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
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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
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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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Review: My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Review: My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray & Laura KamoieMy Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton by Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 672
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.

A general’s daughter…

Coming of age on the perilous frontier of revolutionary New York, Elizabeth Schuyler champions the fight for independence. And when she meets Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s penniless but passionate aide-de-camp, she’s captivated by the young officer’s charisma and brilliance. They fall in love, despite Hamilton’s bastard birth and the uncertainties of war.

A founding father’s wife...

But the union they create—in their marriage and the new nation—is far from perfect. From glittering inaugural balls to bloody street riots, the Hamiltons are at the center of it all—including the political treachery of America’s first sex scandal, which forces Eliza to struggle through heartbreak and betrayal to find forgiveness.

The last surviving light of the Revolution…

When a duel destroys Eliza’s hard-won peace, the grieving widow fights her husband’s enemies to preserve Alexander’s legacy. But long-buried secrets threaten everything Eliza believes about her marriage and her own legacy. Questioning her tireless devotion to the man and country that have broken her heart, she’s left with one last battle—to understand the flawed man she married and the imperfect union he could never have created without her…

My Review:

At the end of the play Hamilton, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, a widow for 50 years after her husband’s famous duel with Aaron Burr, reflects on his life and hers with the song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”

The play mostly tells Alexander Hamilton’s story, the man’s story, as American Revolutionary Iconography so often does. 1776, while focusing on a different group of people and a different set of events, also tells its story from the point of view of the men, those “Founding Fathers”, forgetting almost entirely the “Founding Mothers” who stood beside them or waited for them to come back home, even though Abigail Adams explicitly asks her husband John to “Remember the Ladies.”

No one tells Eliza’s story. There is very little written about her, although this was an era of prolific letter writing, a fact that is borne out by the thousands of letters written by Hamilton himself. Few of Eliza’s letter remain, but it is documented that she was a tireless worker after his death, spending her life preserving his legacy, in spite of his betrayals of her if not of his country – even if few of those documents are in her own hand.

Through their pens, however, (word processors, now, of course) two historical fiction writers have attempted to tell the story of Eliza Hamilton as much as possible through her own eyes. And an utterly marvelous story it is.

Escape Rating A: I opened with a reference to the play Hamilton because that is what will bring many readers to this book. In the play, Eliza is very much of a secondary character. But as we see at the end, she had a lot to say, and her lifelong devotion to preserving Alexander Hamilton’s legacy is the reason that there is still so much known about him, and why his achievements endure.

But her story is interesting in its own right. She often was, as another song from the play goes, “In the Room Where It Happened” and she witnessed history as it was being made. As portrayed in this fictionalized biography of her, she was not merely a witness but an informed and opinionated one.

We normally want our fiction to go from small beginnings to big endings. Or from tragedy or ignominy to triumph. At any rate, in fiction we expect the story to go from down to up.

This one can’t. My Dear Hamilton is not merely historical fiction but rather fictionalized history, and we already know how this story ends. Or at least middles, because it middles in tragedy. It begins in triumph, or at least gets there fairly quickly, but Alexander Hamilton’s story is the story of Icarus – he rises too high, and then he doesn’t merely fall – he plummets to the ground in fire. His wife’s story could have ended with his, if not literally, then certainly her history as even the smallest mover and shaker on the world stage.

Part of what makes My Fair Hamilton such a compelling read is that we are following Eliza’s story, and her life does not merely continue, but continues to have its own triumphs and tragedies – and we want to see her rise to meet them.

So this story moves from triumph to tragedy to, if not triumph again, at least reconciliation and understanding. It’s a human journey, and an absolutely marvelous read.

One final note for those who have seen the play, or at least know how the story goes in that re-telling. In the play, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton is portrayed as a bit of a lightweight, and it feels as if her sister Angelica Schuyler was much more Alexander Hamilton’s equal. We are left wondering if perhaps Eliza wasn’t worthy of him.

In My Dear Hamilton, told from Eliza’s perspective, we are left wondering if, after all, Alexander wasn’t worthy of Eliza. He would have been the first to say that he was not. And perhaps he was right.

