been a student and a teacher, a farm-worker and a cashier, an ice-cream-scooper and a 9-to-5 office-dweller. She’s lived in tents and cars, cramped city apartments and lonely cabins, and spent a summer in a really sweet ’79 VW Vanagon. She has library cards in at least five states.

Now she’s a full-time writer living in with her husband and two semi-feral kids in Kentucky. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Apex, and other venues, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January was her debut novel.

Review: THE BLACK KIDS by Christina Hammonds Reed

Review:  THE BLACK KIDS by Christina Hammonds ReedThe Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
four-stars
Published by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers on August 4, 2020
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed is a poignant coming of age story set in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King Riots.  It follows Ashley Bennett, a wealthy black teen whose parents have raised her in such a way as to shelter her from the struggles, and particularly, the racism that faces the black community.  Ashley attends a mostly white private school and her childhood friends are all white.  The only black kids she knows are those who attend her school on scholarships, but they keep to themselves and she doesn’t interact with them.  When the novel opens, Ashley’s most pressing concerns are whether to go to school or ditch and hang out with her friends at the pool or beach.

Everything changes, however, when the police officers who were captured on video brutally beating Rodney King, a black man, are acquitted.  Rightfully so, the black community is outraged and so the L.A. riots began.  The beating, acquittal, and subsequent riots is such big news that there’s no way Ashley can be sheltered from it, and it soon becomes a revelation to her that makes her question everything about herself – her privileged life, her disconnect with the black community, and her entire sense of self.

Ashley’s inner monologue was what really made this story so powerful for me.  I just found myself so moved by all of the emotions going through her head as she truly has to re-evaluate everything she has ever known now that she is faced with this new harsher reality.  Ashley is also worried sick about her older sister, who abandoned that sheltered life and is out protesting for justice right in the middle of the riots.  My heart especially broke for Ashley when during an argument with one of her childhood friends, the friend lets the ‘n’ word fly.  Hearing that hate come out of her friend’s mouth for the first time makes her realize that perhaps it’s time to move on and find friends who understand what she is going through and what a mess her head is because of it.  Even though my heart broke for her at the loss of friendship, it also soared for her as she slowly starts to find her way, figure out who she is, and who the best kinds of friends are for her.

Ashley’s journey in The Black Kids is a hard one, but as hard as it was, I still loved watching her learn and grow, and discover a new sense of identity.  I also thought it was very powerful to watch the riots unfold through the eyes of a frightened and confused black teen.  I’m old enough that I remember watching the riots on TV, but Ashley’s perspective is an entirely different one and it really hit me hard as I was reading.  It also made me sad in the sense that it’s now almost 30 years since those riots and we still have so much more work to do when it comes to fighting racial injustice.  I’m glad to see more and more books like The Black Kids and hope they will inspire all of us to understand and to do better.

four-stars

About Christina Hammonds Reed

Christina Hammonds Reed holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. A native of the Los Angeles area, her work has previously appeared in the Santa Monica Review and One Teen Story. The Black Kids is her first novel.

Review: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Review:  MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-GarciaMexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
four-stars
Published by Del Rey on June 30, 2020
Genres: Horror, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t normally read much in the way of horror, but when I read the synopsis for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new novel, Mexican Gothic, and saw the comparisons to gothic classics Jane Eyre and Rebecca, I just couldn’t resist stepping out of my comfort zone and giving it a try.  I’m so glad I did too because Mexican Gothic is one wild and seriously creepy ride!

Set in Mexico during the 1950’s, the story follows Noemi Taboada, a stylish debutante who spends much of her time either going to parties or studying anthropology.  She’s trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life when her family receives a disturbing and cryptic letter from Noemi’s recently married cousin, Catalina.  In her letter, Catalina rants and raves, makes it sound like she’s being held against her will, and begs for someone to come and save her from a mysterious doom.  Noemi and her family hadn’t heard from Catalina much since she moved away with her new husband so her letter comes as a huge shock.  Fearful for both her physical and mental well-being, Noemi sets out on the long journey to visit Catalina and assess the situation.

As soon as Noemi arrives at High Place, the remote mansion in the countryside where Catalina is living, she can tell that something is just off.  The mansion is creepy, rundown, and there are signs of decay everywhere, and the family themselves doesn’t appear much better off.  Howard Doyle, the patriarch of the household, is practically on his deathbed, and all rules of the house are set up so as not to disturb him, with the ultra-stern housekeeper Florence enforcing them.  Catalina’s husband Virgil is equally creepy and has a predatory vibe about him that Noemi immediately dislikes, and she quickly begins to understand why Catalina could be distressed by her living arrangements.  Speaking of Catalina, Noemi is rarely allowed to see or speak to her cousin, and is told that she is recovering from an illness.  The few times Noemi does speak to her, she seems agitated and not at all like herself.  The longer Noemi stays in the house, the more she starts to sense that something is very wrong and that it may be starting to affect her as well.

