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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
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

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.

Reviews: THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR & THE LAST NIGHT IN LONDON

Today I’m sharing my thoughts on two powerful and compelling works of WWII historical fiction, one by Pam Jenoff and the other by Karen White.  This is my third time reading a novel from Jenoff and as with the first two, it was a very emotional experience for me.  This was my first time reading a novel from White, although I’ve been wanting to try her books for years now.

 

Reviews: THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR & THE LAST NIGHT IN LONDONThe Woman with the Blue Star Goodreads

Author: Pam Jenoff

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Publisher:  Park Row

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

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Woman with the Blue Star, is a powerful and inspiring story of strength, resilience, love, and friendship set against the dangerous backdrop of Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII.  The story follows two young women, one Jewish and the other not, and the unlikely friendship they are able to forge in such a deadly environment.

Sadie Gault is an eighteen year old Jewish girl who has been living with her parents in the Krakow Ghetto.  When the Nazis arrive to liquidate the Ghetto, Sadie and her family, along with another family, manage to escape into the sewers beneath the city. Unbeknownst to Sadie, her father had made arrangements with a trusted friend who works in the sewers and this friend has created a shelter for them to seek refuge in until they can safely leave.  What they thought would be a few days stretches into weeks and months.  My heart just broke for Sadie and for everyone else with her, having to live in such squalid conditions and fearing for your life every minute of every day.  I also found them inspiring though because of the inner strength they all clearly possessed and their will to survive. I’m not sure I would have that kind of strength.

In contrast to Sadie, there is also Ella Stepanek. Ella comes from a wealthy Polish family and finds herself living in relative comfort and able to move about with relative ease, in part because of her stepmother who has allied herself with the Nazis who occupy their city.  She knows she has it good in comparison to others but doesn’t really know how good until one day while at the market, she sees a pair of eyes staring up at her from a sewer grate.  At first Ella cannot believe her own eyes but then realizes it’s a Jewish girl about her own age and that she must be hiding down there.  Ella, who has herself been desperate for friendship and is disgusted that her stepmother is collaborating with Nazis, vows to do whatever she can to protect Sadie from being discovered.

I loved the friendship that formed between Sadie and Ella.  It was so beautiful to see amidst so much horror and death, and I longed for them both to survive the war so they could continue their sister-like bond in times of peace.  I just really loved both girls so much and how they were each exactly what the other needed.  I also loved another unlikely friendship that formed in the book between Sadie and Saul, another Jewish boy who was also sheltering in the sewer.  His family is much more religious than hers and he shouldn’t really associate with Sadie, but in such close quarters with no one else to talk to, he and Sadie become close and it’s another beautiful relationship to contrast with the ugliness all around them.

I don’t want to go into any specifics about what ultimately happens to all of these characters, but I will say that I flew through this book in less than a day and I cried more than once, especially when I got to the author’s notes at the end and realized that while these specific characters were not real, there are real accounts of Jewish families living in sewers while trying desperately to escape the Nazis.  The Woman with the Blue Star really is a powerful and emotional testament to how strong the will to survive is. 5 STARS.

 

Reviews: THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR & THE LAST NIGHT IN LONDONThe Last Night in London Goodreads

Author: Karen White

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Publisher:  Berkley

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

I’ve been wanting to try one of Karen White’s novels for a while now so when I saw that her newest novel, The Last Night in London, is primarily set in London during WWII, I thought that would be a great place to start, considering my love of WWII historical fiction. And it turns out I was right, as I found myself enveloped in an intricately-crafted story of family and friendship, romance and drama, suffering and resilience, all wrapped up in a web of long-buried secrets and deception set against the deadly backdrop of the Blitz.

I was sucked into White’s story from the opening pages of the prologue where we meet an unnamed woman running through the streets of London with bombs falling all around her.  She knocks on a door, hands over a suitcase which when opened reveals there is an infant within, and then she flees into the night.  Who is this woman, where is she running off to, and if that is her baby, why is she leaving it with someone else?  I was already on the edge of my seat wanting answers to all of these questions and more.  White’s story is a slow burn though so fair warning that lots of threads will need to be pulled together before those answers are revealed. The reveal is definitely worth the wait though so just enjoy the journey.

The story features a dual timeline, one set in present day London while the other is set during WWII London around the time of the Blitz.  The present day timeline follows American journalist Maddie Warner who is traveling to London to interview Precious Dubose, a former fashion model, who is about to turn 100 years old. Maddie, a distant relative of Precious’, is only there to interview Precious about WWII fashion and her time living in London around the war, but the more Maddie interacts with Precious, she gets the feeling Precious has something weighing her down and that she would like to share more with Maddie than just her thoughts on fashion.  The WWII timeline, coupled with some investigative work Maddie does on her own, slowly begins to unravel the long-held secrets Precious has been keeping for over 50 years.