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Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet BeardThe Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II

“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.

My Review:

The Atomic City Girls straddles the line between pure historical fiction and a genre perhaps best described as “fictionalized history”. Historical fiction takes known historical events or periods and slides fictional characters into them. World War II is a popular time period, but far from the only one.

Fictionalized history, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to “history with conversation”, where all the characters are real historical figures and the author weaves a story either around parts of their lives and history that were less well illuminated but still fit within what is known, or adds gloss to private moments that were naturally not recorded – going into what they might have felt behind what it is known they did.

The Atomic City Girls sits rather uncomfortable on top of that dividing line, as straddles often do.

The author follows the story of three separate individuals at Oak Ridge Tennessee during its years as the secret manufacturing city for the Manhattan Project in World War II. While the individuals featured did not exist, they are intended as composites of many people who were part of Oak Ridge during those years.

One is a young local woman, barely 18, whose grandfather owned some of the land that was purchased by the U.S. to build Oak Ridge. June Walker comes to Oak Ridge as one of many young women who become factory workers, watching the dials on machines whose purpose she is not intended to know and which it  is not expected she would understand if she did know. And for anyone to tell her what those machines do is a violation of the extremely strict security that surrounds the place.

Sam Cantor, actually Dr. Sam Cantor, is one of the nuclear physicists who is responsible for the development of the process used to extract Uranium 235 from ordinary uranium. He knows exactly what Oak Ridge is all about, both in the scientific sense and in the sense of the war. Sam’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. They are Jews, and have lost touch with any family left behind, fearing, rightfully so, that anyone left in Germany has died in the concentration camps.

Sam is also fully aware of Oak Ridge’s scientific implications in another sense. While he wants to be sure that the U.S. wins the war, and that they develop a nuclear bomb before Hitler, once Germany surrenders he is increasing weighed down by the moral and ethical implications of dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian population – any civilian population – as many of the scientists were. The nuclear genie is one that once let out of its bottle, will have untold consequences for everyone, and they know it.

Last, is Joe Brewer, an African-American construction worker who is treated like a second-class citizen at every turn. But Joe is in his early-40s, and his treatment is the life that he has always known. He also knows it’s wrong, but he is certain that he can’t change it. And that he is earning the best money he has ever made in his life. All he wants is for things to get just better enough that his wife can get a job at Oak Ridge too, and that they can bring their family back together. Part of that second-class treatment means that while white workers are permitted to bring their wives and families to Oak Ridge, black workers are not until very late in the war.

So, although the title is The Atomic City Girls, the story is only partly about June and her part of the work. Instead, we watch as young June and disaffected and often drunk Sam drift into a relationship that at first improves life for both of them, but is, in the end, unsustainable.

Sam never recovers from his experiences at Oak Ridge, while June builds on her chance to escape her restricted upbringing for a better life outside of rural Tennessee and a stellar career as a teacher.

Joe, after the tragedy of seeing the younger black workers suffer for their attempts to create better working conditions for their people, survives and flourishes in Oak Ridge as the post-war years go by. His dreams are for his children, and they come true.

Escape Rating B: Each of the stories was individually interesting, but there were just too many of them. The author is attempting to show life and work in Oak Ridge through the eyes of characters of very different perspectives, but the action switches between them too often and we don’t get to invest as much in any of the stories as we would have if she had followed one (or two in the case of June and Sam) exclusively.

I enjoyed reading the individual stories, but they just didn’t gel into a whole, at least not for me. Joe’s story may be the most fascinating, and it feels like the least known, but it’s also the one we follow the least. The primary focus is on June and Sam, and Joe only intersects with them tangentially, which is not surprising in this context. (Whether or not things should have been different, the historical fact is that they were not).

One of the contrasts that was pivotal was between June and her roommate Cici. In the end, both June and Cici were able to use their experiences in Oak Ridge to leave behind the life they would otherwise have had. Both were from rural Tennessee, from similar tiny towns with similarly proscribed lives to look dubiously forward to. But Cici came to Oak Ridge pretending to be an upper class Nashville belle. She lived a lie, and used that lie to snag a rich husband. In the end, she had the life she dreamed of but was not happy. June, on the other hand, never pretended to be anything she wasn’t, so she was able to build on her experience in a positive way.

