Review: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles ToddA Casualty of War (Bess Crawford #9) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #9
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes a haunting tale that explores the impact of World War I on all who witnessed it—officers, soldiers, doctors, and battlefield nurses like Bess Crawford.

Though the Great War is nearing its end, the fighting rages on. While waiting for transport back to her post, Bess Crawford meets Captain Alan Travis from the island of Barbados. Later, when he’s brought into her forward aid station disoriented from a head wound, Bess is alarmed that he believes his distant English cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him. Then the Captain is brought back to the aid station with a more severe wound, once more angrily denouncing the Lieutenant as a killer. But when it appears that James Travis couldn’t have shot him, the Captain’s sanity is questioned. Still, Bess wonders how such an experienced officer could be so wrong.

On leave in England, Bess finds the Captain strapped to his bed in a clinic for brain injuries. Horrified by his condition, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon travel to James Travis’s home in Suffolk, to learn more about the baffling relationship between these two cousins.

Her search will lead this smart, capable, and compassionate young woman into unexpected danger, and bring her face to face with the visible and invisible wounds of war that not even the much-longed for peace can heal.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s how it seems for much of A Casualty of War, as every time that Bess Crawford attempts to make things better for Captain Alan Travis, she seems to end up digging the poor man an even bigger hole. Bess being Bess, she feels more than a bit guilty about it, and a whole lot responsible.

And it’s that sense of responsibility that gets her in deep trouble. As it usually does.

Bess’ war is ending. Not with a bang, but seemingly with a whimper, as the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 is noted by the chiming of a surgeon’s watch and nothing more at the forward aid station where Bess is currently stationed.

The guns may have finally been silenced, but there are still plenty of casualties pouring into the aid station, including Captain Travis. Bess met Travis once before, as the both spent a brief respite at a canteen in between trips back to the front. She found him pleasant, affable, intelligent and eager to return home to his family estate in Barbados.

Now he’s a patient, claiming that he was shot by someone on their own side. Not merely someone unknown, but his cousin James. His late cousin James. Very late. A year late. Whether James went up or down after his death in combat, he hasn’t been shooting anyone recently. On either side. For more than a year.

And that’s where the story kicks into gear and moves back to England. All the nurses who served in forward positions get sent home for two weeks’ leave, including Bess. She still has a duty to perform, but where that duty can best be provided is something that she’ll learn after a couple of weeks to rest and regroup. Or at least that’s what supposed to happen.

Instead, Bess takes on Captain Travis’ continuing case. Not his medical case, not exactly. Rather, the mess that she feels she helped to land him in. Bess feels as if she was the one to suggest that his supposed assailant, the one who Travis said resembled his great-uncle, might be his cousin James. So when it turns out that James has been dead for over a year, Alan Travis gets classified as a head-case and sent to increasingly worse care.

Shell shock was considered a moral failing, not a disease.

But Bess remembers the man she met in that canteen before he was wounded. She thinks he’s telling a version of the truth. And that he’s definitely not crazy. Just because it couldn’t have been James does not mean that there was not a very real assailant, one who resembled his cousin, in a British uniform, shooting at him. Not once but twice. As Bess treated both his injuries, she knows for certain that the shots were real. The only question is who fired them.

Bess finds herself involved in not just a giant mess, but also a small town mystery. It’s not just that something is wrong with the treatment of Captain Alan Travis’ case, but it turns out that something is also very wrong with the administration of his cousin Lieutenant James Travis’ will. And that those two messes are somehow one and the same.

It will be up to Bess, with the help of her friend (and her father’s right-hand man) Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, to figure out who did what to whom before it’s too late. Not just for Captain Travis, but also for Bess herself.

Escape Rating B+: After the Magpie Murders a couple of weeks ago, I have been itching to sink my teeth into a good historical mystery. I pulled A Casualty of War out of the TBR stack a couple of weeks ahead of publication just to scratch that itch. And I’m glad I did.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddI have loved this series from its very beginning in A Duty to the Dead. And if you like historical mystery or are a fan of Maisie Dobbs in particular, that’s where I recommend that new readers begin Bess Crawford’s journey. While Bess finds herself in the middle of a case during every book, the series is also the story of Bess’ war as a combat nurse. Her journey begins in A Duty to the Dead, while in A Casualty of War it is obvious that her war is coming to an end. Which makes this book not the best place to start.

The war itself is winding down in this book. It actually has wound down, but that’s something we know from history and not something that Bess was 100% certain of at the time. What happened on November 11, 1918 was an armistice, which is not a peace treaty. While the guns were silent, it was still possible that they would roar again. Which of course they did, but not for another 20 years.

So part of the underlying theme to A Casualty of War is that Bess’ war, and her war service, are coming to an end. Bess, like many combat veterans, suffers from PTSD, even if it wasn’t called that then. Her experiences, many of them horrific, will be with her for the rest of her life. And unlike women of previous generations, Bess is used to serving, not just to being useful, but to having a profession and the professional respect and recognition to go with it. Adjusting to peacetime is going to be difficult.

It’s not surprising that Bess involves herself in a mystery during her leave. She doesn’t know what to do with herself if she’s not taking care of someone else.

One of the things that made this particular case frustrating, at least for this reader, is that it was obvious fairly early on that whatever was going on in the village of Sinclair and whatever was going on with Captain Travis were connected, and that the issue revolved around his cousin James Travis’ estate. While whodunnit was not remotely clear, if only because we hadn’t met the perpetrator at that point, the why of things felt obvious.

But one of the fascinating things about the case was the way that Simon Brandon and Bess worked together. Their relationship has always been interesting. Simon is a few years older than Bess, probably ten but not more than fifteen. He’s been a part of her life from her very earliest memories as he joined her father’s regiment in India when she was a child, and when he had to lie about his age to enlist. While he seems to act as an older brother, he certainly isn’t. He is certainly her protector, but his protection never encroaches on Bess’ agency or autonomy, not even when he fairly obviously wishes that he could. Nearly every man who asks Bess to marry him, and there have been several, wonders if Brandon is the reason that she refuses. And so does this reader. He is the one person in Bess’ life who understands and accepts her as she is, and not as he expects a woman to be in that time and place.

