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
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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
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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.

Review: BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN by Diane Chamberlain

Review: BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN by Diane ChamberlainBig Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
Also by this author: The Dream Daughter
five-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 14, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN review

Diane Chamberlain’s latest novel, Big Lies in a Small Town, follows two protagonists, Morgan Christopher and Anna Dale.  When we meet Morgan, she is serving a three-year prison sentence. Prior to her arrest, Morgan was in school pursuing her dream of a career in art.  That dream is on indefinite hold until one day when Lisa Williams, the daughter of Jesse Jameson, one of Morgan’s favorite artists, visits her in prison and presents her with an offer she can’t refuse. If, per Jameson’s request, as expressed in his will, Morgan is willing to help Lisa with a major art restoration project, Morgan will immediately be released from prison.  It sounds too good to be true, of course. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration and can’t imagine how she ended up named in Jesse Jameson’s will, but she’s not about to pass up on an offer to get her life back and so she accepts.

The art restoration project, which is a post office mural from a tiny town in North Carolina in 1940, is where the second protagonist, Anna Dale, comes into play.  When Morgan begins work on the mural project and starts to remove the layers of dirt and grime that mire the mural’s surface, she makes a shocking discovery. What at first looks like a quaint portrait of small-town southern life soon reveals itself to be something much more disturbing. Hidden throughout the mural are axes, knives, blood, and even skulls. Morgan can’t imagine this was the artist’s original intention for the mural and becomes obsessed with trying to figure out what happened to make the artist go down such a dark path. The artist is Anna Dale.

* * * * *

One of my favorite things about this novel is Chamberlain’s use of the dual timeline.  In one timeline, we follow Anna from the time she takes the job to paint the mural and moves to North Carolina to complete her task, all the way through to what caused her to insert those violent images into her art.  At the same time, we follow Morgan as she both restores the mural and tries to find out whatever she can about what happened to Anna.  I loved how the two timelines parallel one another, revealing secret after secret and lie after lie, until they ultimately merge in the most heart-wrenching way.

I also loved Chamberlain’s portrayal of both of these characters. Both Anna and Morgan are underdogs in their respective timelines and I just adored both of them.  They’re strong yet vulnerable, smart and resourceful, and they’re also both just so complex.  Morgan is battling some inner demons related to her imprisonment, and as we can see from the mural, Anna had some demons of her own that haunted her.  The more I learned about Morgan, the more I was cheering her on every step of the way, and the more I learned about Anna, the more invested I became in learning what happened since that mural looks like it was painted by someone with a very disturbed mind.

* * * * *

Filled with gorgeous prose, a unique, multi-layered and compelling plot, and unforgettable characters, Big Lies in a Small Town, completely blew me away.  I loved every page of it, so much so that it’s my first 5-star review of 2020.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

North Carolina, 2018: Morgan Christopher’s life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, she finds herself serving a three-year stint in the North Carolina Women’s Correctional Center. Her dream of a career in art is put on hold—until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will see her released immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to leave prison, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small town secrets.

North Carolina, 1940: Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey, wins a national contest to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Alone in the world and desperate for work, she accepts. But what she doesn’t expect is to find herself immersed in a town where prejudices run deep, where people are hiding secrets behind closed doors, and where the price of being different might just end in murder.

What happened to Anna Dale? Are the clues hidden in the decrepit mural? Can Morgan overcome her own demons to discover what exists beneath the layers of lies?

five-stars

About Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain is the New York Times, USA Today and Sunday Times bestselling author of 26 novels published in more than twenty languages. Her most recent novel is The Dream Daughter. Some of her most popular books include Necessary Lies, The Silent Sister, The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, and The Keeper of the Light Trilogy. Diane likes to write complex stories about relationships between men and women, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friends. Although the thematic focus of her books often revolves around family, love, compassion and forgiveness, her stories usually feature a combination of drama, mystery, secrets and intrigue. Diane’s background in psychology has given her a keen interest in understanding the way people tick, as well as the background necessary to create her realistic characters.

Diane was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey and spent her summers at the Jersey Shore. She also lived for many years in San Diego and northern Virginia before making North Carolina her home.

Diane received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clinical social work from San Diego State University. Prior to her writing career, Diane worked in hospitals in San Diego and Washington, D.C. before opening a private psychotherapy practice in Alexandria Virginia specializing in adolescents. All the while Diane was writing on the side. Her first book, Private Relations was published in 1989 and it earned the RITA award for Best Single Title Contemporary Novel.

Diane lives with her partner, photographer John Pagliuca, and her sheltie, Cole. She has three stepdaughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren. She’s currently at work on her next novel.