I really enjoyed the character of Noemi.  She’s smart, resourceful, and quite brave.  She went to that house wanting answers and she wasn’t leaving without them. She also refused to back down to anyone who got in her way, no matter how much they tried to intimidate or threaten her.

I don’t want to say anything else about the plot since the bulk of the book deals with Noemi trying to figure out what is going on in this house.  I will say though that what Noemi finds blows her mind, and mine as well.  Mexican Gothic is a dark, disturbing, utterly twisted and such a unique story that all of the big reveals kept me guessing.  In addition to the uniqueness of the story itself, I also loved the gothic atmosphere of the setting, especially the rundown mansion with the creepy graveyard on the property.   Everything about this story had me on the edge of my seat from the moment Noemi started poking around in the mansion.  One of my favorite elements of the storytelling was that the author creates an environment where it becomes hard to distinguish what is real from what is illusion or perhaps an imagination run wild.  I mention this in part because I do want to give a trigger warning for some graphic scenes involving a real or imagined sexual assault.

Circling back to touch on those comparisons to Jane Eyre and Rebecca, I think both of those are apt and I would also toss in a little V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic as well.  If you’re craving a dark and haunting read, Mexican Gothic is sure to satisfy your appetite.

four-stars

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of several novels, including Gods of Jade and Shadow. She has also edited a number of anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters). Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination.

Review: REBEL SPY by Veronica Rossi

Review:  REBEL SPY by Veronica RossiRebel Spy by Veronica Rossi
three-half-stars
Published by Delacorte Press on June 23, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was drawn to Veronica Rossi’s new novel Rebel Spy because although I love historical fiction and read it often, I’ve not read much in the way of fiction that focuses on the American Revolution.  I was especially intrigued by Rebel Spy because the rebel spy in question is actually a woman, which was definitely new information to me.  Aside from those who went on to become First Ladies, the only other female figure that even comes to mind when I think of the Revolutionary War is Betsy Ross.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that there were actually female spies in George Washington’s intelligencer networks and that they played a vital role in the war.

Rossi’s novel follows a woman identified in our historical records only as Agent 355 “Lady.”  Agent 355’s  true identity remains unknown to this day and all we know of her is that she was a woman of high society in New York and that she worked as a part of Washington’s Culper spy network.  In her novel, Rossi has used her imagination to fill in the gaps and reimagine Agent 355’s life.

In Rossi’s reimagining, Agent 355 is Frannie Tasker, an orphaned young woman who lives on Grand Bahama Island with her abusive stepfather.  Frannie dreams of a new life free from his abuse, and when her stepfather announces that he wants to marry her, Frannie becomes all the more desperate to get away from him.  A timely storm, a devastating shipwreck with no survivors, and the body of a young woman who drowned in the wreck and bears a striking resemblance to Frannie provides her the escape she has been looking for.  With her quick thinking, Frannie switches places with the young woman, thus assuming her identity. She learns that the young woman has lost her entire family in the shipwreck and the plan is now to put her on the next ship to New York, where her new guardian is located.  The story follows Frannie as she takes on this new identity, learns to behave like a proper lady of society, and begins her life anew in New York City.  It is while she is on the journey to New York that Frannie meets a young man who puts the idea of rebelling against the Crown into her head and sets into motion her journey to joining a spy ring.  Frannie’s new position as a lady of society in New York gives her a prime vantage spot for intelligence as there are constantly British soldiers milling around at events she attends.

Rebel Spy is definitely a character driven story in the sense that while we do see Frannie in action as a spy, the spy ring and the Revolutionary War itself are very much in the background.  This is a story about Frannie, the life she has left behind, the new life she embraces in New York, the new friends and more-than-friends she meets along the way, and then finally her introduction to the world of spying.  As much as I enjoyed reading about Frannie’s life and what a resourceful and principled young lady she was, I would have rated this book even higher if we had gotten to see a little more of the actual spying and the war up close.

Even with that little quibble, I still found Rebel Spy to be a quick and satisfying read and one that has definitely made me want to learn more about the women who played a role in the American Revolution.

three-half-stars

About Veronica Rossi

Veronica Rossi is a best selling author of fiction for young adults. Her debut novel, UNDER THE NEVER SKY, was the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy, and was deemed one of the Best Books of Year by School Library Journal. The series appeared in the NY Times and USA Today best seller lists and was published in over 25 foreign markets.

Her second series for young adults began with RIDERS and tells the story of four modern day teens who become incarnations of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the prophetic girl who brings them together. SEEKER completes the duology.

Veronica completed her undergraduate studies at UCLA and then went on to study fine art at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She is a lifelong reader and artist. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she has lived in Mexico, Venezuela, and all over the United States, to finally settle in Northern California with her husband and two sons.

