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
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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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Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbLast Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor has joined with Heather Webb to create this unforgettably romantic novel of the Great War.

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Review:

Last Christmas in Paris is a bittersweet tale of World War I. Much of that bittersweet flavor is in the title. It’s not so much last Christmas in Paris, as in we spent last Christmas in Paris, although the protagonists certainly did, as it is, this is our last and final Christmas in Paris, because we shall not pass this way again.

The heart of the story is correspondence. Most of the story is told through letters, and occasionally telegrams, between Tom Harding and Evie Elliott, with occasional letters between Evie and her best friend Alice, Evie and her brother Will, and Tom and his father, and eventually between Tom and his father’s business manager.

What we see through their four years of letters is that life changes people, and that life in war changes people all that much more.

At the beginning, in those glorious and naive first months of World War I, Tom and Will volunteer to go off to war. Everyone thinks it will be over by Christmas. Christmas of 1914, not Christmas of 1918 as it nearly turned out to be.

Evie, Will’s younger sister, is stuck at home in the gilded cage that was wrapped around all young women of the upper classes prior to the war. She wants to volunteer, to do something for the war effort, and she is old enough to do so. But her parents won’t LET her, and at the beginning, that means everything.

So she stays home, badly knits gloves and socks, and begins her correspondence with her brother and with Tom, who has been a friend to them since childhood.

Will is an indifferent correspondent at best, but Tom certainly is not. Evie has plans of becoming a writer, and Tom had begun studying English literature at Oxford, with plans of becoming an Oxford don. His father wants him to buckle down and take over the family newspaper, the London Daily News.

But all hopes and dreams and plans are set cock-eyed by the war as it drags on, and on, and on. And eventually drags Will Elliott into its maw, spitting out his bullet-riddled corpse.

Tom and Evie go on. Their letters become each other’s lights in very dark places, as they pour out their minds, hearts and souls to each other over the months and the miles. They tell each other everything, except that somewhere amid the ink and the paper, they have fallen in love with each other – if not long before.

But as peace finally begins to fill the horizon, all the decisions that have been delayed by the war must finally be reckoned with. And all the secrets that have been hidden come to light.

Escape Rating A: Last Christmas in Paris is a beautiful story from beginning to end. It is also ultimately a sad story, but appropriately so.

Epistolary novels such as this one are difficult to write. There is no omniscient third person who sees all and has the ability to tell all. Even if they don’t always do so. In a novel that consists nearly entirely of letters, we see events as they happen, but only what the writer chooses to tell the intended recipient. If they don’t put their thoughts on paper, we don’t know what they are – unless they put them on paper to someone else.

So we know how Evie feels, not because she tells Tom, but because she tells her best friend Alice. And we can only guess about Tom’s feelings, because he is so very careful not to tell Evie what is in his heart. But what he does tell her is heartbreaking, because Tom tells Evie as much as the censors will allow about the true state of his war. And it’s hell.

So much hell that he is eventually hospitalized for what was termed “shell shock”. Amazingly, he recovers, as much as anyone could, and returns to the front. We now know “shell shock” as PTSD, but that in his time it was considered a “weakness of moral fiber” is enough to make the reader weep.

We also see what many considered the breakdown of the social order from Evie’s perspective. At the beginning, her life is completely restricted by her parents. But as the war goes on, Evie escapes from those restrictions, first by volunteering as a postal worker, then by writing a controversial newspaper column on women’s perspectives of the war, and finally by volunteering for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and going to France herself to serve as a telephone operator and secret war correspondent.

Between Tom at the Front and Evie on the Home Front, we see the horrors of war in all their destruction. And it’s brutal in one way or another no matter where they are.

But as I said in the beginning, this story is bittersweet. Not from the contents of the correspondence itself, but from the perspective of when the letters are being re-read. Bracketing each year of correspondence, we have a framing story. It is 1968, 50 years after the end of the war. Tom Harding has set himself the final task of re-reading the correspondence, and returning to Paris for Christmas, one last time. He is dying of cancer, and Evie is already gone.

We find out what happened to Evie as the letters progress. The reader experiences some of those letters with a certain amount of bated breath, as it is more than possible that they didn’t manage to have their happy ever after before it ended. There are so many points along the way where things nearly go smash, and we don’t discover until nearly the end what really happened.

The story is beautiful and quite absorbing. It’s a great book to read if you don’t think you have lots of time at a time, as one can read just a few letters and feel like one has absorbed so much. But I would sit down to read just a few letters and find myself coming up for air at the end of an entire year’s worth of correspondence. I could never resist reading “just one more”.