So the mystery in A Casualty of War had its anticlimactic moments, and also resembled bits of A Pattern of Lies. But the questions that it asks about not just Bess’ future, but the future of all who served in that war that did not end all wars and must now lay down their guns and their scalpels, remains an open one.

I can’t wait to see where Bess finds herself, and how she finds herself, next.

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina WillnerForty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, history, nonfiction
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.
In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.
A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.
Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

My Review:

Forty Autumns is a very personal story. It is one woman’s account of the history of her own family, separated by the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe in general and Germany in particular post-World War II. While it may be possible to generalize from this one woman’s family to the history of East Germany as a Soviet-bloc country and to the circumstances of many families that were kept apart over those forty years, the power in this story comes from that personal touch. We feel for the author, her mother, and her family because it is easy to see ourselves in their shoes. On both sides of that impenetrable wall.

This is a story of courage across generations. It is easy to see the courage of the author’s mother Hanna, a young woman who took her life in her hands and literally ran across the border before it turned into deadly barbed-wire – with gun towers. But there was also courage in staying. Hanna’s mother, Oma, exhibited that kind of courage, as she strove to keep her family together and keep them from turning on each other, as so many families did, during the long dark years when the Secret Police seemed to have a spy in every house and every factory.

And it is, in the end, a story of survival. Because the family, on both sides of that once formidable divide, remained intact in spite of the dictatorial regime’s best and worst efforts. This is their personal story of that long, twilight struggle. And it’s marvelous.

Reality Rating A: Forty Autumns turned out to be a book that I just plain liked. I fell into the author’s story, and found myself picking it up at odd moments and sticking with it at points where I only intended to read a chapter, which turned into two, then three, without my being aware of it. The prose is spare, and it simply works, even though I’m having a difficult time articulating exactly why.

Forty Autumns also reminds me of two books I read recently. The history it contains reads like a nonfictional account of the history that is also covered by the marvelous, but fictional, On the Sickle’s Edge. Both are stories about families that are separated by the Soviet regime, and detail the ways that those trapped behind the Iron Curtain manage to survive even the harshest repression with just a little bit of hope.

It also touches a bit on the history in Sons and Soldiers. It felt obvious, at least to this reader, that the American G.I. that Hanna marries, the author’s father, was one of the “Richter Boys” whose history is outlined in that book.

This is very much a story about women – their courage, their tenacity, their perseverance. In this family, it is the women who cling to love and hope when all seems lost, as it so often does. This is a story that takes the political and makes it compellingly personal. Through the author’s story of her family, we get a glimmer of understanding of what life was like during those very dark years.

Part of what made this so readable is the way that the author managed to bring out the experiences of both sides of this struggle. So often, this kind of story is told only from the perspective of those who made it out, while those who were left behind recede into the shadows.

That is not the case here. Instead, we see Hanna’s struggle to make a place and a life for herself alone in the west, while the family she left behind struggles equally if differently to survive repression and stay together, with the State always looking over their shoulders, not just because that’s the way it was, but especially because Hanna’s defection left the rest of her family under a life-long cloud.

I found this story to be eminently readable. The author’s prose is spare, but she does a terrific job of telling the story without inserting additional drama or melodrama. There was plenty of both without needing to manufacture any!

In the end, the reader feels for this family, and joins in their triumphant celebration that they made it through, and were reunited at last.

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Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore

Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa MontefioreThe Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, historical fiction
Series: Deverill Chronicles #2
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow on August 15th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ireland. 1925.
The war is over. But life will never be the same...
In the green hills of West Cork, Ireland, Castle Deverill has burned to the ground. But young Celia Deverill is determined to see her ruined ancestral home restored to its former glory — to the years when Celia ran through its vast halls with her cousin Kitty and their childhood friend Bridie Doyle.
Kitty herself is raising a young family, but she longs for Jack O’Leary — the long-ago sweetheart she cannot have. And soon Kitty must make a heartbreaking decision, one that could destroy everything she holds dear.
Bridie, once a cook's daughter in Castle Deverill, is now a well-heeled New York City socialite. Yet her celebrity can't erase a past act that haunts her still. Nor can it keep her from seeking revenge upon the woman who wronged her all those years ago.
As these three daughters of Ireland seek to make their way in a world once again beset by dark forces, Santa Montefiore shows us once more why she is one of the best-loved storytellers at work today.

My Review:

In this second book in the Deverill Chronicles, following last year’s marvelous The Girl in the Castle, the focus shifts from Kitty Deverill to her cousin Celia, as the ownership of Deverill Castle falls out of the hands of the original line and into Celia’s collateral branch – with its better luck and greater fortune.

At least until the fall of 1929, when everybody’s fortunes take a plunge into the depths of the Great Depression.

The story here is still seen through the eyes of the three young women, those daughters of Ireland that we first met in The Girl in the Castle. In that first book, it was Kitty’s story and Kitty’s castle. But times have changed, and now it’s her cousin Celia in extremely proud possession of the family seat.

But the Deverills are cursed, or at least their castle in Ballynakelly in County Cork certainly is. And that’s where the infamous luck of Celia’s father’s, as well as Celia herself, finally crash to the rocks.

As the story begins, Celia has just bought the burned out castle, with her husband’s fortune and a bit of her father’s as well. She throws herself into the restoration with abandon – as well as oodles of Pounds Sterling. She intends to recreate Castle Deverill as she thinks she remembers it from her idyllic memories of her childhood – but it’s much more of a re-imagining than a re-creation. It’s Celia’s vision of what it was, not what it actually was. The heart and soul are no longer quite there.

Just as she is on the brink of believing that she has brought everything back to the way it was, only better of course, her entire world goes smash. While she has been swanning around Europe, buying every expensive trinket that caught her fancy, her husband has been in a state of quiet desperation, watching his fortune disappear into the Stock Market Crash. And rather than face the music, he kills himself. Completing the ruin of all Celia’s hopes and dreams, her father dies scant months later.

And she discovers that her father was not quite the man she thought he was. That underneath his devil’s charm and his devil’s luck, there was a man who danced with the devil to get what he wanted. Celia, in a welter of disillusionment and grief, sets out to discover the truth of the man she revered all her life.

What she found, and how she found it, allows Celia to discover the woman she was meant to be – that underneath her very feathery little head lies a brain every bit as intelligent and ambitious as her father’s. But with a lot more heart.