Because the story ended up focusing on June’s fateful relationship with Sam, we really don’t get the slice-of-Oak-Ridge life that I was initially expecting. In the end, while I ended up interested enough in each of the individuals to want to know more about their story, The Atomic City Girls didn’t build up to quite what I was hoping for.

For a completely non-fictional but quite readable take on this same period, check out The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.

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Review: Sunday Silence by Nicci French

Review: Sunday Silence by Nicci FrenchSunday Silence (Frieda Klein, #7) by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Frieda Klein #7
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It started with
Monday
. But it doesn't end with
Sunday
.

Read
Sunday Silence
, the new novel in the series that LOUISE PENNY calls "fabulous, unsettling, and riveting" and brace yourself for the breathtaking series finale in summer 2018.

Lover of London, gifted psychologist, frequent police consultant Frieda Klein is many things. And now she's a person of interest in a murder case. A body has been discovered in the most unlikely and horrifying of places: beneath the floorboards of Frieda's house.

The corpse is only months old, but the chief suspect appears to have died more than seven years ago. Except as Frieda knows all too well, he's alive and well and living in secret. And it seems he's inspired a copycat...

As the days pass and the body count rises, Frieda finds herself caught in a fatal tug-of-war between two killers: one who won't let her go, and another who can't let her live. 

Crackling with suspense, packed with emotion, Sunday Silence is a psychological thriller perfect for fans of Elizabeth George and Paula Hawkins.

My Review:

I’ve been doing a lot of comfort reading recently, but Sunday Silence is not a comfortable book. It’s very definitely a good book, but the Frieda Klein series has never made for comfortable reading. Compelling, absorbing, taut, and frequently chilling, but never comfortable.

The story in Sunday Silence picks up where Dark Saturday left off. Frieda has just discovered a dead body under the floorboards of her house. The late Bruce Sterling was left under her floorboards as a message from the dead-but-not-dead serial killer Dean Reeve. Frieda had sent Sterling to investigate Reeve’s current whereabouts, because Frieda is the only person who has never believed that Reeve was dead.

Sterling’s corpse was clearly a message to Frieda to not send anyone else after him, lest they share the same fate. It was also a rather pointed message to the police, that Frieda had been right all along, and that they had been rather spectacularly wrong.

The newly resurrected investigation into Dean Reeve will cause heads to roll at Scotland Yard, but Frieda is much too preoccupied to say “I told you so”. Because someone is targeting her friends and family-of-choice, and it isn’t Dean Reeve. Not that he’s not capable of the violence, but that these particular instances are not his style.

And he sends Frieda a rather pointed message to that effect. It seems that both Dean Reeve and Frieda Klein now share a sick admirer. Or someone is copying Dean’s methods to get Frieda’s attention. Or someone is circling around Frieda to get Dean’s attention. Or both.

But the police are baffled as one after another of the people in Frieda’s close orbit suffer. Her niece is kidnapped and drugged. Two of her friends are severely beaten. One of her psychotherapy patients is murdered. One friend’s child is kidnapped. And another friend is missing.

Once Dean Reeve is conclusively eliminated, or as conclusively as he can be for such a shadowy figure, both the police and Frieda are left wondering who done it? And more importantly why?
As the attacks escalate, Frieda and her friends draw together for protection and support, Frieda holds herself just a bit apart, as she usually does, trying to figure out which person on the fringes of her life has become a killer, hiding in plain sight.

Even if they are clever enough to fool the police, no one is smart enough to fool Frieda for very long once she zeroes in on the perpetrator. Whether she can either convince the police, or prove her suspicions, is a race to the finish. And very nearly Frieda’s.