Please visit Diane’s website dianechamberlain.com for more information on her newest novel, The Stolen Marriage, and a complete list of her books.

Review: THE CHELSEA GIRLS by Fiona Davis

Review:  THE CHELSEA GIRLS by Fiona DavisThe Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
four-half-stars
Published by Dutton Books on July 30, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CHELSEA GIRLS Review

 

As a fan of historical fiction and a lover of all things New York City, I have had Fiona Davis’ novels on my must-read list for a while now. I had a feeling she would be a great fit for me, and I’m happy to say that my instinct was correct. Her latest novel, The Chelsea Girls, was everything I hoped it would be and more.  The story begins in Naples Italy during WWII and follows two young women, Hazel Ripley and Maxine Mead, who meet and become fast friends while serving on a USO tour together.  Once the war is over, Hazel and Maxine return to the states, specifically to New York City and the iconic Chelsea Hotel, where they are each looking to jumpstart their careers, Maxine as an actress and Hazel as a playwright.  The Chelsea Girls follows both Hazel and Maxine and focuses on how their lives and their friendship are impacted by the 1950s and specifically the McCarthy Era and the threat of Communism.

The historical aspect of The Chelsea Girls was a huge draw for me.  The 1950s is a period I’ve not encountered in many historical novels so, in many ways, it was a unique and refreshing read. Davis also does an incredible job of portraying just how destructive this period in history was for the entertainment industry.  Joseph McCarthy, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and everyone else who bought into the hysteria and fear that Communists were infiltrating the U.S. were just relentless and ruthless in their pursuit and takedown of anyone they suspected of having Communist ties.  I was riveted by Davis’ exploration of the way they targeted the entertainment industry, and especially the way they got so many in the theater world blacklisted, destroying careers and lives, often without a shred of real evidence against their targets.

It wasn’t just the historical aspect of the novel that appealed to me though. I was also drawn to The Chelsea Girls because I knew a female friendship was at the heart of the story. And the friendship between Hazel and Maxine does not disappoint. Both characters are multi-layered and just oh so complex and their relationship follows suit.  I became completely invested in their friendship as soon as they met on the USO tour in Naples during WWII and continued to care very deeply for them as they experienced the inevitable ups and downs that come with a 20+ year friendship.  Their relationship is filled not only with love, friendship, support and successes, but also with failures, hurt, and betrayal.  Davis does a beautiful job of weaving together all those elements in such an organic way that it felt like I knew these women and was there watching their relationship evolve over the years.  I didn’t always love both characters, but I was still invested in them just the same.

A final element of Davis’ storytelling that I loved is that she makes the iconic Chelsea Hotel into a character of sorts.  This fascinated me, especially given the host of illustrious artistic types the landmark hotel housed in its day. If the Chelsea were actually a person, he or she would certainly have seen a lot!

As a side note, I also loved that as we follow Hazel’s career as a playwright, we get to follow the steps involved in staging a play on Broadway.  We see it from writing the actual script all the way through to opening night. I found it all so interesting and loved the extra layer that it added to an already multi-layered story.

The Chelsea Girls is an engaging and powerful historical read.  In addition to shedding a light on what a witch hunt the McCarthy Era really was, it’s also a moving story about female friendship and all its highs and lows.  These characters and their experiences are going to stick with me for a while and so I’d highly recommend it to any fan of historical fiction, theater, and female friendships.

Fiona Davis has me hooked now with her special brand of storytelling.  The Chelsea Girls was my first read from her, but it definitely will not be my last!

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From Fiona Davis, the nationally bestselling author of The Dollhouse and The Address, the bright lights of the theater district, the glamour and danger of 1950s New York, and the wild scene at the iconic Chelsea Hotel come together in a dazzling new novel about the twenty-year friendship that will irrevocably change two women’s lives.

From the dramatic redbrick facade to the sweeping staircase dripping with art, the Chelsea Hotel has long been New York City’s creative oasis for the many artists, writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers, and poets who have called it home—a scene playwright Hazel Riley and actress Maxine Mead are determined to use to their advantage. Yet they soon discover that the greatest obstacle to putting up a show on Broadway has nothing to do with their art, and everything to do with politics. A Red scare is sweeping across America, and Senator Joseph McCarthy has started a witch hunt for Communists, with those in the entertainment industry in the crosshairs. As the pressure builds to name names, it is more than Hazel and Maxine’s Broadway dreams that may suffer as they grapple with the terrible consequences, but also their livelihood, their friendship, and even their freedom.

Spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s, The Chelsea Girls deftly pulls back the curtain on the desperate political pressures of McCarthyism, the complicated bonds of female friendship, and the siren call of the uninhibited Chelsea Hotel.

four-half-stars

About Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis is the nationally bestselling author of THE MASTERPIECE, THE DOLLHOUSE and THE ADDRESS. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After getting a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally settling down as an author of historical fiction. Visit her at www.fionadavis.net, facebook.com/FionaDavisAuthor/ and on Instagram and Twitter @fionajdavis.

Review: CILKA’S JOURNEY by Heather Morris

Review:  CILKA’S JOURNEY by Heather MorrisCilka's Journey by Heather Morris
four-half-stars
Series: The Tattooist of Auschwitz #2
Published by St. Martin's Press on October 1, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CILKA’S JOURNEY Review

 

Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris is the heart-wrenching story of Cilka Klein, who in 1942, at the age of sixteen, is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.  Cilka is a beautiful girl and her beauty catches the eye of some of the guards at the camp, who decide to separate her from her fellow prisoners.  By playing the role these men want her to play, Cilka manages to survive three years in the camp until it is liberated.  Unfortunately, young Cilka’s harrowing journey has just begun.  She is arrested by the Russians, charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy (even though she had no choice in the matter) and is sent to prison for 15 years in Siberia.

While Cilka’s Journey itself is a work of historical fiction, it is based on a true story and as such is just all the more heartbreaking to read.  Cilka is an incredibly sympathetic character. I liked her immediately because of the way she nurtures some of the younger prisoners.  It’s clear that she is a victim of an unfair system and I found myself immediately rooting for her to find a way to survive.  In showing what happens to Cilka from the moment she is arrested, Morris does an incredible job of exposing the many wrongs that all prisoners, but especially female prisoners, faced.  The abuse is rampant, both physical and sexual, the conditions they are kept in are barbaric, and the treatment is inhumane, making the Russians appear, in many ways, not very different from the Nazis.

I thought the pacing of the novel was excellent too.  Because I was so invested in Cilka and worried for her well-being, I was just glued to the book to see how things would turn out for her.

Thankfully though, it’s not all doom and gloom.  Morris shows that there are a few bright spots in Cilka’s life in spite of her prison sentence.  Her cellmates become somewhat of a “found family” for her, and she even befriends a female doctor at the hospital where she has been assigned to do administrative work because of her language skills.  And while working at the hospital, she meets someone who inspires her to think about her future and what her life could possibly be like once she is finally free.  It was nice to have moments like these woven into what is otherwise one heartbreak after another.

With every page of Cilka’s Journey, Morris brings to life Cilka’s heart, her bravery, and her strength.  Her journey is filled with loss and grief, but also with resiliency and the will to live. And while Cilka’s Journey is a harrowing tale of survival, it is also ultimately a story of hope and love.

I didn’t realize when I requested Cilka’s Journey that it is a sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which I haven’t read yet.  Thankfully, however, it works quite well as a standalone and I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, especially from the WWII era.  It’s a powerful read, an emotional read, and one that will stick with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From the author of the multi-million copy bestseller, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, comes the new novel based on an incredible true story of love and resilience.

Her beauty saved her life – and condemned her.

Cilka is just sixteen years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, in 1942. The Commandant at Birkenau, Schwarzhuber, notices her long beautiful hair, and forces her separation from the other women prisoners. Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly given, equals survival.

After liberation, Cilka is charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sent to Siberia. But what choice did she have? And where did the lines of morality lie for Cilka, who was sent to Auschwitz when still a child?

In a Siberian prison camp, Cilka faces challenges both new and horribly familiar, including the unwanted attention of the guards. But when she makes an impression on a woman doctor, Cilka is taken under her wing. Cilka begins to tend to the ill in the camp, struggling to care for them under brutal conditions.

Cilka finds endless resources within herself as she daily confronts death and faces terror. And when she nurses a man called Ivan, Cilka finds that despite everything that has happened to her, there is room in her heart for love.

four-half-stars

About Heather Morris

Heather Morris is a Native of New Zealand now resident in Australia, working in a large public hospital in Melbourne. For several years she studied and wrote screenplays, one of which was optioned by an academy award winning Screenwriter in the U.S. In 2003, she was introduced to an elderly gentleman “who might just have a story worth telling”. She says the day she met Lale Sokolov changed her life, as their friendship grew and he embarked on a journey of self scrutiny, entrusting the inner most details of his life during the Holocaust. Morris originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay – which ranked high in international competitions – before reshaping it into her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.