Escape Rating A-: Either they don’t make them like this anymore, or it’s been a long time since I’ve sunk my teeth into such a juicy family saga. The trials, tribulations and machinations of Downton Abbey have nothing on the Deverills – and this saga isn’t over yet.

The Deverills would be an interesting family (read that as fascinatingly dysfunctional) even without the compelling historical backdrop – but with the major historical events swirling around them – their reactions make for great storytelling.

In The Girl in the Castle those events were the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, as the Anglo-Irish Deverills found themselves on both sides of the Rising, while trusted, in the end, by neither. In this second book, The Daughters of Ireland, the action has moved from the tragedies of the immediate post-WWI period to the next great upheaval – the Depression. And the clouds of WW2 are already gathering on the horizon.

The story in the end is about family, the trials and tribulations, the triumphs and failures, the fissures and the ties that bind – even if sometimes that binding feels like a straitjacket.

As the story began with the childhoods of the three women, now we see them in their 20s and 30s, living with the choices they made long ago, and all of them facing the regrets of the roads not taken. Just at the point where it seems that one of them has found an easy road, instead of facing the envy of the others, they find tragedy instead. Triumphs are always brief, while the tragedies seem endless.

Although parts of the story follow Kitty’s and Bridie’s perspectives, this is Celia’s story. At the beginning, she is not a particularly sympathetic character. She’s not nasty, she’s just selfish, self-centered, and self-indulgent. The universe revolves around her, and her husband and father have both conspired to keep her in a very well-upholstered little bubble.

The person she becomes after it all crashes down around her is much more interesting, and much more capable, than anyone imagined – including Celia herself. Her transformation carries the reader along from London to Ballynakelly to Johannesburg, and it’s the making of her.

Whether it also turns out to be the saving of her family from ruin is the story that we shall discover in The Last Secret of the Deverillswhich may have an entirely different title by the time it reaches these shores. But whatever the book is called, I bet that last secret is a doozy.

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Review: Cat Shining Bright by Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Review: Cat Shining Bright by Shirley Rousseau MurphyCat Shining Bright (Joe Grey #20) by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Joe Grey #20
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on August 15th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The stakes are higher and more personal than ever for feline investigator Joe Grey when death comes to his beloved coastal California town in this twentieth installment of the enchanting cat mystery series.
While new father Joe Grey is overjoyed to teach his three young kittens about the world, he misses his cop work — secretly helping solve crimes alongside his human friends at Molena Point P. D. But when beautician Barbara Conley and one of her customers are found dead in the salon, Joe makes an exception, he heads for the crime scene. He has no idea that the kittens are following him, or how they will complicate the investigation.
But this is not the only danger to the kittens. A stranger is lurking around the home of Joe’s tabby lady, Dulcie, where the kittens were born. Both parents’ backs are up and their claws out, ready to protect their babies and to protect Wilma Getz, Dulcie’s human housemate.
As the death of the beautician becomes entangled with a gang of thieves working the village, Joe, Dulcie, Kit and Pan are all into the investigation; and they are led to unexpected connections, to the building of the new cat shelter and to a neighbor who becomes suddenly an unexpected part of the tangle.
Joe Grey fans will relish this latest installment following their favorite feline detective and his growing group of friends.

My Review:

There are two threads in Cat Shining Bright. One is indeed a bright shiny thread, and the other is dark and twisted. A fairly fitting combination for this series.

The bright and shining thread revolves around talking feline detective Joe Grey, his tabby lady Dulcie, and their three kittens, born at the very beginning of the book (also at the very end of the previous book, Cat Shout for Joy.

Joe Grey, Dulcie, and their feline friends Kit and Pan are talking cats with human-level intelligence. Also with human-level emotions, maturity and conflicts. They walk a very fine line between feline instincts and human complications.

As for why these particular cats, or for that matter the feral clowder of cats that congregate at the old Pamillon Estate, all have the capacity for human speech, no one knows. Which brings an air of suspense to the birth of Joe Grey and Dulcie’s kittens. Everyone, both human and feline, hopes that they will be speaking cats like their parents, but there is no certainty until they open their little mouths and something comes out besides “meow”.

Because cats mature relatively quickly, a big part of this story encapsulates all the joys and trepidations of parenthood into a brief four-month period, as the three kittens, Buffin, Striker and Courtney grow from blind, mewling fluffballs to young adults ready to strike out on their own.

While Joe Grey worries about his new family, and Dulcie is both contented and stir-crazy hovering over the kittens during their early months, a gang of sophisticated car thieves preys on Molena Point and the neighboring small towns along the California Coast.

Their pattern is insidious. They strike a town, and for two or three days steal as many late-model cars as they can, while trashing all the cars they can’t steal and robbing the trashed cars of any valuables. After a two or three day rampage, they move to the next town, and the one after that. A few weeks later they return and start all over again. And even though the police manage to arrest a few members of the gang each time, the gang itself seems to continue unimpaired.

While Dulcie is cooped up with the kittens, Joe Grey, Kit and Pan do their best to help the police track the gang, at least whenever they hit Molena Point. Meanwhile, Dulcie’s human friend Wilma is threatened with a problem of her own, one that puts Dulcie, the kittens and possibly all the speaking cats in grave danger.

It’s not until Joe Grey and the police are able to connect ALL the dots that both cases can come to their proper conclusion. And unfortunately, not until after grand theft auto escalates to murder most foul.

Escape Rating B: I love this series, and I really enjoyed my visit to Molena Point to see both the cats and the humans are doing. As Cat Shining Bright is the 20th book in the series, and I’ve read them all (including the semi-sorta-prequel The Catswold Portal) I feel like these two and four-legged people are all friends and I’m always glad to visit and see what everyone is up to.

If the idea of a story featuring a sentient (and often smart-alecky) cat sounds like catnip to you, start with Joe Grey’s first adventure, Cat on the Edge. A lot of what makes Cat Shining Bright work for fans is the emotional investment, and that just takes time to develop. You could probably start anywhere in the earlier books, but the last four rely on previous knowledge and involvement with the series to really come together.

As much as I enjoyed Cat Shining Bright, it felt like both threads of the story were a bit blinded by that shining brightness.. Your mileage may vary.

