Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Review: The Gown by Jennifer RobsonThe Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

My Review:

Wedding dress of Elizabeth II. Photo taken on her wedding day, 20 November 1947

This is not about Elizabeth. Instead, it is a story of friendship, and family. And it is a story about the making of what is now a historical artifact, but was, once upon a time not so very long ago, a dress in which countless young women invested their hopes and dreams.

That one of those young women became the Queen of England is not the point of this story. Instead, this story is about two of the women, representing so many more, who worked tirelessly to make not just Elizabeth’s dreams but their own come true.

Even if theirs, at least, turn out to be rather different from what they expected.

There is a 21st century framing story wrapped around this gown, but the purpose of the frame is to take the reader back into the lives of two women in 1947, Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, one English and one French, who have both been scarred by the war – one more than the other.

And who were equally marked by the dark and dismal years after, but again, one more than the other.

Ann and Miriam meet in the embroidery room of the designer Norman Hartnell, whose signature was his use of embroidery in the gowns he designed for the upper crust of English society, particularly the royal family.

So we are there with Ann and Miriam as they work together on one of the studio’s great creations, and as they survive the intense furor that surrounds its secrecy. An intensity that costs them both so much.

As the story begins, we are at the end. Ann has died, and left her granddaughter Heather a mysterious legacy – a box of intricate embroidery samples – but no clues. Ann was extremely reticent about her life before she moved to Canada in 1948, and her family knows nothing about who she was, where she came from or why she emigrated. And that’s the way she wanted it.

But the mystery intrigues Heather. When she discovers that the beautiful samples in the box match the designs on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown, she is determined to discover whether her grandmother was one of the women who worked on it – and why she kept it a secret.

Heather’s search leads her back to the past – and into her own future.

Escape Rating A: It’s not the framing story that really grabs the reader – it’s what’s within that frame. Heather’s search is interesting for what it reveals, not for itself. But what it reveals is an incredible story with light and color, depth and heartbreak.

Miriam and Ann come from entirely different backgrounds. Ann is as English as the Tudor roses that she embroiders on the gown. Miriam, on the other hand, is a transplant. A refugee from Paris, a young woman who spent the Occupation hiding in plain sight from the Nazis until she was finally caught as a member of the Resistance. She was fortunate that the Nazis never discovered that she was also a Jew. Unlike the rest of her family, Miriam survived the war. But could not make herself remain in France and found herself in the studio of Norman Hartnell, working beside Ann.

As they work side by side on the gown, and eventually become friends, roommates and sisters-of-the-heart, the paths of their lives meet and eventually switch. Ann is forced to leave behind the work she loves and go to Canada. She never takes up the needle again – or at least not the embroidery needle. Miriam, after so much tragedy in her early life, finds happiness and eventually fame.

But the two never forget each other, even though they never meet again. That Ann sends Heather to Miriam brings the story beautifully full circle.

This is a story that is all about the feels. The desperation of the post-war austerity years, the fast friendship between two women who are otherwise alone in the world, the joy of doing fulfilling work and the pain of hard decisions.

And it’s as beautiful as the gown it celebrates.

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Review: A Dangerous Duet by Karen Odden

Review: A Dangerous Duet by Karen OddenA Dangerous Duet by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 6, 2018
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This dazzling new Victorian mystery from USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden introduces readers to Nell Hallam, a determined young pianist who stumbles upon the operations of a notorious—and deadly—crime ring while illicitly working as the piano player in a Soho music hall. Perfect for readers of Tasha Alexander, Anne Perry, and Deanna Raybourn.

Nineteen-year-old Nell Hallam lives in a modest corner of Mayfair with her brother Matthew, an inspector at Scotland Yard. An exceptionally talented pianist, she aspires to attend the Royal Academy; but with tuition beyond their means, Nell sets out to earn the money herself—by playing piano in a popular Soho music hall. And the fact that she will have to disguise herself as a man and slip out at night to do it doesn’t deter her.

Spending evenings at the Octavian is like entering an alternate world, one of lively energy, fascinating performers, raucous patrons—and dark secrets. And when Nell stumbles upon the operations of an infamous crime ring working in the shadows of the music hall, she is drawn into a conspiracy that stretches the length of London. To further complicate matters, she has begun to fall for the hall owner's charismatic son, Jack, who has secrets of his own.

The more Nell becomes a part of the Octavian’s world, the more she risks the relationships with the people she loves. And when another performer is left for dead in an alley as a warning, she realizes her future could be in jeopardy in more ways than one.

My Review:

There are plenty of comparisons to life being like an onion – including the bit about weeping through the process.

One of the characters in this story is a bit more specific. His comment is that people’s stories are like onions, that you have to peel them back layer by layer to get the whole thing. And that’s truer of his story than most as it turns out.

But the life that is really being peeled back in this story is Nell Hallam’s. We first meet her as a young woman in Victorian London who has done something just a bit daring and just a tad dangerous in order to achieve her life-long ambition.

Nell is a gifted pianist, and she wants to win a place at the Royal Academy. But even if she wins, such places are not free. And her much reduced family – just herself and her older brother, a Scotland Yard detective, can’t afford the tuition.

So Nell is earning the money using the talent she has been given. She’s the piano player in a Soho “theater” that we would probably label as a dive. And that might be an insult to dives.

But in Victorian London, “nice” women aren’t permitted in such places, and certainly aren’t allowed to work as musicians. Or work much at all, but particularly in Nell’s circumstance.

That’s where that danger and daring come in, because Nell Hallam is sneaking out at night in men’s clothes and playing piano in Soho as Ed Nell three nights a week while her brother works late at Scotland Yard.

When a new fiddle player turns up at the Octavian, Nell finds herself becoming more and more involved in the life of the club – a life that she has previously held at arm’s reach.