Escape Rating A-: The Frieda Klein series are mysteries of the psychological thriller school, or at least that’s how they feel. There’s not a lot of derring-do, instead the story consists of ratcheting terror, dogged but often wrong-headed investigation by the police, and leaps of intuition from Frieda, a psychotherapist who has been forced to turn amateur detective by the circumstances that have taken over her life.

Dean Reeve has been both pursuing Frieda and watching over her for a number of years. She’s always known that he faked his own death, but has been unable to prove it to the satisfaction of the police. Reeve has become a perverse bodyguard in that he doesn’t let anyone threaten Frieda except himself. A fact that his copycat manages to forget.

As long a shadow as Reeve has cast over Frieda’s life, this particular entry in the series is not about him, except very, very indirectly. The threat here is from the copycat, and it is as severe a threat as Reeve has ever mounted, but much more impulsive and much less organized.

The killer does an excellent job of hiding in plain sight for a very long time, keeping Frieda baffled, the police confused, and the reader totally in the dark for more than half of the story. Once his identity is revealed, the tug-of-war between the killer and Frieda becomes the focus of the rest of the book.

While it is edge-of-the-seat tense from beginning to end, an element of the chill was lost with the reveal of the copycat. He’s much more impressive when we are only able to see his actions and their consequences and not hear his internal gloating about his own cleverness. Especially as once we know who it is, we are also able to see that he has been more lucky than clever.
And still extremely dangerous.

Frieda is a difficult character to get a handle on. Her entire career revolves around being the dispassionate observer, and her nature doesn’t change even when the disaster she is observing is that of her own life. She cares, and she’s scared, but she still feels a bit distant.

The emotional investment in the story comes from the people who surround her. It’s them that we feel for, because we see so much more of their emotions than we do hers. As a result, I’m not sure how a reader would be coming into the series at this point. While the suspenseful element would still be present, without having read at least some of the previous books, the emotional connection to the characters would feel as distant as Frieda’s, and I think it would lose something.

This series is not quite over. It looks like the final volume, and Frieda’s final confrontation with Dean Reeve, is coming later this year in what I expect is the entirely appropriately titled The Day of the Dead. And I can’t wait to read it – with the lights on.

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Review: The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

Review: The Paris Secret by Karen SwanThe Paris Secret by Karen Swan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, historical fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Somewhere along the cobbled streets of Paris, an apartment lies thick with dust and secrets: full of priceless artworks hidden away for decades.

High-flying Fine Art Agent Flora from London, more comfortable with the tension of a million-pound auction than a cosy candlelit dinner for two, is called in to asses these suddenly discovered treasures. As an expert in her field, she must trace the history of each painting and just who has concealed them for so long.

Thrown in amongst the glamorous Vermeil family as they move between Paris and Antibes, Flora begins to discover that things aren't all that they seem, while back at home her own family is recoiling from a seismic shock. The terse and brooding Xavier Vermeil seems intent on forcing Flora out of his family's affairs - but just what is he hiding?

My Review:

This is not the first book to fictionalize the history of the very real Parisian Time Capsule apartment, or even the first book using this apartment that I have read. That would be Paris Time Capsule by Ella Carey – and the fictionalization of its history hews a bit closer to the actual history than does The Paris Secret.

But in spite of the similarity of their origins, the stories are completely different. And also a bit the same, but not so much the same that The Paris Secret does not stand on its own – because it does.

The real Paris Time Capsule apartment

In this version, the “lost” apartment belongs to the wealthy and philanthropic Vermeil family, and they are as surprised as anyone else when their lawyer informs them that someone has broken into this apartment that they never knew they owned. It’s even more surprising that the apartment turns out to be a virtual treasure-trove of modernist art, including paintings and sketches by Renoir, Picasso and others. These art treasures have not seen the light of day since the apartment was closed up during the dark days of the Nazis occupation of Paris during WW2.

Our heroine, Flora Sykes, is the art history expert who is tasked with cataloging the vast collection and researching its provenance for the Vermeil family. But her involvement with the family gets off to a rocky start, and stays rocky throughout the book. Sometimes because of the family, but mostly because of what Flora discovers about them.