On the mystery side of the equation, it doesn’t feel quite so much like Joe Grey and the Molena Point PD solve the case as that the solution falls into their laps (at least for those of the two-legged persuasion who actually HAVE laps, that it). The criminals were fairly ingenious in their methods, the cats were distracted, and the humans just couldn’t catch a break. At least not until everything broke all at once.

And I’m not sure we ever got the full story on Wilma’s problem. It ended, but for this reader it felt like some of the whys and wherefores were missing.

The feline side of the equation had a lot more bright spots. Listening in on Joe Grey’s thought processes as he deals with fatherhood and watches the kittens grow up in what to humans would be accelerated time works well. We feel for his dilemma. Joe Grey is a warrior and a protector. He wants to protect his family, his humans and his town, and those drives come into conflict. He also loves his kittens but recognizes that he has to not merely let them, but actually help them, grow up. And he’s “human” enough not to want to.

The fates and futures of the kittens are tied up in prophecies made the wise old cat Misto near his end, during Cat Shout for Joy. Misto’s wisdom and the kittens various powers are tied in with the feral speaking cats at the old Pamillon Estate, with the ancient past of the speaking cats, and with the events of The Catsworld Portal and an earlier book in Joe Grey’s series, Cat Bearing Gifts. It looks like little Courtney is going to be the cat that connects that particular set of dots, so there’s a lot left hanging.

One final note about the human side of the story. One of the issues for the humans in this story is what to do about the secret that they are the caretakers for. There is a small circle of humans that knows all about the cats’ talents, including Joe Grey’s people, Clyde and his wife Ryan, Dulcie’s human, Wilma, and Kit and Pan’s human family, the Greenlaws. The vet John Firetti also knows, which is both convenient for the cats and necessary for parts of this particular story. As their humans have found life companions, the circle of people in on this dangerous secret has slowly widened. That’s what happens here, as the speaking ferals take it upon themselves to let Scott Flannery in on their secret so their friend Kate can have her happily ever after. Kate was right that it would be impossible to have a good marriage with a lie that big at its heart.

Which begs the question, what about Charlie and Max? Charlie knows the secret, and has known for a long time. But her husband Max does not know. Max is the Chief of the Molena Point Police Department, and everyone is afraid that if Max discovers that his best snitches are Joe Grey, Dulcie and Kit, that he will stop letting them help him, which would certainly contribute to a rise in the Molena Point crime rate. But how long can this go on?

Hopefully we’ll find out in one of Joe Grey’s future adventures, hopefully sometime next year.

Review: Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs

Review: Map of the Heart by Susan WiggsMap of the Heart by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on August 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Wiggs—an author “who paints the details of human relationships with the finesse of a master” (Jodi Picoult)—returns with a deeply emotional and atmospheric story of love and family, war and secrets that moves back and forth across time, from the present day to World War II France
An accomplished photographer, widow, and mother, Camille Palmer is content with the blessings she’s enjoyed. When her ageing father asks her to go with him to his native France, she has no idea that shes embarking on an adventure that will shake her complacency and utterly transform her.
Returning to the place of his youth sparks unexpected memories—recollections that will lead Camille, her father, and her daughter, Julie, who has accompanied them, back to the dark, terrifying days of the Second World War, where they will uncover their family’s surprising history.
While Provence offers answers about her family’s past, it also holds the key to Camille’s future. Along the way, Camille meets a handsome American historian who stirs a passion deep within her she thought she’d never experience again.

My Review:

I picked up Map of the Heart because I absolutely adored last year’s Family Tree. And while I did like Map of the Heart, it just didn’t suck me into reading it in a single non-stop day the way that Family Tree did.

I want to say that Map of the Heart is two stories blended into one. But that happens on more than one axis, making me wonder if I should describe it as two stories, or perhaps four.

First, it’s a time-slip story. While most of the action takes place in the 21st century present, there are significant chapters that occur in the mid-20th century past, in the midst of the Italian, and subsequently German, occupation of southeastern France during the dark days of World War II. And much of the 21st century action revolves around discovering the connections between that old history and today in the lives of the story’s protagonists, particularly Henry Palmer, nee Palomar, his daughter Camille and her daughter Julie.

But the story also has its 21st century “before and after”. The beginning of the story takes place in Camille’s tiny hometown of Bethany Bay, Maryland. And all is far from well. Five years previously, Camille’s husband Jace was killed in a tragic accident, and the formerly adventurous Camille retreated from the world into her safe space in her small town. Jace’s death left her afraid to risk, not just for herself, but also for her daughter Julie. Julie was 9 when her father died, and is now 14, ready to begin stretching her wings while still having a nest to fly back to. Instead, Julie’s life seems to be on hold while Camille retreats in fear from the universe. And in her continued self-absorption, Camille doesn’t recognize that Julie is suffering from the hell that is mean-girl high school bullying.

And as if her fears for Julie are not enough, Camille is still reeling after her beloved father’s year of cancer treatment. Henry’s cancer is currently in remission, but they all know that this is only a reprieve and not a cure.

In the midst of the mess she already has, two events burst the safe shell of Camille’s little world. Professor Malcolm Finnemore needs Camille, in her professional capacity as a restorer of found archival film, to process the photos retrieved from his father’s old camera – the last pictures that intrepid journalist Robert Finnemore took before he was captured by the North Vietnamese Army and never seen again.

And the tenants residing in the old farmhouse that Camille discovers her father still owns back in his native France send him a large trunk filled with mementos of the life that her father left behind – including old photographs of his beautiful but haunted mother and his despicable father, a Nazi collaborator. Henry Palmer wants to go home, to deal with the ghosts these mementos have brought to light.

Julie wants to escape her tormentors by any means available, and France sounds like a great place to go. Camille just wants to keep her little family safe at home, so that she doesn’t have to confront her fears, or anyone’s ghosts.

But the exposure of Julie’s suffering keeps reminding her that even home is not safe. And that her fears should not continue to cripple her daughter, or keep her father from closure of his own griefs.

And if she can heal just a bit of what’s holding her back, the handsome Professor Finnemore is also in France, just waiting to help her the rest of the way. If she can bear to let go.