But this isn’t that kind of story. That fiddle player does open her eyes to the deadly world operating in the shadows around her – but she is too canny to let him drag her into either his schemes or his arms.

Which doesn’t stop danger from reaching out for her at every turn.

Escape Rating B: This is a plot driven story rather than a character driven story. By that I mean that we follow Nell as she dives under the surface of the Octavian, and with each twist and turn we can’t help but feel for her as her world opens up and the danger closes in.

At the same time, we don’t get much of a peek into the other characters. Part of Nell’s past has trained her to keep her emotions at a distance, and it feels like we don’t know enough about the other characters in this story to do more than understand them at a bit of distance as well.

But the world that Nell falls into, or perhaps digs herself into, is as compelling to the reader as it is to her. Once she has a glimpse beneath the surface at the Octavian, she uncovers a criminal underground that uses young children to pour wealth into the hands of a select and deadly few.

A few that includes the owner of the Octavian, his son, and that dastardly fiddle player.

It’s also the same criminal underground that her brother is investigating for Scotland Yard. When her two worlds combine – her secrets explode, remaking her life, her world and her very self

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Review: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor

Review: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel GaynorThe Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 383
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 9, 2018
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From The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home comes a historical novel inspired by true events, and the extraordinary female lighthouse keepers of the past two hundred years.

They call me a heroine, but I am not deserving of such accolades. I am just an ordinary young woman who did her duty.”

1838: Northumberland, England. Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands has been Grace Darling’s home for all of her twenty-two years. When she and her father rescue shipwreck survivors in a furious storm, Grace becomes celebrated throughout England, the subject of poems, ballads, and plays. But far more precious than her unsought fame is the friendship that develops between Grace and a visiting artist. Just as George Emmerson captures Grace with his brushes, she in turn captures his heart.

1938: Newport, Rhode Island. Nineteen-years-old and pregnant, Matilda Emmerson has been sent away from Ireland in disgrace. She is to stay with Harriet, a reclusive relative and assistant lighthouse keeper, until her baby is born. A discarded, half-finished portrait opens a window into Matilda’s family history. As a deadly hurricane approaches, two women, living a century apart, will be linked forever by their instinctive acts of courage and love.

My Review:

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter might have been more appropriately titled if the apostrophe had been in a different place. Because this isn’t the story of one lighthouse keeper’s daughter, but instead about two lighthouse keepers’ daughters, living in lighthouses both a century and an ocean apart.

As the story opens, we aren’t sure what links our two heroines – although we certainly do find out.

In 1838 on the coast of Northumberland, Grace Darling is the daughter of the keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse on Farne Island. As a woman, she can’t officially be the assistant lighthouse keeper, or have a hope of inheriting the duties of the lighthouse keeper from her father, but she loves the lighthouse and the work every bit as much as her father and her brothers do.

In the midst of a terrible, Grace, that night’s lookout, sees survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a “so near but yet so far” rock. The storm will sweep those pitiful survivors away if Grace and her father can’t get to them. But the storm is more than capable of sweeping Grace, her father and their tiny boat away if they try.

That trying turns Grace into a heroine, rowing the boat with her father and holding it against the storm as he helped the few survivors into the boat. Her heroism made a her national heroine, and brought her unwanted attention for the rest of her life.

In 1938, Mathilda Emmerson has been sent from her home in Ireland to Newport, Rhode Island, to the care of her cousin Harriet Flaherty, herself the lighthouse keeper in Newport. Mathilda is in disgrace, having fallen pregnant after a night of indiscretion. Her mother intends for her to have the child in America, leave it behind, and return to her life as the dutiful daughter of a politician.

In Mathilda’s possession is Grace Darling’s book of procedures of lighthouse keeping, and her locket. The items have been passed down in her family from mother to daughter for the past century.

Through the eyes of Grace in the 19th century and Mathilda in the 20th, we learn how Grace’s book made its way from Northumberland to Ireland to America, and finally about the ties that bind these two women from such different times and places.

And that those ties are much closer than Mathilda ever thought.

Escape Rating B: For this reader, this was ultimately a sad book, and is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at points. But it felt to me as if the sadness wins out. I think how a reader will feel about this will depend on which of the two women one ends up identifying with. I found Grace’s story to be ultimately tragic. I identified with her strong desire to find and keep a sense of purpose, but I wanted better for her than she had.

Her doomed romance felt like a bit of a misunderstandammit to me. They did love each other, they would have been happy together, but neither of them could break out of the restrictions of their time to actually say anything.

Grace Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy

As fiction, it felt disappointing. Discovering afterwards that Grace’s part of the book is based on a true story, and that the real Grace Darling never married and died young as she does in the book, makes her part of the story make more sense.

I still wish she’d had a happier ending, or was a bit less of the tragic romantic heroine.

Matilda’s story is the one that is supposed to stick with the reader, and its ending is ultimately hopeful, albeit bittersweet. She does come into her own as the lighthouse keeper, but not until after some rather melodramatic family business that was foreshadowed more than a little bit. And, in keeping with the tone of the book, she has to suffer her own tragedy before she triumphs.

For a story that is for the most part rather quiet – giant storms notwithstanding – the story is very readable and pulls the reader along, or rather back and forth across time and the ocean, from one protagonist to another.

Discovering that Grace Darling was a real historical figure was quite a surprise after finishing the book. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. While her life isn’t stranger than fiction, it certainly made for an interesting story.

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Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera LewisWhen the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 240
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Marjorie Herrera Lewis’s debut historical novel the inspiring true story of high school teacher Tylene Wilson—a woman who surprises everyone as she breaks with tradition to become the first high school football coach in Texas—comes to life.