When not writing, Veronica enjoys reading painting, hiking, and running. She does not like anything involving numbers, the addition of them, subtraction of them, you name it. They terrify her. Her obsessions generally lead to fictional works. Currently, she has just finished delving into New York City during the Revolutionary War.

Review: THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST by Chanel Cleeton

Review:  THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST by Chanel CleetonThe Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
five-stars
Published by BERKLEY on June 16, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set in the Florida Keys during the Great Depression, Chanel Cleeton’s latest novel, The Last Train to Key West is a heart-stopping read that follows three young women whose lives are forever changed when a devastating hurricane strikes.

Helen has lived in the Keys all her life. She is nine months pregnant and married to an abusive man whose abuse has only gotten worse as times have gotten more desperate.  When we first meet Helen, she is daydreaming about what life could be like if her husband were to die.  Helen captured my heart right from that scene because imagine being in such a bad situation that trying to make it alone in the world with an infant in the middle of the Depression is preferable to living with your own husband.

Mirta, a young woman from Cuba, has come to the Keys with her new husband.  Her marriage is an arranged marriage to pay off her family’s debts and all Mirta knows about the man she has married is that he is from New York and that he appears to be involved in an unsavory and potentially dangerous line of work.  As they arrive in the Keys on their honeymoon before heading home to NYC, Mirta is feeling incredibly anxious, having been forced to leave her family and the only home she has ever known to go with this man who is a stranger to her.  As with Helen, I immediately became invested in Mirta and her well being.

The last young woman we meet is Eliza, a native New Yorker who has traveled to the Keys.  She tries to play it cool and be coy about why she’s traveling so far alone, but the truth is that she’s desperately searching for a long-lost family member.  Eliza has heard rumors that he may be at a work camp in the Keys, which is what has brought her to Florida.  Eliza is determined to find him and bring him home because he’s the only one who can save her from a future she does not want and a man she does not love.  I admired Eliza right away because of her spunk and determination, so as with both Helen and Mirta, I was immediately hoping that Eliza would find her happy ending.

Cleeton’s storytelling just pulled me in right away.  I loved the way the story unfolds through alternating chapters from Helen, Mirta and Eliza and how their journeys eventually become intertwined with one another.  The characters are so complex and beautifully drawn, and all three of them possess an inner strength and sense of resiliency that made me love them all the more.  Their stories were all so compelling that I just couldn’t put the book down.

It wasn’t just these wonderful characters that made The Last Train to Key West such a fantastic read, however.  The story is also fraught with danger, suspense, and mystery, and kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading.  As if these women didn’t already have enough to contend with, there are also potential dangers with the mob afoot as well as a deadly hurricane bearing down on the island contrary to weather reports that had the storm taking a different path. I don’t want to say anything else for fear of spoiling but, just wow!  I devoured this book in a couple of sittings and still wanted more when I finished the final page!

These characters and their lives grabbed hold of my heartstrings and didn’t let go, which just made for a perfect read for me.  I also didn’t realize when I first started reading that the hurricane in the book is also based on an actual catastrophic storm that struck the Keys back in 1935.  Cleeton made that whole experience feel so real and so devastating that I shed tears when I realized it was based on an actual event.  The Last Train to Key West is, by far, one of my favorite reads of 2020 thus far and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and stories that feature women trying to make their own happy endings.

five-stars

About Chanel Cleeton

Chanel Cleeton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba. Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

Review: THE PRISONER’S WIFE by Maggie Brookes

Review:  THE PRISONER’S WIFE by Maggie BrookesThe Prisoner's Wife by Maggie Brookes
four-half-stars
Published by Berkley Books on May 26, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set during WWII, Maggie Brookes’ new novel The Prisoner’s Wife follows a British soldier named Bill and a Czech girl named Izzy.  Bill is a POW who has been sent, along with several other prisoners, to labor at Izzy’s family’s farm. As soon as Bill and Izzy meet, sparks fly and they quickly fall in love.  Izzy is desperate to get away from life on the farm and arranges for her and Bill to secretly marry so that they can run away and be together.  Their honeymoon – and their freedom – is short-lived, however, when they are almost immediately captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp.  To hide her identity while they were fleeing, Izzy had cut her hair short and donned men’s clothing, but keeping her identity and gender a secret in a POW camp is practically an impossible task.  Bill knows they need help and enlists some fellow prisoners to help keep their secret, and most importantly, to keep Izzy safe.  If she’s found now, Izzy will almost certainly be executed as a spy.