Both timelines made for pretty compelling reads, but I was definitely drawn in more by the WWII timeline because I wanted answers to my questions from the prologue.  I also loved the various characters that were introduced in this timeline, including a young Precious and her roommate, Eva, who also has her fair share of secrets.  It was fascinating watching the two of them try to live, work, and love in wartime London, sometimes getting caught up in questionable activities with even more questionable people.  I was captivated by their adventures and was waiting to see how their stories culminated in that moving scene from the prologue.

I very much enjoyed my first foray into a Karen White novel and look forward to reading more from her.  4 STARS.

Historical Fiction Reviews: Wartime Settings

Hey everyone!  Hope you all had a nice weekend and that this week is off to a good start for you.  In a departure from the rom-com spree I have been on for most of the pandemic, I actually found myself craving some good historical fiction last week so I was excited to find that I actually had a couple of March ARCs on my TBR that fit the bill.  Both feature wartime settings with World War II for the first one and the Civil War for the second, and I’m excited to share my thoughts on both of them with you.

 

Historical Fiction Reviews:  Wartime SettingsThe Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz Goodreads

Author: Ellie Midwood

Publication Date: March 9, 2021

Publisher:  Bookouture

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

Ellie Midwood’s new novel The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz tells the inspiring yet tragic true story of Mala Zimetbaum, a young Jewish woman sent to Auschwitz and is known as the first woman to escape, and Edek Galinski, a long-time Polish political prisoner who also happens to be a member of the underground Resistance. Imprisoned in absolutely inhumane and hellish conditions, surrounded by cruelty and death, Mala and Edek somehow manage to find each other and fall in love.  They make a promise to each other – that they will either escape the camp together or will die trying…

As with most accounts of Nazi atrocities, this is such a hard story to read, just knowing that the awful things described within the pages actually happened to real people, and that these monsters slaughtered so many innocent people. I found myself in tears often as I read the graphic and horrific accounts of the gas chambers and the crematoriums, and the story also had me furious as I read about how the Nazis were so easily able to fool the Red Cross into thinking they were treating their prisoners well.

What makes the story such a beautiful one in spite of everything, is the love story of Mala and Edek and just the overall selfless way they lived their lives in the camp.  Although she was a prisoner, when it was learned that she was fluent in several languages, Mala was given a job as an interpreter and camp runner.  She uses her position of privilege to help better the lives of as many fellow prisoners as she can, finding them jobs that are suited to their skills, slipping them extra rations whenever possible, etc.  Edek, as a member of the Resistance, lives his life in much the same way.  When the two of them meet and fall in love, they become a symbol of hope to those around them.  A light in the dark.

I don’t want to spoil their story so I’m going to stop here so you can experience it for yourself.  I’ll just conclude by saying that The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz is a powerful but heartbreaking story of strength, courage, hope and love against all odds. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys WWII historical fiction. 4.5 STARS

 

Historical Fiction Reviews:  Wartime SettingsSunflower Sisters (Lilac Girls, #3) Goodreads

Author: Martha Hall Kelly

Publication Date: March 30, 2021

Publisher:  Ballantine Books

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

Sunflower Sisters is the third and final book in Martha Hall Kelly’s historical fiction series, The Lilac Girls.  For those unfamiliar with the series, the first two books introduce us first to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who does all she can to help young girls released from concentration camps during WWII, and then to Caroline’s mother, Eliza Woolsey, who, a generation earlier, helped displaced Russian families who made their way to America during the Russian Revolution and WWI.

The final book in the series, Sunflower Sisters, takes us back yet another generation to the Civil War to meet another Woolsey ancestor, Georgeanna (Georgy) Woolsey. Raised by an abolitionist mother, Georgy is determined to do her part to bring slavery to an end and so she trains to be an Army nurse.   From New York City to Washington D.C. to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Sunflower Sisters follows Georgy everywhere her passion for nursing takes her.

One of my favorite things about all three books in the series is the way Martha Hall Kelly crafts her stories so that the events unfold from the perspectives of three very different characters, gradually pulling the threads of their stories together until their lives intersect.  In Sunflower Sisters, we follow not only Georgy, but also a slave girl name Jemma who is sold off and then somehow ends up conscripted into the Union Army, and we follow a woman named Anne-May Wilson, a plantation owner in Maryland who also happens to be Jemma’s owner.