Their present is gossip-worthy enough on its own. The two adult children of the family, Xavier and Natascha. They are at the top of every gossip site – their exploits and tantrums are legendary. And something about Flora seems to rub both of them absolutely the wrong way, to the point where they both act out every time they are around her.

But it’s the past of the family that Flora uncovers, and that is where history comes in. In order to sell the treasure trove, or even to donate it to museums, Flora must determine its provenance, in other words just how all those paintings came to be in that apartment in the first place.

That search takes her back to the war, and unearths a terrible secret that everyone wishes had never come to light. But once it does, there is no going back. Only forwards. Because the whole truth has been buried under layer after layer of lies and deceits, and it is past time for everything to finally be revealed.

Not in black or white, but in terrible shades of gray.

Escape Rating B: It was fascinating to read a book that used the exact same premise as something I’d already read, and see where this author used the inspiration in an entirely different way.

Paris Time Capsule focused more on uncovering the history. The Paris Secret revolves around the art. History gets uncovered, but it uses the art as a focus in a way that made the two stories very different.

The Paris Secret also illuminates one of the murkier (and often nastier) facets of the Nazi occupation of Paris. The ownership of the paintings traces back to an art dealer who was reviled for his cooperation with the Nazis. He was instrumental in the forcing of many Jewish families to sell their precious collections at gunpoint for bargain-basement prices in the families’ belief that they were buying freedom for themselves – when all they received was betrayal while the dealer made a fortune.

The betrayal was even more heinous because the dealer himself was a Jew. If he hadn’t died in 1942, after the war he would certainly have been tried as a collaborateur and ultimately convicted.

But of course this is not the whole story, and the revelation of all the truths involved adds depth to the contemporary parts of the book. Not that there are not plenty of revelations there as well.

Because the more that Flora interacts with the family, the more she sees beneath the surface. The tragic events in Natascha’s own past have bearing both on her present and on the current real-life revelations of the sexual misconduct of prominent figures in the entertainment world today. That resonance is more profound than might even have been intended at the time this book was first published over a year ago in Britain.

Layered on top of the history and the present-day traumas there is a romance between Flora and the Vermeil’s adult son and all-around bad boy, Xavier Vermeil. For this reader, the romance fell just a bit flat, as did Flora’s own family drama. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

There is at least one other book that revolves around the discovery of the real-life apartment, appropriately titled A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. And it looks worth checking out too. The story of the lost apartment is just so fascinating that more interpretations seem irresistible!

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Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny ColganChristmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, women's fiction
Series: Little Beach Street Bakery #3
Pages: 320
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times-bestselling author Jenny Colgan dishes up another delightful holiday story about the residents in an idyllic Cornish village who must join forces to save Christmas.

In the Cornish coastal village of Mount Polbearne, the Christmas season has arrived. It’s a joyous time for family, friends, and feasting as decorations sparkle along the town’s winding streets and shop windows feature buoyant, festive displays. And in Polly’s Little Beach Street bakery, the aromas of gingerbread cookies and other treats tempt people in from the cold.

Though Polly is busy keeping up with the demands of the season, she still makes time for her beekeeper boyfriend, Huckle. She’s especially happy to be celebrating the holiday this year with him, and can’t wait to cuddle up in front of the fireplace with a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve.

But holiday bliss soon gives way to panic when a storm cuts the village off from the mainland. Now it will take all of the villagers to work together in order to ensure everyone has a Merry Christmas.

My Review:

I got so wrapped up in this one that I shivered right along with the heroine. It’s COLD on the coast of Cornwall at Christmas!

This is a story about friendship and families and relationships and finding your bliss and not letting the baggage of the past drag you down.

It’s also about a miracle at Christmas. Not that one. But the tiny little miracle that saves both a family and a friendship, even if it’s not exactly deserved. But miracles so seldom are.

Polly and Kerenza are best friends, and have been since they bonded like glue as scholarship students at a posh private school. But their friendship is severely tested when Kerenza confesses to Polly that the baby in her eight months’ pregnant belly might not be her husband’s.