Escape Rating B: So this story is split along two different axes. We see Camille and her family in the present, and also her grandmother Lisette in the past. A huge part of this story involves Camille’s search to make the two connect. Because at first they don’t. Lisette, just like Camille, was a photographer. And her photographs of herself and of her disgusting husband lead Camille to an inescapable conclusion – blond and blue-eyed Lisette and her equally blond and blue-eyed husband could not have been the parents of black-haired and brown-eyed Henry. Genetics don’t work that way. Since Lisette died giving birth to Henry, her part in his parentage is not in question, leaving her husband’s part in grave but oddly hopeful doubt. Finding out that one is not the son or the granddaughter of a despicable Nazi collaborator would, after all, come as a great relief.

Camille is hunting for the truth of her own heritage. Most of her hunt takes place after she bows to the inevitable and accompanies her father and her daughter to France. And it is at that point, when she finally, reluctantly boards that plane, that the story itself takes wing.

Unfortunately, that point is literally at the halfway point. The first half of the story, back in Bethany Bay, felt like a slog for this reader. Seeing the situation that Camille, and Julie, are escaping from is necessary, but for this reader it went on much too long. It’s not just that it is all depressing, although Julie’s situation certainly is depressing, it’s also the way that Camille drags her feet just drags down on the story. Her almost-pathological resistance slows the story to a crawl until she finally gets on that damn plane.

At first, the brief trip back to Lisette’s past, while interesting, doesn’t change the tone. Her part of the story is dark, because her history was dark. And while all of these issues are important to the story as a whole, they just didn’t move much. I didn’t need them to be happy, that wouldn’t have been appropriate, but I did need more of a sense that they were moving the story forward and not just wallowing. Your mileage may vary.

Once the action moves to France, the story kicks into gear. Camille’s hunt for her family’s history was fascinating, and the involvement with and explanation of the uses of “found film” was very interesting. There are quite a few projects and specialists who deal with these issues in the real world, and what they discover often brings to light first-person perspectives on events that were thought to be lost. (If this part of the story grabs you, check out The Rescued Film Project)

Reviewer’s note: One thing that this book does well is to convey the sheer and utter hopelessness that happens when one is the victim of bullying. Anything that you do, or that your family attempts to do, just makes it worse. It always happens away from adult supervision, and the packs of bullies are very good at protecting themselves. Because they are often led by the popular kids, and because other kids want to be part of that in group and not become victims themselves, the one being bullied is left with nowhere to turn. And the more isolated the victims become, the less likely anyone on the outside is to believe them. I am speaking from brutal experience, which made me both empathize deeply with Julie and desperately want that part of the story to move on – fast. That Henry was still scarred by his own experiences of bullying, even though those events were more than a half-century in the past, rang entirely too true.

Review: The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

Review: The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan HessThe Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters, Joan Hess
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Egypt, 1912—Amelia Peabody and her dashing archeologist husband, Radcliffe Emerson, are once again in danger as they search for a priceless, stolen bust of legendary Queen Nefertiti and Amelia finds herself the target of assassins in this long-awaited, eagerly anticipated final installment of Elizabeth Peters’s bestselling, beloved mystery series
Arriving in Cairo for another thrilling excavation season, Amelia Peabody is relaxing in a well-earned bubble bath in her elegant hotel suite in Cairo, when a man with knife protruding from his back staggers into the bath chamber and utters a single word—“Murder”—before collapsing on the tiled floor, dead. Among the few possessions he carried was a sheet of paper with Amelia’s name and room number, and a curious piece of pasteboard the size of a calling card bearing one word: “Judas.” Most peculiarly, the stranger was wearing a gold-rimmed monocle in his left eye.
It quickly becomes apparent that someone saved Amelia from a would-be assassin—someone who is keeping a careful eye on the intrepid Englishwoman. Discovering a terse note clearly meant for EmersonWhere were you?”—pushed under their door, there can be only one answer: the brilliant master of disguise, Sethos.
But neither assassins nor the Genius of Crime will deter Amelia as she and Emerson head to the excavation site at Armana, where they will witness the discovery of one of the most precious Egyptian artifacts: the iconic Nefertiti bust. In 1345 B.C. the sculptor Thutmose crafted the piece in tribute to the great beauty of this queen who was also the chief consort of Pharaoh Akhenaten and stepmother to King Tutankhamun.
For Amelia, this excavation season will prove to be unforgettable. Throughout her journey, a parade of men in monocles will die under suspicious circumstances, fascinating new relics will be unearthed, a diabolical mystery will be solved, and a brilliant criminal will offer his final challenge . . . and perhaps be unmasked at last.

My Review:

The Amelia Peabody series is for those who like their historical mysteries steeped in calamity, where their heroine frequently jumps out of the frying pan, into the fire, leaps from that small cooking fire to a large bonfire, from thence to a major conflagration, and finally into the cauldron of an active volcano. All told in the singular voice of an intelligent woman who is always utterly certain that she is both right and the best person to deal with whatever crisis has just erupted.

Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Radcliffe Emerson are the creations of the late, great Elizabeth Peters, herself an archaeologist under her “real name” of Barbara Mertz. Ms. Peters is no longer with us, but she left behind one final semi-completed manuscript in her hallmark series featuring the redoubtable, indefatigable, Amelia Peabody. That manuscript is, of course, the book under discussion, The Painted Queen, completed by mystery author Joan Hess.

If any of the above, or what follows, sounds like your cup of tea, do not, I beg you, start with The Painted Queen. It is the end of a saga that has been going on for over 40 years. Begin with Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first book in this long-running story, where Amelia and Emerson meet and solve their first murder together. It is fun, hilarious and occasionally creepy, all at the same time. It also sets the pattern, as their long-time reis (dig foreman) puts it early on, “Another dead body. Every year it is the same. Every year, another dead body…” Or two, or three, or even half a dozen, as it is in The Painted Queen.

The action in The Painted Queen takes place in the 1912-1913 dig season in Egypt, putting it squarely into the middle of Amelia’s long and fascinating tale. While the parts of the story, and the string of murders, that revolve around her family are a direct followup to the events of A River in the Sky, the historical events are centered around the 1912 discovery of Nefertiti’s bust at Amarna.