The story itself started off a little slow for me as each of these characters were introduced, but I quickly became invested in both Georgy and Jemma and just wanted to see Anne-May, as a cruel slave owner among other things, get what was coming to her.  I loved Georgy’s determination and tenacity, especially as she was constantly being told by men that women should not be helping on the battlefront. She never let their blatant sexism deter her.  As much as I loved getting to know Georgy, Jemma was the character who ultimately stole my heart.  Jemma’s strength and determination in the face of endless cruelty from Anne-May and her nasty overseer was incredible to witness and I was wishing with every fiber of my being for her to find a way to safely escape to freedom.  Where I loved Georgy and Jemma, Anne-May, on the other hand, was a character I loved to hate.  She is a desperate, evil, manipulative woman and I was wishing for her to fail just as hard as I was wishing for Georgy and Jemma to thrive.  The story became quite riveting as I was waiting for the lives of these three women to come together in what was shaping up to be an epic clash between slave, abolitionist, and slave owner.  I don’t want to give anything away, but the clash does not disappoint!

Sunflower Sisters was a bittersweet read for me, just because I’m sad this wonderful series is ending, but the Ferriday/Woolsey family is filled with extraordinary women and I’m grateful to this series for introducing me to them. 4 STARS

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
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

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.

Reviews: THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN

I’m going to start off by saying the reason you’re getting two Susan Meissner reviews today is that I loved her latest, The Nature of Fragile Things, so much that I immediately ran to my shelf to see what other books of hers I owned but hadn’t read yet and found A Bridge Across the Ocean.

Reviews: THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEANThe Nature of Fragile Things Goodreads

Author: Susan Meissner

Publication Date: February 2, 2021

Publisher:  Berkley Publishing Group

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

The Nature of Fragile Things is set primarily in San Francisco around the time of the Great Earthquake of 1906.  It follows a young Irish immigrant named Sophie Whalen who has come to America looking for a better life.  Instead of a better life, however, she has found herself living in a dirty, overcrowded slum in New York.   Desperately searching for something better, Sophie answers a newspaper ad posted by a widow who is looking for a woman to marry him and help care for his 5-year-old daughter and run his household.  The two of them come to an agreement and Sophie travels to San Francisco to get married and begin her new life.

Married life isn’t quite what she expects it to be, however.  Her husband, Martin, is aloof and secretive, takes minimal interest in Sophie or his daughter, and stays away, supposedly for his job, for days at a time.  When another woman shows up on their doorstep claiming ties to Martin, it becomes clear that Martin has been keeping secrets from Sophie.  While Sophie is in the midst of confronting Martin about his deception, their lives literally and figuratively crumble around them when a devastating earthquake strikes the city. Will they make it out alive?  If so, where do they go from here now that trust has been broken?

I absolutely fell in love with Sophie as I was reading this book.  She’s just such a complex and well-drawn character. She’s definitely not without flaws and has a few secrets of her own, but I really admired her determination to keep pushing for the kind of life she’s looking for.  I also adored the relationship she cultivates with Martin’s young daughter.  She truly became a mom for that little girl and it was just so touching to watch the two of them together.  Where I loved Sophie though, I totally loathed her husband.   At first I just thought he was a little odd, but the more I saw of him, the more I grew to think of him as a monster who has lied his way through life.

In addition to crafting these incredibly vivid characters who made me feel so much, both good and bad, Meissner also does a wonderful job making me feel like I really was in San Francisco and that I was actually there when the earthquake struck.  Her descriptions are so vivid and terrifying that my heart felt like it was in my throat the entire time I was reading those scenes.

If you enjoy historical fiction that tells a story of deception, betrayal, and heartbreak but also of sisterhood, found families, hope and second chances, The Nature of Fragile Things is a must-read for you. 5 STARS

 

Reviews: THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEANA Bridge Across the Ocean Goodreads

Author: Susan Meissner

Publication Date: March 14, 2017

Publisher:  Berkley Publishing Group

As anyone who has followed my blog for a while knows, I’m a huge fan of WWII historical fiction.  I’ve actually not read much about war brides though so I was intrigued to see that Susan Meissner’s novel, A Bridge Across the Ocean, focuses on them.

A Bridge Across the Ocean also features one of my favorite elements in historical fiction, a dual timeline, one in present day and the other in 1946 right after WWII.  The present timeline follows Brette Caslake, a young woman who can see and communicate with ghosts.  It can be overwhelming at times because the spirits tend to follow her around once they realize she can see and speak to them, but when Brette visits the RMS Queen Mary, a famous haunted ship that once transported war brides from England to the U.S., she meets a spirit with a tale she cannot ignore.  It sets her on a course to try and solve a 70-year old mystery surrounding a passenger who somehow fell overboard and drowned while the ship was crossing the Atlantic.  Brette knows if she can find out the truth about what happened, she can give this spirit the closure it so desperately desires.