"A wonderfully touching and beautiful story…Tylene makes me laugh, cry, and cheer for her in ways I have not done in a long time.”—Diane Les Bocquets, bestselling author of Breaking Wild  

It's a man's game, until now...Football is the heartbeat of Brownwood, Texas. Every Friday night for as long as assistant principal Tylene Wilson can remember, the entire town has gathered in the stands, cheering their boys on. Each September brings with it the hope of a good season and a sense of unity and optimism.

Now, the war has changed everything.  Most of the Brownwood men over 18 and under 45 are off fighting, and in a small town the possibilities are limited. Could this mean a season without football? But no one counted on Tylene, who learned the game at her daddy’s knee. She knows more about it than most men, so she does the unthinkable, convincing the school to let her take on the job of coach.

Faced with extreme opposition—by the press, the community, rival coaches, and referees and even the players themselves—Tylene remains resolute. And when her boys rally around her, she leads the team—and the town—to a Friday night and a subsequent season they will never forget.           

Based on a true story, When the Men Were Gone is a powerful and vibrant novel of perseverance and personal courage.

My Review:

This is an absolute awesome story – and it is all the better for being based on a true one. It also has a surprising amount of resonance. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tylene Wilson was a real person. She really did coach men’s football in Brownwood Texas during World War II, as the title says, when all the men were gone. One of the differences between the fictional Tylene and the factual Tylene was that the real Tylene coached college football, not high school.

But, as has so often happened, the real Tylene’s achievements, like so many women’s achievements, has been lost to history – and that’s in the spite of the fact that WW2 is still in living memory – albeit for a decreasing number of people. The author of this book was inspired by the case of a real, 21st century woman who is following in Tylene’s fading footsteps, coaching men’s college football.

Without nearly enough historical documentation, the author was forced to fictionalize Tylene’s achievement – and the struggles that she went through to achieve it. The fictionalized version of her story is compelling AND has plenty of resonance with today.

Tylene knows football. And she knows it really, really well. Her dad taught her, both how to play and how to analyze plays. Not because he had a not-to-secret yearning for a son, but because Tylene had rickets as a child. The cure for rickets is Vitamin D, most easily found in good old sunshine.

Girls didn’t play a lot outside, even in small-town Texas, in the early 20th century. But boys certainly did. So Dad learning football and baseball and any other sport or activity that would make his little girl eager to get out into the sunshine – and get well and stay well. It worked.

And it gave Tylene a lifelong love of the sport.

World War II was a period when all the young men went to war – and all the young women went into the factories. I have my parents’ high school annuals from that period, and the teachers all had, as the saying went at the time, “one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel”. There were no young teachers. It is easy to imagine that in a small town like Brownwood, there were no young men, period, who were not either medically ineligible (and therefore would have been medically ineligible to have played football) or had served and been invalided out.

There do seem to be plenty of older men. But just because someone can “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the best of them doesn’t mean that they have any of the actual knowledge required to coach a real team, even a high school team. The lack of real knowledge may stop them from volunteering to coach or being qualified to do so. Of course it does not stop them from complaining that a woman can’t possibly know enough to coach – even if she does.

Her situation feels real – only because it was. What adds to the poignancy is that this story takes place in the fall of 1944. She wouldn’t have known it the time, but her desire to keep the high school football program going for one more year would save the lives of those boys who would have enlisted instead of hanging around tiny Brownwood. She just wanted to give them one more year of adolescence before they went to war. She probably saved their lives.

But the forces arrayed against her, while couched in the even more overt misogyny of the mid-century, sound all too similar to the voices that every 21st century woman has heard in her life about why women are unsuited to this, that, or the other thing because whatever it is is supposed to be the province of men.

All those men sound shrill and frightened and very, very real. And they haven’t changed a bit in all the years since.

Escape Rating A-: This was an incredible book – and a very fast read. This is also one of those times when I wish there had been just a bit more of the story. While it does end on a paradoxically high note, I wanted more. At least an epilog where we get to find out how the season went and witness the announcement of the end of the war and the impact on the school, students and town. (Yes, I know it’s fiction. I still wanted more closure.)

Which does not mean that I did not enjoy the book, because I certainly did. And the ending, while it felt a bit premature, was definitely at a high point. Not because her team won the game, but because she won the team – and, it seemed, the town.

But it’s the chorus of naysayers that stick with me, because it all sounded so damn familiar.

Tylene faced endless amounts of sexual harassment – from every side – all the time. The opposing coach for her team’s season opening game was ready to forfeit. He was convinced that it would be less embarrassing for his team to forfeit the game and take a loss than it would have been to play the game and win in a rout. He never considered that it would be a fair and close game, win or lose. He couldn’t believe that a woman could possibly coach that well, or that a team would support a woman coach that well.

While her husband was supportive, he was also very, very shaken. There were points when the negativity and the pressure were so intense that he also wanted her to give in and give up. His best friend and the mainstay of his business refused to do business with him after Tylene became the coach. The school board held a special meeting to remove her from the job – and no one in town told her about the meeting in advance.

And any woman who does not hear the echoes of those scared, shrill male voices rising against Tylene shouting in today’s news hasn’t been paying attention. That kept me riveted to the book from beginning to end – and haunts me still.

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Review: The Secrets We Carried by Mary McNear

Review: The Secrets We Carried by Mary McNearThe Secrets We Carried (Butternut Lake, #6) by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary fiction, women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #6
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Readers who love Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery will adore New York Times bestselling author Mary McNear newest novel. A young woman travels home to Butternut Lake, confronting her past and the tragedy she and her friends have silently carried with them for over a decade while also facing an unknown future.

Butternut Lake is an idyllic place—but for one woman, her return to the lake town she once called home is bittersweet…

Sometimes life changes in an instant. 