As usual, Amelia is in everything pretty much up to her neck. Equally as usual, while she (and her son Ramses) are sought by assassins at every turn, she puts herself in the most danger by her tendency to act before she thinks – a tactic that for once her enemies are too disorganized to take advantage of.

In the end, as always, Amelia Peabody, with the help of her friends and family, and with more than a bit of assistance from divine providence, solves the mystery and keeps her family safe, if only so that they can return the following season for yet another body, and another mystery to solve.

Escape Rating B: It was great to have one last visit with these old and very dear friends. As a mystery, not all of it hangs together, and much of what makes the story work relies on the reader knowing who all these people are and how they relate to Amelia and her life, but for those of us who have read from the beginning, this coda is a treat.

There are, as was often the case in Amelia’s history, two stories going on. One involves both the history of early 20th century Egypt and early 20th century Egyptian archaeological history. As this story takes place in 1912, events are also part of the run up to World War I and the beginning of the end for both the British and the Ottoman empires. At the same time, the finding of Nefertiti’s bust was a real historical event, an event at which the Emersons were not present, so their involvement in the mess has to be tidied over by the author before the end, so that history can proceed on the course we know that it did.

The more personal side of the story, that of the assassins who are chasing after Amelia and Ramses for their part in the death of Amelia’s ward Nefret’s unfortunate and totally scurrilous husband actually serves as comic relief, as the personal adventures of the family often do. The assassins are completely inept from beginning to end. Clearly Nefret’s late unlamented was the brains of the outfit.

Whether a reader falls in love with this series tends to ride on whether or not said reader loves or hates Amelia’s voice. The story is told from her first person perspective in her very distinctive style. We know what she knows, we know what she thinks she knows (which can be vastly different from the actual solution, at least in the early stages of each mystery) and she can be rather sure of herself and her rightness even when she is fairly far off the beam. We also hear her inner thoughts, which can often be scathing as well as funny.

She’s someone I would love to have tea with (or something stronger) but would not want to be related to except at some remove. She generally gets her way, one way or another. And she so often IS right, and not chary of reminded people of that fact. She’s a treasure as a fictional character, but would be a dratted nuisance in real life.

I’m going to miss her.

Review: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

Review: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce HendersonSons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 448
Published by William Morrow on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Joining the ranks of Unbroken, Band of Brothers, and Boys in the Boat, the little-known saga of young German Jews, dubbed The Ritchie Boys, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, came of age in America, and returned to Europe at enormous personal risk as members of the U.S. Army to play a key role in the Allied victory.
In 1942, the U.S. Army unleashed one of its greatest secret weapons in the battle to defeat Adolf Hitler: training nearly 2,000 German-born Jews in special interrogation techniques and making use of their mastery of the German language, history, and customs. Known as the Ritchie Boys, they were sent in small, elite teams to join every major combat unit in Europe, where they interrogated German POWs and gathered crucial intelligence that saved American lives and helped win the war.
Though they knew what the Nazis would do to them if they were captured, the Ritchie Boys eagerly joined the fight to defeat Hitler. As they did, many of them did not know the fates of their own families left behind in occupied Europe. Taking part in every major campaign in Europe, they collected key tactical intelligence on enemy strength, troop and armored movements, and defensive positions. A postwar Army report found that more than sixty percent of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys.
Bruce Henderson draws on personal interviews with many surviving veterans and extensive archival research to bring this never-before-told chapter of the Second World War to light. Sons and Soldiers traces their stories from childhood and their escapes from Nazi Germany, through their feats and sacrifices during the war, to their desperate attempts to find their missing loved ones in war-torn Europe. Sons and Soldiers is an epic story of heroism, courage, and patriotism that will not soon be forgotten.

My Review:

The part of World War II history that is outlined in Sons and Soldiers is history that should be more widely known. But just like the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, has been shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Hopefully, Sons and Soldiers will be the first book of many to relate this important and fascinating piece of history, and the story will become as well-known as it ought to be.

Using diaries and interviews from a representative sample of the unsung “Ritchie Boys”, Sons and Soldiers highlights the contributions of a relatively small group of soldiers who had a big impact on the war – just as World War II, its preliminaries and its aftermath had a huge impact on them.

We know what happened in the Holocaust. But one of the things that makes this story so searing is seeing those events from the eyes of those who lived through, not just the camps or the war, but the way that the rise of Nazism broke so many that it touched, even before the concentration camps and mass executions began.

Once a country chooses to dehumanize a part of its citizenry, no atrocity is too terrible to inflict on those people who have been betrayed by that country. While it was certainly scapegoating writ very, very large, powered by a very big lie, the depths of Antisemitism at the root of Hitler’s Nazi Party were always present in Germany and the rest of Europe, just waiting to be plumbed.

The years of the Nazi regime certainly plumbed them to the very depths.

But the stories in Sons and Soldiers, all surprisingly similar, tell a different part of that story. As the tensions ratcheted up, as Germany turned its Jewish citizens into non-persons, many families saw the handwriting on the wall long before Kristallnacht, and certainly after. They tried to get out.

And found that the “Golden Door” beside the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor was only open a sliver, at least for them. The U.S. turned the spigot of immigrants to a trickle, particularly Jewish immigrants, making it nearly impossible for families to come to America. The requirements were such that for many families, they could only get one member out in time. And that was usually the oldest son, to carry on the family name and to have the best chance of getting the kind of jobs that would make it possible for them to bring the rest of their families out – if they had enough time. As we know now, and as their parents expected then, they didn’t.

Instead, those boys grew up in the U.S., with a fierce desire to get their families out of Nazi Germany and to strike a blow against the dictator and the policies that caused their heartache – and that threatened the independence of all of Europe and anywhere they could reach. In spite of a U.S. government that initially saw them as “enemy aliens” (how ironic that was), these young men persevered and the newly formed military intelligence units found their skills invaluable.

Sons and Soldiers is the tip of the iceberg of their stories. These men, trained in advanced interrogation techniques and armed with the knowledge of just how their enemies’ minds worked, provided key intelligence breakthroughs that helped end the war sooner and saved countless lives.

Some of them paid the ultimate price. Most of them only found their left-behind families among the names of the dead. These are their stories.