The second timeline takes us back 70 years to follow the journey of two women who end up aboard the RMS Queen Mary on that fateful trip. Simone Deveraux is a young French woman whose father and brother, part of the French Resistance, were murdered by Nazis right in front of her. Desperate and alone, Simone runs for her life and ends up hiding in a basement for months waiting for France to be liberated. Annaliese Lange is a German ballerina who catches the eye of a Nazi officer and is soon married off to him, at her parents’ insistence because they thought it would keep her safe.  Unfortunately, that was not the case and Annaliese suffers greatly at the hands of this horrible man. After the war, Simone and Annaliese end up as roommates on the RMS Queen Mary headed to America for a fresh start.  When their ship docks in New York, however, only one of them disembarks and she is the only one who knows what happened to the other woman. Thus, the mystery that Brette is trying to solve.

I found the war brides’ timeline to be the more compelling of the two.  I was so invested in both Simone and Annaliese surviving the awful circumstances they found themselves in and was really rooting for them both to get that fresh start they so richly deserved.  Even though I wasn’t quite as invested in the present day timeline with the ghost, I still loved the way Meissner pulled all of the intricate threads of both timelines together as Brette followed the clues and found her way to the truth about what really happened on that ship.

A Bridge Across the Ocean is a captivating story of tragedy and heartbreak, love and loss, and of survival and resilience.  If you’re in the mood for a haunting mystery, you can’t go wrong with this book. 4 STARS

Reviews: August Book Releases That Should Be on Your Reading List

I’ve been quiet on the blog for a few days because I found myself lost in some pretty amazing reads.  If these three novels are anything to go by, August is going to be a fabulous month for new releases.  I’m also a big mood reader and my mood was all over the place this week so there’s a little something here for everyone – a heartwarming contemporary, a suspenseful mystery/thriller, and a compelling work of historical fiction.

Reviews:  August Book Releases That Should Be on Your Reading ListVanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop Goodreads

Author: Roselle Lim

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

Publisher:  Berkley

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

Roselle Lim’s new novel, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a heartwarming story about love, family, second chances, and most importantly, about finding one’s self.  Vanessa Yu, the protagonist, is a fortune teller but wishes she wasn’t.  For most of her life, Vanessa has been unable to control her “gift,” blurting out fortunes at random and driving away friends and potential boyfriends.  Because the gift has been nothing but a curse her entire life, Vanessa longs to just be rid of it so she can live a normal life.  That doesn’t appear to be an option so when her aunt Evelyn, the only other family member who can tell fortunes, offers to train her, Vanessa jumps at the chance, especially once she realizes it means she’ll be traveling with Evelyn to Paris where Evelyn is opening up a new branch of her popular tea shop.

One of my absolute favorite parts about this book were the author’s lush descriptions of the sights, sounds, and especially the FOOD of Paris.  My mouth was watering with each turn of the page as I read about decadent French pastries and the like.  Vanessa is also a very likeable character, so it was easy to root for her.  I felt so much sympathy for her as she began to fear she would live her entire life alone if she didn’t get control over her abilities. I can’t even imagine that kind of pressure.

The story isn’t just about Vanessa though.  There’s also a fabulous subplot involving Aunt Evelyn. She’s actually leaving the Yu family permanently and relocating to Paris. When it becomes clear to Vanessa that Evelyn’s trip to Paris isn’t a temporary one, she is dying to know why, and since Evelyn isn’t talking, she enlists the wonderful Yu Aunties, who are more than willing to go undercover and find out what Evelyn is up to. I adored the closeness of the Yu family overall and those Yu Aunties are a hilarious addition to what is already an entertaining story.