Quinn LaPointe grew up on beautiful Butternut Lake, safe, secure, sure of her future. But after a high school tragedy, she left for college and never looked back. Becoming a successful writer in Chicago, she worked to keep out the dark memories of an accident that upended her life. But now, after ten years, she’s finally returned home.

Butternut is the same, and yet everything is changed. Gabriel Shipp, once her very best friend, doesn’t want anything to do with her. The charming guy she remembers is now brooding and withdrawn. Tanner Lightman, the seductive brother of her late boyfriend, wants her to stick around. Annika Bergstrom, an old classmate who once hated Quinn, is now friendly. Everyone, it seems, has a secret.

Determined to come to terms with the tragedy and rebuild old relationships, Quinn settles into Loon Bay Cabins, a rustic but cozy lakeside resort, where she begins writing down her memories of the year before the accident. Her journey though the past leads her to some surprising discoveries about the present. As secrets are revealed and a new love emerges, Quinn finds that understanding the past is the key to the future. 

My Review:

In my reviews of previous books in the Butternut Lake series I have said that Butternut Lake should be renamed “Second Chance Lake” because those stories have featured a second chance at love for the hero, the heroine, or both.

The Secrets We Carried does not follow the pattern of the previous books, and there’s nothing to keep a reader from starting here and deciding if you like the place and want to go back. I definitely like the place. A lot.

But this story is still about second chances. In the end, there’s even a second chance at love – but that is not the kind of second chance that is the centerpiece of this particular story.

This one is about a second chance at life. And it’s about finally forgiving yourself so that you have a chance at grabbing that second chance.

Because that’s what Quinn LaPointe needs to do. And that’s why she’s come back to Butternut Lake, the place she grew up, ten years after the tragic accident that overtook her senior year in high school. A tragic accident that she has never fully dealt with – or completely healed from. An accident that she feels at least partially responsible for.

But she’s not the only person carrying that particular secret. And she’s not the only person who has not been able to move her life past that terrible fixed point in time.

In her life post-Butternut Lake, she has kept moving forward, but she hasn’t moved on. An anonymous invitation to the dedication of a memorial to the accident, and the three young men who needlessly, recklessly, stupidly died in it, gives her the chance to take herself back to the place she once called home.

And gives her the opportunity that she needs. A chance to finally remember, an opportunity to hopefully understand, and above all, both the proximity and the distance that she needs to finally forgive herself.

Quinn needs to let go of her past, so that she can finally claim her future.

Escape Rating A: I wasn’t in the mood for a romance, and that turned out to be an excellent thing. In spite of the way that the blurb reads, and contrary to the previous books in this series, The Secrets We Carried is not a romance.

Instead, this book is more of a character study, crossed with more than a bit of “women’s fiction”. In other words, if a man had written this story, it would just be labeled “fiction”.

I digress – but mostly because I just finished this book and I’m still reeling a bit. This was absolutely marvelous – especially because it wasn’t what I expected. It went a whole lot deeper than that.

Quinn’s high school career ended in tragedy. Her boyfriend and his two best friends drowned in Butternut Lake under the stupidest of circumstances. Jake Lightman was drunk and so were his buddies. Jake drove his truck out onto the frozen surface of Butternut Lake one night in the late spring and just sat there, in the truck, until the ice gave way and the three young men drowned.

Quinn blames herself. She broke up with Jake that night because she caught him lying to her, and not for the first time. She believes that he drank so heavily because of their breakup, and that he was out in the middle of the lake because she told him that’s where she lost the promise ring he gave her.

So Quinn comes to Butternut Lake for the dedication of the memorial to his death, and the deaths of his friends.

But Quinn isn’t the only person who has spent the past ten years heaping blame on herself for the events of that long ago night. Or rather, a night that should be long ago but seems to be ever-present as Quinn decides to stay in Butternut Lake and finally process the events of that night by writing all of her memories.

As part of her “memory writing” she touches base with not just the events but also the people who were part of that time, and who, it turns out, also have not been able to let things go. The deeper Quinn digs, the more she discovers that there is plenty of guilt to go around.

And like so many burdens, once that guilt is shared, once all of the people who touched and were touched by those events lays out the part that they each feel they played that night, they reach, tentatively and together, for a truth that was hidden by the secrets they all carried. A burden shared is a burden halved. A burden shared by as many people as have a share in this one lightens their load, and their lives, to the point where they can put the past behind them. Forgive themselves but never forget.

This is a beautiful story where the only way forward is through. Everyone holds back and everyone hides pieces of themselves that have come to hurt to much to be revealed. Quinn’s need to get it all out there, at least in her own mind, conflicts deeply and realistically with her desire to bury it all as deeply as possible.

The ending, when Quinn finally reaches it, goes all the way back to the beginning. And it sets her free.

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Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen Brooks

Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen BrooksThe Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From acclaimed author Karen Brooks comes this intriguing novel rich in historical detail and drama as it tells the unforgettable story of Queen Elizabeth's daring, ruthless spymaster and his female protégée.

In Queen Elizabeth's England, where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London's most ingenious locksmith. She has apprenticed with her father since childhood, and there is no lock too elaborate for her to crack. After scandal destroys her reputation, Mallory has returned to her father's home and lives almost as a recluse, ignoring the whispers and gossip of their neighbors. But Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster and a frequent client of Mallory's father, draws her into his world of danger and deception. For the locksmith's daughter is not only good at cracking locks, she also has a talent for codes, spycraft, and intrigue. With Mallory by Sir Francis’s side, no scheme in England or abroad is safe from discovery.

But Mallory's loyalty wavers when she witnesses the brutal and bloody public execution of three Jesuit priests and realizes the human cost of her espionage. And later, when she discovers the identity of a Catholic spy and a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom, she is forced to choose between her country and her heart.