Reality Rating B: So far, this review has been more about the history than about the book of the history. It’s difficult to separate the two, particularly for me. I exist because all my grandparents got out of eastern Europe in the early 20th century, before World War I. They had enough time to do it the way that these boys hoped to get their families out. One person got here, sponsored by a cousin or distant relative or benefactor, worked hard, paid back the benefactor and sponsored the next one. This pattern held for both the boys and the girls. Any family members who didn’t reach the US or Canada before the door closed did not survive the camps.

So the history of this is fascinating to me. I feel like this is a chapter of World War II history that should be much better known, both because it was so heartbreaking and because it turned out to be so crucial to the end of the war in Europe. Classifying something as “military intelligence” has hidden a lot of such developments that should be brought to light – like the Navajo Code Talkers, the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, and even the Manhattan Project.

But as a book, Sons and Soldiers only skims the surface of what feels like a very deep well of history. There are a lot of “origin stories” for the men profiled in the book. And while it feels necessary to the greater narrative that the reader see the decisions and paths that led each of these men to their part in the war, at the same time those stories are at their heart pretty similar. Each story is heartbreaking in its way, but no one stands out. Maybe in history no one particular man did stand out, but for the purposes of the narrative it would have been more engaging for the reader if the story focused on fewer men but told deeper stories about them.

Likewise, while the section of the story that covers their training and simply the fight that each of them had to get training is absolutely fascinating, the chapters that cover their participation in the war itself feel like a recitation of battles rather than getting into the meat of what these men contributed to the theater of war in which they engaged.

All in all, this reader would have preferred a tighter focus on fewer individuals, with a deeper dive into what those particular participants saw and did and accomplished. But I loved this peek into a piece of history that is not widely known, and have high hopes for future books on these undersung heroes.

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Review: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams

Review: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz WilliamsCocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The author of A Certain Age transports readers to sunny Florida in this lush and enthralling historical novel—an enchanting blend of love, suspense, betrayal, and redemption set among the rum runners and scoundrels of Prohibition-era Cocoa Beach
Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. Driving an ambulance for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets—secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she’d left behind.
Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon has never met.
Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers surrounding Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

My Review:

This didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected, but I don’t know why. The book does match the blurb. More or less.

It also reminds me more than a bit of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, if Rebecca wound itself up on the Florida coast during Prohibition.

The story of this Cocoa Beach is set loosely within the sequence of Williams’ other novels. They are all set in Prohibition-era America and feature at least some of the same set of wealthy and ill-fated people. In the case of Cocoa Beach, the heroine of this story is Virginia Fitzwilliam nee Fortesque, the sister of Sophie Fortesque, one of the heroines of A Certain Age.

You don’t have to read all the books to feel part of each individual one. It’s more that the characters know each other and mention each other than that the main characters continue from one to the next.

Back to Cocoa Beach. This is a story that is told in two time frames, but by the same person. In the book’s present, Virginia is in Florida, dealing with her late husband’s estate after his death in a rather suspicious house fire. This is 1922, so forensics as we know them are pretty minimal. The body was burned beyond recognition, and identification was made through use of artifacts found with the body. It’s an ID that feels shaky from the beginning.

The second story is also Virginia’s story. It is her version of events during World War I, when she first met her late husband Simon Fitzwilliam. At the time, she was a volunteer ambulance driver and he was a surgeon with the British Expeditionary Forces. Through Virginia’s eyes, looking back at a past that was not so long ago but that happened before so much personal trauma, we see Simon charm the rather innocent Virginia into his life, his bed and eventually into marriage, in spite of her reservations every step of the way.

Because we see these events only through Virginia’s eyes, and because Virginia in the end has a great many doubts about Simon’s feelings and Simon’s motives, we as readers also end up doubting whether any of what Virginia thought she saw in him was true.

Simon really has been keeping secrets from Virginia. His life situation is never quite what he says it is. And his unwillingness to let her know just how big a mess his life really is provides just the wedge for someone, Simon’s brother Samuel, to get Virginia to doubt everything about Simon and her relationship with him.

And those doubts and fears ruin her marriage, and very nearly take her life.

Escape Rating B-: There’s a lot of Gothic creepiness in the swamps of Florida, and there’s a lot of Gothic creepiness in this story as well. Throughout the story, there’s a strong sense of looming menace hovering over Virginia, and it’s very definitely real. Someone really is watching her and someone is definitely out to get her.

This is also a story where all the narrators are completely unreliable. Simon tells a whole lot of lies of omission, and while in the end his reasons make sense, he definitely sows the seeds of his own destruction with those lies. Virginia is an unreliable narrator not because she deliberately lies, but because she is simply unable to see when others lying to her, so she bases her thoughts and decisions on the lies she has been told. And everyone else in the story, with the exception of Virginia’s two-year-old daughter, is living one kind of lie or another right before her eyes. And she never seems to suspect a thing that she really ought to.

So much of what goes wrong in Virginia’s life, which is what makes this story, is that instead of asking Simon for an explanation of a whole lot of things, she simply believes what Samuel tells her and runs away. Over and over and over. She never confronts Simon with what he’s supposedly done, or what he has supposedly not said. Or both.

I think that this is the place where readers will either understand why she did what she did or wonder what she was thinking. If she was thinking, which she probably wasn’t. She continually takes one side of the story and runs with it, and away, and never looks for the other. That she does love Simon and did marry him and yet always believes whatever Samuel tells her without checking into it at all struck this reader as a lie too far. But the whole story hinges on Virginia falling for the same pack of lies over and over and over again, even when the voice inside her own head is telling her that something isn’t right. Which, of course, it isn’t.

I loved A Certain Age, and was really hoping for more of the same with Cocoa Beach. Instead, I ended up with Rebecca. And while I enjoyed reading the story while it was going on, the ending left me flat.