As much as I loved this book, I kept having the niggling feeling that I had read some of it before. It certainly reminds me Fall of Poppies, last year’s wonderful collection of World War I romances, two of which were written by the co-authors of Last Christmas in Paris. It also reminds me of bits of Jennifer Robson’s lovely World War I stories, as well as a bit of the side plot of one of the later Maisie Dobbs books.

If you love World War I stories, miss Downton Abbey, or just want to read something to commemorate the upcoming 99th anniversary of the end of the war, celebrated as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and as Veterans Day in the United States, Last Christmas in Paris is a gem of a book.

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Review: Dark Saturday by Nicci French

Review: Dark Saturday by Nicci FrenchDark Saturday (Frieda Klein, #6) by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: thriller
Series: Frieda Klein #6
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Thirteen years ago eighteen year old Hannah Docherty was arrested for the brutal murder of her family. It was an open and shut case and Hannah's been incarcerated in a secure hospital ever since.
When psychotherapist Frieda Klein is asked to meet Hannah and give her assessment of her she reluctantly agrees. What she finds horrifies her. Hannah has become a tragic figure, old before her time. And Frieda is haunted by the thought that Hannah might be as much of a victim as her family; that something wasn't right all those years ago.
And as Hannah's case takes hold of her, Frieda soon begins to realise that she's up against someone who'll go to any lengths to protect themselves . . .

My Review:

Dark Saturday is a chilling and compelling psychological thriller. So chilling, in fact, that I don’t recommend staying up until the wee small hours to finish it in the dark. So compelling, that I know the above fact because I got so caught up in it that I stayed up until after 2 am to finish it – then couldn’t fall asleep for another hour. You have been warned!

This is a story about the miscarriage of justice, and the lengths that people will go to in order to make sure that justice stays miscarried. It is also, and just as many of the chills come from this direction, a story about the excesses that a person can be carried to in the throes of obsession.

Dark Saturday is really two stories. One is the story of Hannah Docherty, and that story is complete within Dark Saturday. The other story, which in its way is even more chilling than Hannah’s, centers around Frieda Klein herself.

Hannah’s story is brutal. Thirteen years ago, Hannah, then not yet 20, was convicted of killing her mother, father and little brother, leaving the kind of blood-soaked murder scene that still fuels the nightmares of the cops who saw it, even after all these years. Hannah was sentenced to a brutal psychiatric hospital, where both the staff and her fellow patients, utterly certain of her guilt, punish her every single day.

But the lead detective on Hannah’s case is now under a cloud of suspicion. It has been discovered that he certainly cut corners on some of his cases, and now all of his cases are under that cloud. They might all be righteous, but once a cop bends the law, everything he’s done comes into question.

That’s where Frieda comes in. She’s a psychotherapist, and Hannah Docherty is now certifiably insane, whatever she was all those years ago. Frieda is asked to look into the case, to make sure that if there were any irregularities, Hannah isn’t going to blow the whistle on them. Nobody wants a mass murderer back out on the streets.

Of course, Frieda doesn’t see things quite that way. She goes in with an open mind, and discovers both that there were irregularities by the bucketload in the original investigation – and that the entire hospital is failing to meet even minimum standards of care for Hannah. Even beyond that, the guards and nurses look the other way while the inmates regularly beat Hannah – then refuse to take care of the damage that has been caused.

If, as Frieda begins to suspect, Hannah is not guilty of the crime she was convicted of, then there are a whole lot of people who will need to examine their consciences to discover who the real monster in this situation is. And some of them are more monstrous than others.

But waiting in the shadows lurks a bigger monster than anyone involved in Hannah’s case. Frieda believes that someone is stalking her, just waiting to kill again. Everyone believes he’s dead, and that Frieda just can’t let go.

It’s true that somebody can’t let go, but it isn’t Frieda.

Escape Rating A: I read this in a single day. At bedtime, I was just so into it, I couldn’t stop reading, so I didn’t. Just after 2 in the morning, I turned the last page and was completely blown away. Also chilled to the bone. Hannah’s case is disturbing enough, but the ending, and what it portends for the next book, Sunday Silence, gave me creeps that still haven’t gone away.

I read the first book in this series, Blue Monday, back in 2012 and absolutely loved it. I was looking forward to the next books in the series, all of which I have, but it fell into the “so many books, so little time” vortex and I never got back to them. I need to go back, when I get over the shakes.

The story in Dark Saturday (titled Saturday Requiem on its original release in the UK) is and is not complete in and of itself. Hannah Docherty’s case begins and ends in this book. But, and it felt like a pretty big but, the overall story of Frieda’s personal monster seems to haunt every single book in the series. And it felt like there were a lot of events in the previous books, especially Friday on My Mind, that impacted events in Dark Saturday.