Once Sir Francis's greatest asset, Mallory is fast becoming his worst threat—and there is only one way the Queen’s master spy deals with his enemies…

 

My Review:

If you like utterly absorbing, densely plotted historical fiction, then The Locksmith’s Daughter is going to open a key into your reading heart.

This story is set at a time of intense political and religious ferment. It’s also a time we think we know, the Elizabethan period of English history. In fact, a particular piece of that period, the 1580s, the time when religious persecution of Catholics was at its height, right alongside, and considerably as a result of, Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth and bestow the crown on some supposedly worthier Catholic monarch. (I’m not making a religious comment here, but I am doubtful that any ruler of any religious stripe could have done a better job for their country in that particular place and time than Elizabeth did for England.)

That decade includes the execution of Elizabeth’s most prominent Catholic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the debacle of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Well, it was certainly a debacle from the Spanish perspective. The English perspective, the one we tend to adopt here in the U.S., was that it was a resounding success for England.

History is always written by the victors.

But Elizabeth’s reign in general, and this period in particular, was also a period of political and social upheaval. And whenever there are societal changes, there are plenty of people on both sides of every issue working as hard as they can to ensure that their side is the one that comes out on top.

In other words, politics. Lots and lots of politics. And wherever there are politics, there are plenty of people manipulating events behind the scenes, both by fair means and foul.

Espionage may not be the oldest profession, but it is certainly one of the oldest. One of its foremost practitioners was either a hero or villain of this period. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster.

Our peek into the skullduggery and machinations at the heart of Elizabeth’s reign is Mallory Bright, the titular locksmith’s daughter. This story of underhanded dealings at the centers of power – or on its shadowy fringes, is told from Mallory’s first person perspective.

For her time and place, Mallory is singular. She’s not merely the daughter of a respected locksmith, but also his unofficial apprentice, better at picking locks than even the master himself. She is also an educated woman at a time when that was not the norm. And as the story opens, she has returned to her parents’ household after her own disgraceful actions ruined her reputation and her prospects.

Mallory needs a future. Her father’s surprising friendship with Walsingham provides her with a means to make her own. With her education in languages and mathematics as well as her skill in lock-picking, Mallory is the perfect candidate to learn the art of spycraft.

At first, it is a game at which she excels. She enjoys the learning of it, and she relishes the challenge. But when the ciphers and secrets turn deadly, she discovers that her challenges come at too high a price. A price that is initially paid by others, but could all too easily be wrenched from her own heart, soul and body.

Escape Rating A: The Locksmith’s Daughter is a LOT of book. An absolutely absorbing lot, but definitely one to tackle when you either have plenty of time on your hands or are willing to forego a certain amount of sleep. Or both.

That being said, Mallory’s first-person perspective sucks the reader right in. Even though we initially know little about her circumstances, we see it all through her eyes and hear her thoughts and feel right there with her. There are two things that make Mallory an excellent first-person narrator. She’s intelligent, so she’s very thoughtful about everything that passes through her head. And she’s lonely. She has very few people to talk to, and no one to confide in. She both keeps her thoughts to herself and works them over in her own mind on a regular basis. Some first-person narrators are either not introspective or are so censorious of their own self-talk that even the view from inside their heads is limiting. Mallory is not that way. She thinks, she ponders, she considers – and we get to see it all.

It’s not just that Mallory is an easy character to empathize with, but also that what she experiences is absolutely fascinating. There are lots of stories where a big part of the story is the training of the character from apprenticeship to master. This is one where that process is done well. It’s doubly interesting to see her master the tradecraft of espionage in a way that shows just how little has changed from the 16th century to the 21st, as well as how much.

If you want to be transported back in time to Elizabethan England, The Locksmith’s Daughter is a fabulous time machine.

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Review: Day of the Dead by Nicci French

Review: Day of the Dead by Nicci FrenchDay of the Dead (Frieda Klein #8) by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Frieda Klein #8
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Now the final book in this extraordinary series is here. And it's an ending you'll never forget.

A decade ago, psychologist Frieda Klein was sucked into the orbit of Dean Reeve -- a killer able to impersonate almost anyone, a man who can disappear without a trace, a psychopath obsessed with Frieda herself.

In the years since, Frieda has worked with -- and sometimes against -- the London police in solving their most baffling cases. But now she's in hiding, driven to isolation by Reeve. When a series of murders announces his return, Frieda must emerge from the shadows to confront her nemesis. And it's a showdown she might not survive.

This gripping cat-and-mouse thriller pits one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction against an enemy like none other. Smart, sophisticated, and spellbinding, it's a novel to leave you breathless.

My Review:

This is definitely going to be one of those mixed feelings kind of reviews, because I certainly have a whole river’s worth of mixed feelings about this book and the end of the Frieda Klein series.

When this series began back in Blue Monday, we met Frieda Klein as a psychotherapist who sometimes worked with the police, and seems to have sometimes worked against them over the course of her career. But in the background of all her cases has lurked Dean Reeve, a serial killer who has been fixated on Frieda for nearly a decade.

At times, Reeve has acted to smooth Frieda’s way, murdering people who were opposing her. At other times, he has killed people who he perceived as being too close to her, in the belief that those people were getting in the way of her focus on him, or his focus on her. Sometimes he has murdered people as surrogates for her, or simply to remind her that he is still around.

He also murdered his twin brother, to confuse the police and make them believe he was dead, and that Frieda’s seeming obsession with him with delusional.

But at the end of the previous book in the series, Sunday Silence, Frieda finally decides that she has had enough of Reeve’s obsession with her, and the constant danger he poses to any person even tangentially in her orbit.

She disappears, in the hope of taking Reeve’s focus away from her friends and colleagues. But when she is found by a young and extremely naive criminal psychology student, she discovers that Reeve has been trying to get her attention all along.