I’ve read a lot of WWII historical fiction in my day, but this one really got to me.  Bill and Izzy’s journey is so fraught with danger at every turn and it just had my heart in my throat the entire time I was reading.  The author paints such a vivid picture of the horrors of the POW camp – the brutality, the lack of proper rations, the unsanitary conditions and sickness, not to mention the complete lack of privacy.  Even just the act of trying to use the bathroom posed a threat to Izzy’s well being.  The author created such a tense and suspenseful environment that hardly a page went by when I wasn’t convinced that Izzy’s identity would be revealed at any moment.

I just adored Izzy and Bill too.  How can you not root for a young couple in love to outwit the Germans and survive?  I was rooting that a happy ending for them from the moment they met.  I especially loved Izzy, who not only wanted to get off that farm, but she specifically wanted to find and join up with her father and brother who were members of a resistance group.  I loved her spark and her strength and was sure that if anyone could survive their impossible situation, it was Izzy.

I also loved the group of prisoners that banded together to protect Izzy from the Germans.  I was just so moved by their immediate willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to save a complete stranger, especially when it would have been so much easier to just look out for themselves and not try to help.  This group becomes Izzy and Bill’s “found family” and I found myself rooting for them all to survive just as hard as I was for Izzy and Bill.

Inspired by true events, The Prisoner’s Wife is an unforgettable story of courage, resiliency, and survival.  It’s also a story about love and the lengths people will go to for those they care about.

four-half-stars

About Maggie Brookes

Maggie Brookes is a British ex-journalist and BBC television producer turned poet and novelist.
The Prisoner’s Wife is based on an extraordinary true story of love and courage, told to her by an ex-WW2 prisoner of war. Maggie visited the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany as part of her research for the book, learning largely forgotten aspects of the war.
The Prisoner’s Wife is due to be published by imprints of Penguin Random House in the UK and in the US in May 2020. Publication in other countries, including Holland, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic will follow.
As well as being a writer, Maggie is an advisory fellow for the Royal Literary Fund and also an Associate Professor at Middlesex University, London, England, where she has taught creative writing since 1990. She lives in London and Whitstable, Kent and is married, with two grown-up daughters.
She has published five poetry collections in the UK under her married name of Maggie Butt. Poetry website: www.maggiebutt.co.uk

Review: CODE NAME HÉLÈNE by Ariel Lawhon

Review:  CODE NAME HÉLÈNE by Ariel LawhonCode Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon
Also by this author: I Was Anastasia
four-stars
Published by Doubleday Books on March 31, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Netgalley
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things I love about reading historical fiction is that I often learn of important historical figures that were previously unknown to me.  Such is the case with Ariel Lawhon’s latest novel Code Name Hélène.  Set in Europe during World War II, Code Name Hélène follows the adventures of Nancy Wake, an Australian-born socialite who is living in Paris when World War II breaks out.  When we first meet Nancy, she is working hard, trying to be taken seriously as a journalist in a man’s world.  When the war breaks out, however, Nancy finds her true calling as a spy and ultimately becomes one of the leaders of the French Resistance.

I had never heard of Nancy Wake and was fascinated to learn what a huge part she played during the war.  I was also a big fan of the way the author delivers Nancy’s story to us, using several interweaving timelines, one for each of the code names Nancy acquired through her work for the Resistance.  We get to see Nancy in action as an oblivious mistress, Lucienne Carlier, as she smuggles documents and people across borders to safety.  When the Nazis learn of Nancy and quickly become frustrated by her uncanny ability to evade capture, they nickname her ‘The White Mouse” and put a steep price on her head. Knowing she is in imminent danger, Nancy flees France and begins training with the Special Operations Executive where she earns a new code name, Hélène, and is air dropped back into France with a new mission. As Madam Andre, this final mission is to do whatever it takes to arm the French Resistance and drive the Germans out of France.

I was completely riveted by Nancy’s journey from start to finish.  It is fraught with danger and suspense at every turn, and I just found myself more and more inspired by Nancy’s formidable presence and spirit.  She’s fearless, brash, resourceful, and has a take-no-prisoners attitude.  Working in what could only be described as a man’s world and wearing her signature Chanel red lipstick, Nancy ultimately commands respect from all of those around her, even those who initially refuse to accept the authority of a woman in a war zone. Heck, at one point, she even kills a Nazi with her bare hands!

As awe-inspiring as her career in espionage was, I also loved that the author chose to include a glimpse into Nancy’s personal life as well, most especially her relationship with Henri Fiocca, the love of her life.  Watching how the war impacted their relationship was almost as gripping as watching Nancy order men around as a Resistance fighter.

Code Name Hélène is an inspiring story of bravery, resilience, love, and sacrifice.  If historical fiction and strong women are your thing, this is a book you want to check out.

four-stars

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is the critically acclaimed author of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, FLIGHT OF DREAMS, and I WAS ANASTASIA. Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, and Book of the Month Club selections. She is the co-founder of SheReads.org and lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, four sons, and black Lab—who is, thankfully, a girl.