I was still completely absorbed in Dark Saturday, but I think there were details that probably didn’t creep me out enough because I hadn’t read the earlier books. And I’ll admit that’s a rather scary thought. I didn’t need to be creeped out anymore than I already was – but it still feels like I missed a whole lot of nuances.

One of the reasons this one haunts is because it both is and is not what I expected halfway through. It’s fairly obvious early on that Frieda believes that Hannah is innocent of the original crime. And that Frieda is probably right, partly because she knows what she’s doing, and partly because, well, this is her series and the protagonist is usually right in the end. And in mysteries in general, the murderer is never the obvious person. At the time the original crime occurred, Hannah was the obvious person, so it must not have been her. But the way the case resolved did surprise me, and added to the sense of miscarriage of justice that permeates this story.

Just as I said in my review of Blue Monday five years ago – read this one on a sunny day. You’ll need the warmth – and the light.

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Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNear

Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNearThe Light In Summer by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #5
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mary McNear brings you home to Butternut Lake and a novel filled with irresistible characters who you will want to call your friends.
It’s summertime on Butternut Lake, where the heat of noon is soothed by the cool breezes of the evening, where the pace grows slower, and sometimes, just sometimes, the summer light makes everything clearer...
For the lovely Billy Harper, Butternut Lake is the place she feels most at home, even though lately she feels the only one listening to her is Murphy...her faithful Labrador Retriever. Her teenage son, Luke, has gone from precious to precocious practically overnight. Her friends are wrapped up in their own lives, and Luke’s father, Wesley, disappeared before his son was even born. No wonder she prefers to spend time with a good book, especially ones where everything ends in perfection.
But Billy is about to learn that anything is possible during the heady days of summer. Coming to terms with her past—the death of her father, the arrival of Cal Cooper, a complicated man with a definite interest in Billy, even the return of Wesley, will force her to have a little bit of faith in herself and others...and realize that happiness doesn’t always mean perfection.
“Butternut Lake is so beautifully rendered, you’ll wish it was real.”—Susan Wiggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author  
“This triumphant story had me reading until the wee hours of the morning.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber on The Space Between Sisters
 
 
 
 

My Review:

I love the Butternut Lake series. I really, really do. But, and it’s a very big but, in spite of the heroine being a librarian, I did not love this particular entry in the series.

The Butternut Lake series so far have all been contemporary small-town romances with more than a smidgen of what is dreadfully labelled Women’s Fiction. I hate that term but it has become a handy catch-all descriptor for stories that include a slice of women’s lives and often their strong friendships and other relationships.

I’ve also referred to Butternut Lake as “Second Chance Lake” because so many of the romances feature second chances at love, sometimes even with the original love-interest.

The series is stand-alone-ish. Each entry is complete, and the reader usually doesn’t have to know much about what came before to become familiar with the town and its residents. The Light in Summer may be the exception to that rule. The hero in this book is the brother of the heroine in the first book, Up at Butternut Lake.

But as much as I have enjoyed this series, this one did not work for me. While in most of the books there has been a lot going on in the life of the protagonists, the stories have usually given equal weight to whatever those other crises might be and the romance.

For this reader, the romance between Cal and Billy (very short for Wilhelmina) takes a far back seat to all of Billy’s quite justifiable angst over the behavior of her son Luke, who seems to be entering adolescence with a vengeance. Billy is right to worry. Luke is hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into serious trouble, lying to her and letting his grades slip. His attitude has also dived into the toilet, but the problem isn’t the attitude so much as all the bad things and people that the attitude is leading him towards.

The recent death of Billy’s father, the only father-figure that Luke has ever had, has thrown them all into a tailspin. And Billy is caught in the age-old dilemma of how much she needs to be a parent vs. how much she wants to be a friend and confidant.

But all of Luke’s issues, and Billy’s issues with Luke, completely overwhelm the story. The romance gets such short shrift that we really don’t see it develop. We don’t have enough interactions between Cal and Billy to buy into their chemistry.

Escape Rating C: I’ll admit that I’m probably in a minority on this, but the focus on Billy’s problems as a parent, as real as they are, just don’t hold my attention. There’s a lot of teenage angst in this story, and if that was what I was looking for, I’d have found it. But it is not something that I look for, and certainly didn’t expect to find it in this book or this series.

I’m still looking forward to more in this series, but for this reader, The Light in Summer didn’t have nearly enough romantic heat. Your reading mileage may vary. But if you are looking for an entry in this series that does a much better blend of family drama with romance and small-town feels, go back to The Space Between Sisters, which was terrific. More like that, please!

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Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose HalsonThe Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes; widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and interviews with the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.

My Review:

Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.

The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.

Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.

Not bad strange, just, well, people.

In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.

It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.

A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.

The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.

One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.

Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.

And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.

Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.

Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.

It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.

In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking.

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