And that when he can’t find her, he’ll happily find other people to kill to keep himself amused – just so that he can get her attention.

Once he has it, their long history moves to the endgame. And just as in the chess games that Frieda loves to play, only one side can win.

Escape Rating B: While Frieda Klein has been a fascinating character throughout the entire series, she’s also kind of a Sherlock Holmes. Not in the sense that she’s an eccentric genius, although that may not be far off the mark, but in the sense that she seems to be operating on instinct and intuition. Left to her own devices, she doesn’t expose much of her inner thoughts or emotions.

As readers, we need to see what she’s thinking. In the previous books in the series, she has been surrounded by a circle of friends and colleagues, and it is in her discussions with them, or sometimes her probing by them, that we are able to peek inside her head.

In this book she has deliberately taken herself away from her circle, in the hopes of keeping all of them safe. But in order for us to understand and empathize with her, she still needs a ‘Watson’, someone to explain things to so that we can hear. And that’s where this story gave me all of those mixed feelings.

The character who becomes the audience surrogate is young Lola Hayes, that naive criminal psychology student. Lola is a pawn throughout the story. At first, she is a pawn of her thesis advisor and one of her other professors, who set her on a collision course with Frieda Klein in the hopes of scoring points against someone they see as a kind of academic rival.

Neither of them cares what happens to Lola, or seems to give a damn about the tragic body count that has always followed in Frieda’s wake – and whether they’ve just thrown Lola’s body onto that pile.

Lola herself frequently comes off as TSTL (too stupid to live). She’s lazy, she wants everyone else to do her work for her, she’s thoughtless and she’s clueless. She takes the easy way out every time, and as a consequence she gets used at every turn. But most of all she’s just plain annoying.

Lola is there to be used, and she is used by everyone in the story, including, by the end, Frieda. She’s a frustrating inclusion in a series that usually features smart, or at least interesting, characters.

A big part of this story is that of Frieda tying up all the loose ends. She circles back through everything that has happened in the series and every case that Dean Reeve has touched on. While I think there is enough explained that readers don’t need to have read the entire series to be invested in this volume, there’s certainly more resonance if you’ve read at least some of the previous entries, particularly the first, Blue Monday, and the most recent, Sunday Silence.

The cat and mouse game between Dean Reeve and Frieda Klein does come to a satisfying, albeit surprisingly low-key, conclusion. In all of their previous encounters, Reeve has always seen himself as the predatory cat, while he has cast Frieda as his mouse-prey.

Reeve forgets that just as every dog has his day, every once in a while, the mouse roars.

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Review: The Secret of the Irish Castle by Santa Montefiore

Review: The Secret of the Irish Castle by Santa MontefioreThe Secret of the Irish Castle (Deverill Chronicles #3) by Santa Montefiore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Deverill Chronicles #3
Pages: 496
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on August 14, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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International bestselling author Santa Montefiore continues the story of the Deverill family in the third book in her beautiful and moving Deverill Chronicles trilogy—perfect for fans of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams

1939: Peace has flourished since the Great War ended, but much has changed for the Deverill family as now a new generation is waiting in the wings to make their mark.

When Martha Wallace leaves her home in America to search for her birth mother in Dublin, she never imagines that she will completely lose her heart to the impossibly charming JP Deverill. But more surprises are in store for her after she discovers that her mother comes from the same place as JP, sealing her fate.

Bridie Doyle, now Countess di Marcantonio and mistress of Castle Deverill, is determined to make the castle she used to work in her home. But just as she begins to feel things are finally going her way, her flamboyant husband Cesare has other ideas. As his eye strays away from his wife, those close to the couple wonder if he really is who he says he is.

Kitty Deverill has come to accept her life with her husband Robert, and their two children. But then Jack O’Leary, the love of her life, returns to Ballinakelly. And this time his heart belongs elsewhere.

As long-held secrets come to light, the Deverills will have to heal old wounds and come to terms with the past if they hope to ensure their legacy for the future.

My Review:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” I’ve always thought this was Shakespeare, but it was actually Sir Walter Scott.

At the beginning of this saga, all the way back in The Girl in the Castle, we were introduced to three young girls peeking through the banister at Deverill Castle, looking over the glittering social whirl of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in the years just before the beginning of its end in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Those young girls were Kitty Deverill, her cousin Celia Deverill, and Bridie Doyle, the daughter of the castle’s cook. In spite of differences in class and religion, at the very beginning those little girls were fast friends. But time and betrayal separated them, and they went their very separate ways.

In this final book in the series, the girls have come full circle, and in some ways so has their world. The story began in the bloodshed of the Easter Rising, and the impact of World War I was felt by families on every side. The Secret of the Irish Castle opens as the curtain is rising on World War II, and even though the Irish Republic remained neutral during the war, its impact was still felt.

But this is a story about family betrayals, family deceptions and ultimately about forgiveness.

Over the years the three girls have separated, both physically and emotionally. But just before the war Bridie returned to their home in Balinakelly, with enough wealth to buy the castle from the now impoverished Deverills. Celia ran off to South Africa to resurrect her father’s diamond mine along with the family fortunes, while Kitty stayed in Balinakelly.

The secret that has bound Kitty and Bridie in opposition has grown up to haunt all of them. Kitty’s father seduced Bridie, then rejected her when she became pregnant. Bridie gave her baby up for adoption, but things did not go according to plan. Bridie had twins, but was told that the girl twin was stillborn. Instead she was sold to a family in America. The boy was supposed to be adopted, but her brother stole the baby from the convent and brought the infant back to Balinakelly, where Kitty raised him and her father eventually acknowledged him.