Polly is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas, So she does what she usually does – she buries herself in her work as the owner of the Little Beach Street Bakery, and tries to push it all away.

She’s pushing a lot.

Part of the problem is that Kerenza’s husband Reuben and Polly’s fiance Huckle are also best friends. Kerenza fears that if Polly tells Huckle her big secret, then Huckle will feel duty-bound to reveal all to Reuben, ending their marriage in a gigantic mess.

Polly and Kerenza were scholarship students way back when because they were both raised by single mothers who did not do well financially – or in Polly’s case, emotionally. Kerenza’s dad is dead, but Polly’s sperm donor is just a missing piece in her life. A missing piece she can’t fill in, because he’s a subject her mother refuses to talk about. And neither Kerenza nor Polly is willing to risk putting Kerenza’s baby into the same life that they both only managed to get through because they had each other. Not if there’s any way on Earth to avoid it – at any cost.

But Polly fears, and rightly so, that keeping a huge secret from Huckle will damage their seemingly perfect relationship. A relationship that is only perfect because they both avoid the subjects that neither of them wants to deal with. Most particularly Polly’s complete unwillingness to talk about their future. They love each other, they believe they are each other’s soul mates – but whenever Huck raises the subject of taking their engagement to its next logical step, Polly freezes, and freezes him out.

It’s more than cold enough in Mount Polbearne without that.

As guilty as Kerenza feels, this is one of those times when confession is not the answer. There’s a very strong possibility that the baby is her husband’s. There’s also a strong possibility that she was so drunk that when she thinks she fell on some random guy’s dick that nothing actually happened. She was too drunk to remember. All Kerenza can do it wait and see.

But Polly is the one who is really stuck. When her sperm donor’s wife contacts her to tell her that her biological father is dying and wants to see her, it’s up to Polly to decide what she needs to do. Not just whether to see him or not, but whether to finally pry open her mother’s memory box of “things we do not discuss”. And then to decide how the revelations of the secrets of her own life will affect her and her future.

So it’s Kerenza’s crisis, but it’s Polly’s journey. With her pet puffin Neil riding along with her, every step of the way. And it’s lovely. (Especially Neil!)

Escape Rating B+: The first quarter of the book I remember thinking that it was interesting and cute but not all that compelling. The mess of Kerenza’s life, and the complete narcissistic selfishness of her husband Reuben did not thrill me as a reader. It did rather seem as if her mess was very much self-inflicted.

But I settled in to read after dinner, and just got hooked. I came up for air after an hour and realized not just how much time had passed, but also just how much story I had absorbed. Once the focus shifted fully into Polly essentially in not-dealing-with-multiple-crises mode, I got sucked in and couldn’t tear myself away until the last page.

One of the interesting themes that plays out over the course of the story is about the damage that secrets can do to a relationship. Kerenza spends much of the story punishing herself for her unremembered indiscretion, holding the secret so tightly (and so necessarily) that she becomes a shadow of herself. And yet, she knows that it is vital for her baby’s future that she keep the secret no matter what.

But requiring Polly to also keep the secret damages her relationship with Huckle, almost irrevocably, even though it is not her secret and, as she tries to convince Huckle, not her secret to tell, either. And that it’s really none of their business. Or at least not enough of their business to risk the consequences to Kerenza and to the baby.

The more damaging secrets are the secrets that Polly’s mother Doreen has kept from her about her biological father and their relationship. Because it seems obvious that whatever happened back then, it has kept Doreen from living her own life and helping Polly to both grow her own wings and fly free. That Polly managed anyway, at least to some extent, is a testament to her own strength. But those buried secrets still hold her back and weigh her down, and she needs to know the truth in order to live her dreams. She can’t let her life be ruled by her fears – especially by proxy. Watching her set herself free is one of the highlights of the story.

That Polly has been adopted by a puffin, or more specifically that Neil has Polly wrapped around his bright little beak, is utterly adorable. And adds a marvelous touch of whimsy at just the right moments. I haven’t read the rest of the Little Beach Street Bakery series, and now I want to, if only to find out how Neil and Polly adopted each other. It must be adorable.

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