I don’t want to say much more but I will say that I think this is a story that romance fans are going to love.  Love is in the air for several characters as Vanessa discovers that while she may hate fortune telling, she thoroughly enjoys playing matchmaker and bringing lovers together.  If you’re in the mood for a charming and romantic story that will tug at your heartstrings and leave a smile on your face, be sure to pick up a copy of Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop.  4 STARS

 

Reviews:  August Book Releases That Should Be on Your Reading ListThe Night Swim Goodreads

Author: Megan Goldin

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

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

With her latest thriller, The Night Swim, Megan Goldin explores the connections between two criminal cases that took place in the same small town 25 years apart.  Rachel Krall, the protagonist of the novel, is a successful crime podcaster.  For the first two seasons of her podcast, “Guilty or Not Guilty, the Podcast that Puts You in the Jury Box”, Rachel looked back at cold cases with a fresh set of eyes.  Now that her show has become immensely popular, Rachel wants to up her game by going to court and sitting in on a live, ongoing trial to present and interpret the evidence to her listeners as it becomes available.  The trial she has chosen in set in a small town and the accused is the town’s golden boy, a talented swimmer who hopes to make the Olympic team someday.  He is accused of brutally raping a high school student who also happens to be the granddaughter of the sheriff.  Tensions are high and opinions are very divided as to whether or not the young man is guilty.

Things take an odd turn, however, when she starts receiving mysterious handwritten letters imploring her to take a look at an old case from 25 years ago.  The case was ruled a drowning because there were no witnesses aside from the victim’s nine-year-old sister who couldn’t really provide any information.  The incident received little press at the time, but the letter writer, who turns out to be the younger sister of the drowning victim, swears her sister’s death was not an accident.  Rachel is laser focused on the current case but the pleading tone of the letters get to her and so she starts to casually ask some of the townsfolk about what happened 25 years ago.  When it becomes clear that no one wants to talk to her about it, Rachel starts to dig deeper and soon discovers some disturbing connections between the old case and the new case.  Will Rachel discover the truth about both of the crimes and thus justice for the victims or will someone try to stop her from exposing long hidden secrets in this small town?

The Night Swim is a riveting mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. The podcast aspect of the novel was also very well done. As Rachel produces each episode, we then get to listen to it before returning to the courthouse to hear more.  I was completely invested in both mysteries and dying to learn the truth as the clues were slowly revealed.  Be forewarned that because this story does deal with rape, there are some violent and heartbreaking scenes as we get closer and closer to the truth.  I found myself near tears a couple of times as the truth came to light.

I enjoyed Megan Goldin’s last thriller, The Escape Room, but I have to say that with her latest effort, The Night Swim, she really knocks it out of the park.  4 STARS.

 

Reviews:  August Book Releases That Should Be on Your Reading ListThe Lions of Fifth Avenue Goodreads

Author: Fiona Davis

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

Publisher:  Dutton Books

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

I love historical fiction and I love New York City, so I’m always drawn to the novels of Fiona Davis because she sets each one in an iconic NYC location.  This time around, Davis has selected the beloved New York Public Library as her setting.

In 1913, Laura Lyons is living in the library with her two young children and her husband, who is the Superintendent of the library.  She aspires to be a journalist and enrolls at Columbia University’s Journalism School.  Her journalism classes take her to the doorstep of an all-women’s club called the Heterodoxy Club. While attending club meetings and listening to “radical” women discuss women’s issues like suffrage and birth control, Laura begins to question her own existence as little more than wife and mother.  There’s a whole world out there she wants to experience.  Her thoughts of taking an alternative path in life are cut short, however, when rare books start disappearing from the library and it’s thought to be an inside job, which places her husband squarely on the suspect list.

In 1993, we meet Sadie Donovan, who also works at the New York Public Library.  Everyone at the library knows Sadie loves her job and is passionate about books, so it’s a given that she’s the best choice to curate the library’s next big exhibit featuring rare books.  What everyone doesn’t know about Sadie is that she’s actually the granddaughter of Laura Lyons.  With her family’s muddled history regarding the library and missing books, Sadie figures the little said about that the better, especially when, to her shock and dismay, rare books she plans to use in her exhibit start to disappear from the library.  As only a small handful of people have keys to the rare books room, it’s considered an inside job and Sadie finds herself on the suspect list.  Sadie becomes determined to find out how the books are being stolen and who is responsible and also hopes deep down that she can somehow redeem the Lyon name and legacy with respect to the library.

What intrigued me the most about this story is that we learn early on in Sadie’s timeline that Laura Lyons, although now deceased, had become a famous feminist essayist at some point in her life. In addition to being eager to find out how the book thefts were being pulled off in each timeline, I was also even more eager to find out what had transpired in Laura’s life to transform her from wife and mother on the verge of tragedy to world renowned author.  I loved how the author wove these two timelines together to gradually reveal the answers to both questions.

It actually surprised me how emotional I found myself getting as I was reading this book. I actually gasped a few times when certain beloved rare books went missing and in one case, where a page was torn out of a beloved treasure.  If you are passionate about books, libraries, New York, and historical fiction, The Lions of Fifth Avenue is the perfect book for you.  4.5 STARS

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
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 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: 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
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

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
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 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