The fate of those two children, and the secrets that surround their birth and adoptions, all come screaming out of the woodwork when they grow up, with consequences that affect the lives of everyone around them. The scabs and scars that have been crusted over for decades are laid bare, but the truth does set many free – even as it dooms others.

In the end, the central theme of this story is all about forgiveness. Not about forgetting the past, but about acknowledge the wrongs done and learning to let go of the hate and resentment that they engendered. It’s a hard lesson for all, but learning it finally sets the secrets of that Irish castle free.

Along with all of its ghosts.

Escape Rating B+: I’ve been looking forward to this one for almost a year, since I finished The Daughters of Ireland and just knew that there had to be more to the story. I was not disappointed.

At the same time, this is a densely packed saga, and it rewards readers who begin at the beginning. I loved it, but I don’t think this final book can possibly stand on its own. In fact, it took me a while to get into this one, because I spent a good bit of time wracking my brain to remember everything that happened in the first two books, The Girl in the Castle and The Daughters of Ireland. If you don’t know what happened before, I don’t think you’ll care about what happens now. Read from the beginning. This series will make a marvelous binge read. And probably a good beach read. It feels like that kind of book.

Even though I had to cudgel my brain to recall who belonged to whom, and more importantly who betrayed whom, this was a great wrap to an excellent series. What I loved is the way that all of the loose ends got tied up, even the one with the castle ghosts, and that it didn’t feel rushed or overly predictable.

Instead, the conclusions felt right and proper. While this isn’t epic fantasy, and therefore not about an epic battle of good and evil, it still felt like the characters who deserved happy endings finally got theirs, while those who had more red on their ledgers got what was coming to them.

If you love dense, meaty family sagas, with lots of ups and downs, twists and turns, betrayals and redemption, start with The Girl in the Castle and enjoy!

Reviewer’s Note: Although this review is being posted rather early for the US edition, this book was published as The Last Secret of the Deverills on July 13, 2017 in the UK. If you can’t bear the wait another minute you can order the paperback from Amazon UK or the Book Depository.

Review: Boardwalk Summer by Meredith Jaeger

Review: Boardwalk Summer by Meredith JaegerBoardwalk Summer by Meredith Jaeger
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this new novel from the author of The Dressmaker’s Dowry, two young women two generations apart discover the joy and heartbreak of following their dreams. Aspiring Hollywood actress Violet makes a shocking choice in 1940, and seventy years later, Mari sets out to discover what happened on that long ago summer.

Santa Cruz, Summer 1940: When auburn-haired Violet Harcourt is crowned Miss California on the boardwalk of her hometown, she knows she is one step closer to her cherished dream: a Hollywood screen test. But Violet’s victory comes with a price—discord in her seemingly perfect marriage—and she grapples with how much more she is willing to pay.

Summer 2007: Single mother Marisol Cruz lives with her parents in the charming beach cottage that belonged to her grandfather, Ricardo, once a famed performer on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Drawn to the town’s local history and the quaint gazebo where her grandparents danced beneath the stars, Mari sells raffle tickets at the Beach Boardwalk Centennial Celebration, and meets Jason, a California transplant from Chicago.

When Mari discovers the obituary of Violet Harcourt, a beauty queen who died too young, she and Jason are sent on a journey together that will uncover her grandfather’s lifelong secret—his connection to Violet—a story of tragedy and courage that will forever transform them.

My Review:

At times, Boardwalk Summer is as wild and rollicking a ride as the old wooden roller coaster that stands proudly on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

And at other times, it is the quietly beautiful story of two women who are connected across the years by their relationships with two extremely different men – but not in the way that the reader at first thinks.

And it’s about apples that both do and don’t fall far from one very twisted tree.

In 1940 Violet Harcourt is a 20-year-old woman married to an abusive husband. Her dreams may be dying but are not quite dead. In 2007, Marisol Cruz is a 25-year-old single mother who had to put her own dreams to sleep when she discovered she was pregnant after a drunken one-night stand.

Violet’s story seems like a tragedy. It is impossible not to feel for her plight, while at the same time her situation makes for hard reading. Her husband is an abuser, and she’s finally figured out that he’s only going to get worse. So she escapes, only to discover that her dreams of Hollywood glory are even more out of reach than her dreams of a happy marriage.

When her husband finds her and takes her back to Santa Cruz, we know that she’s done for – and so does she.

Marisol, on the other hand, is doing the best she can in a situation that she fully recognizes is of her own making. She had dreams of graduate school, only to bury those dreams completely when her celebratory one-night stand after her college graduation resulted in pregnancy. Little Lily is the light of Mari’s life. With the help of her parents, they are getting by. But as much as she loves her daughter, she misses the life of the mind she’d planned on having.

A new guy in town helps her see that her dreams don’t have to wait forever. While they tentatively explore a relationship, Mari jumps with both feet into the process to secure a small local history grant and hopefully save a local landmark from the wrecking ball.

Her quest to thwart the developers and uncover the mystery behind Violet Harcourt’s death uncovers a whole host of family secrets – and puts Mari squarely in opposition to the father of her little girl.

But the more she digs, the less she discovers that she truly knows. And that what everybody believes ain’t necessarily so.

Escape Rating A-: At first, I had a difficult time with this story. Violet’s marriage is so obviously a tragedy, and one that we’ve seen all too often in both fiction and real life. Her husband is an abuser who has systematically stripped her of her dreams and her friends. He wants her dependent and broken, and she’s on the way there – until she breaks out. It’s hard to read her story as her situation goes from bad to worse to desperately worse. The twist at the end is a surprise, a redemption and a delight.

Mari’s story is a lot more straightforward, and it’s fortunate that we follow Mari’s story more than Violet. The sperm donor of Mari’s baby is a douchecanoe, but he’s not, thank dog, actually her douchecanoe. They never had a relationship and Mari doesn’t want one. Her only real regret at the whole mess is that he refused to have any relationship with Lily.

Mari and Lily, with the help of her parents, are doing just fine. But Mari is ready to do more than just get by when Jacob comes to Santa Cruz and enters her life.

The heart of the story turns out to be Mari’s quest to save the historic but neglected gazebo at the end of the Boardward from the developer’s wrecking ball. That gazebo has history, and it’s Mari’s history. Not just that her beloved grandfather and grandmother were married under the gazebo, but that it was a center of cultural life and entertainment for the Latinx citizens of Santa Cruz back in the day when Mari’s people were not welcome at many venues in the community controlled by the wealthy white families.

Families like that of Violet Harcourt’s violent husband. And Mari’s little girl’s sperm donor. That Trevor Harcourt is behind the developers planning to tear down the gazebo and build expensive condos to block the waterfront is no surprise. That apple did not fall far from his grandfather’s twisted tree.

But it’s Mari’s research into the history of the gazebo and the way that her family’s own history is intertwined with it that brings the story full circle, solves the old mystery and gives the story its heart and soul.

And finally earns her that happy ending – and not just her own.

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Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne BuistTwo Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion, Anne Buist
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, travel
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Rosie Project comes a story of taking chances and learning to love again as two people, one mourning her husband and the other recovering from divorce, cross paths on the centuries-old Camino pilgrimage from France to Spain.

“The Chemin will change you. It changes everyone…”

The Chemin, also known as the Camino de Santiago, is a centuries-old pilgrim route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Every year, thousands of walkers—some devout, many not—follow the route that wends through quaint small villages and along busy highways alike, a journey unlike any other.

Zoe, an artist from California who’s still reeling from her husband’s sudden death, has impulsively decided to walk the Camino, hoping to find solace and direction. Martin, an engineer from England, is road-testing a cart of his own design…and recovering from a messy divorce. They begin in the same French town, each uncertain of what the future holds. Zoe has anticipated the physical difficulties of her trek, but she is less prepared for other challenges, as strangers and circumstances force her to confront not just recent loss, but long-held beliefs. For Martin, the pilgrimage is a test of his skills and endurance but also, as he and Zoe grow closer, of his willingness to trust others—and himself—again.

Smart and funny, insightful and romantic, Two Steps Forward reveals that the most important journeys we make aren’t measured in miles, but in the strength, wisdom, and love found along the way. Fans of The Rosie Project will recognize Graeme Simsion’s uniquely quirky and charming writing style.

 

My Review:

Two Steps Forward, which begins as kind of the ultimate road trip journey of self-discovery and ends with a romance between two mature adults is absolutely charming from its beginning in Cluny, France to its ending in Santiago, Spain. It will remind readers of Eat, Pray, Love, but with a bit less self-indulgence.

And so are all of the places, and most of the people, that Zoe and Martin meet along the way, whether they are travelling separately, together, or a bit of both.

Their separate roads to that self-discovery, as well as their journey along the pilgrim’s path variously known as the Carmino de Santiago, the Chemin, or simply the Way, is definitely a story of two steps forward and one step back – and sometimes the other way around.

Both Zoe and Martin are at very loose ends in their mid-lives. It would be a cliche to say that either of them is having a mid-life crisis, and that’s not really the case. They are both in crises that have been thrust upon them. The story of Two Steps Forward is about coming to terms with those crises, the effects on their lives and hearts, and figuring out how to move forward.

They say that the Chemin changes everyone. That, at least, is Zoe’s purpose for taking her first ill-prepared steps along the Way. She is in her mid-40s, and has unexpectedly been widowed. Her daughters are adults, and don’t seem to need her much anymore. And after two marriages, one ending in divorce and one ending in death, she’s not quite sure who she is anymore. Only that the identities that she has crafted for herself – or compromised herself into – no longer fit.

So she walks.

Martin, on the other hand, is flat broke after a messy divorce, and an ill-considered dare. His ex had an affair with his boss, so he’s also out of a job. As he puts it, he’s 52 and skint. And British.

He’s not traveling the Chemin to find himself. Instead, he’s an engineer testing a prototype for a rolling cart that hikers could possibly use to travel the Chemin without either carrying a backpack, the traditional mode, or hiring the service that portages one’s bag(s) from one stop to another. Of course, the purists consider that to be cheating.

But just because he isn’t looking to find himself or resolve any of the many, many issues he’s running, well, walking, away from, doesn’t mean that those issues don’t follow him along the road. And it equally does not mean that he does not, after all, learn the lessons that the Chemin needs to teach him.

Along the way, they keep running into each other. And occasionally from each other. And it is absolutely charming, every step of the way.

Escape Rating B+: Your feet will hurt after reading this book, or at least mine did. In sympathy with their incredible journey. It’s a 2,000 kilometer walk, in other words, over 1,200 miles. On foot. Walking.

The description of the route, the places they stop or pass, and just the effects of the sheer volume of time, distance and effort, are lyrical, and they feel real, as they should. The authors of Two Steps Forward have themselves walked the Chemin, including the particular route taken by Martin in this book, and have traveled other trails along this pilgrim’s path in the years since.

The blisters in particular sound downright painful.

But as fascinating as the sheer volume of the mechanics of the journey are, what makes this story so charming are the characters of Zoe, Martin and everyone they meet along the way.

The story is told from alternating points of view, with one chapter seen from Martin’s perspective, and the other from Zoe’s. While we do read what they think and feel about each other, it’s more important that we also get to look at what brought them on this journey, what they discover about themselves along the way – and just what baggage they leave behind.

That they also find each other gives the story its happy ending, but this is one where the journey, and its fellow travelers, are infinitely more fascinating, may I even say moving, than the destination.

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