Review: The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P Kiernan

Review: The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P KiernanThe Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by William Morrow on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the critically acclaimed author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity comes a dazzling novel of World War II—a shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism, and the resilience of the human spirit, set in a small Normandy village on the eve of D-Day
On June 5, 1944, as dawn rises over a small town on the Normandy coast of France, Emmanuelle is making the bread that has sustained her fellow villagers in the dark days since the Germans invaded her country.
Only twenty-two, Emma learned to bake at the side of a master, Ezra Kuchen, the village baker since before she was born. Apprenticed to Ezra at thirteen, Emma watched with shame and anger as her kind mentor was forced to wear the six-pointed yellow star on his clothing. She was likewise powerless to help when they pulled Ezra from his shop at gunpoint, the first of many villagers stolen away and never seen again.
But in the years that her sleepy coastal village has suffered under the enemy, Emma has silently, stealthily fought back. Each day, she receives an extra ration of flour to bake a dozen baguettes for the occupying troops. And each day, she mixes that precious flour with ground straw to create enough dough for two extra loaves—contraband bread she shares with the hungry villagers. Under the cold, watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she builds a clandestine network of barter and trade that she and the villagers use to thwart their occupiers.
But her gift to the village is more than these few crusty loaves. Emma gives the people a taste of hope—the faith that one day the Allies will arrive to save them.

My Review:

The Baker’s Secret might have been more descriptively titled as Emma’s War. Or perhaps Resistance is not Futile, or even How to Resist without Joining the Resistance. Or simply, Survival.

Because the story encompasses all of those things, and more.

From first to last, this is Emma’s story. And it is the story of the frog who dies by degrees as his cool pan of water heats up and boils. But unlike that proverbial frog, neither Emma nor her coastal French village actually die during the German Occupation, although they often wish they had. And all too many individual citizens actually do die, whether directly for German atrocities or less directly by being conscripted or simply by being unable or unwilling to drudge through another day.

Emma is the town baker. She has a gift for baking, and that gift is both blessing and curse. It is because of that gift that the occupying Germans discovered her tiny village. And it is that gift which keeps her relatively safe. The Kommandant doesn’t want his baker unduly harassed, or raped, and certainly not killed, without good reason. For admittedly select values of reason.

He wants his morning bread, and for that reason, gives Emma enough of a flour ration to bake a dozen loaves for himself and his officers.

That bread makes Emma the center of a ring of resistance. Not THE Resistance, but a resistance. Emma manages to make those dozen loaves into 14, with just a bit of subterfuge. And with those two extra loaves, she has something to trade. Because everyone wants just a little bit of solace in what are very dark times. So she has her circle of bread for eggs for tobacco for oil for fish for bread. Around and around the village she goes, keeping everyone, if not well fed, at least alive for the duration.

Because Emma brings not only food, but just a tiny bit of hope. Which is ironic, because Emma has none of her own. While everyone around her is certain, to varying degrees of informed certainty, that the Allies will come to rescue them, Emma is not. She hates the occupying army, but also believes that no one will come. Survival is all they have.

Until June 6, 1944, when the Allies storm the nearby beaches. And bring a hell on earth to everyone left in their way.

Escape Rating A-: The Baker’s Secret is a quiet book, and with good reason. For most of the occupation, life goes on, however badly. Emma’s days acquire a dull, unending sameness, only broken by incidents of brutality or audacity, either the Nazis’ brutality or her own audacity. She lives because the village depends on her, and in turn, she helps keep them alive.

We see the village in all its sadness. Too many are gone. Too many have been murdered out of brutality or caprice. And, although it is just a few, too many who have decided, like Emma, that the occupation is forever have also determined that the best way to survive is to capitulate, to cooperate, to collaborate with the enemy.

Emma’s story is about the courage of the small things in the face of the large disaster. She can’t kill all the Nazis, but she can hide a pig from them, getting meat into everyone’s pot for at least a month. She can’t stop baking, but she can stretch the ration by adding straw. It’s a life of tiny but important defiance.

What makes this a hard book is the description of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of the village and its inhabitants. There is no individual evil at work in the village (Hitler may be both individual and evil, but he is not personally present in the village), but there is great evil nevertheless. The way that the Nazis are portrayed in this story feels like a meditation on the saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. These young men, and they are mostly very young, however kind and gentle they might be to their families or their fellow countrymen, have decided to swallow the big lie that non-Germans are lesser forms of humans, and that some people, notably Jews and other minorities, are not human at all. And have chosen to use that power and that license not merely by following orders, but to seemingly go out of their way to grind every person down and then punish them both for being ground down and for resisting the grinding.

It does not make for easy reading, but it does make the reader think. It seems to have been so easy to reduce these young soldiers to brutal and brutish beasts. All that was necessary was to drum into them that everyone was less human than themselves. Once non-Germans were made into “the other”, any strike against them could be justified.

I want to say that Emma stands tall in the face of adversity, but she doesn’t. Instead, her posture is always bent over and straining forwards, pulling her cart of burdens behind her like a train. She resisted by hiding in plain sight. I also can’t say that she gets a happy ending, because when we leave Emma in June of 1944, the war is still going on, even if the front has moved until her village is behind it on the Allies side.

But chocolate does indeed sometimes taste like hope. And I hope that readers who loved The Chilbury Ladies Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will make a place in their hearts (and in their TBR stacks) for The Baker’s Secret.

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Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on January 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams recreates the New York City of A Certain Age in this deliciously spicy adventure that mixes past and present and centers on a Jazz Age love triangle involving a rugged Prohibition agent, a saucy redheaded flapper, and a debonair Princetonian from a wealthy family.
When she discovers her husband cheating, Ella Hawthorne impulsively moves out of their SoHo loft and into a small apartment in an old Greenwich Village building. Her surprisingly attractive new neighbor, Hector, warns her to stay out of the basement at night. Tenants have reported strange noises after midnight—laughter, clinking glasses, jazz piano—even though the space has been empty for decades. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the place hid a speakeasy.
In 1924, Geneva "Gin" Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from the hills of western Maryland, is a regular at this Village hideaway known as the Christopher Club. Caught up in a raid, Gin becomes entangled with Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson, who persuades her to help him catch her stepfather Duke Kelly, one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootleggers.
Headstrong and independent, Gin is no weak-kneed fool. So how can she be falling in love with the taciturn, straight-arrow Revenue agent when she’s got Princeton boy Billy Marshall, the dashing son of society doyenne Theresa Marshall, begging to make an honest woman of her? While anything goes in the Roaring Twenties, Gin’s adventures will shake proper Manhattan society to its foundations, exposing secrets that shock even this free-spirited redhead—secrets that will echo from Park Avenue to the hollers of her Southern hometown.
As Ella discovers more about the basement speakeasy, she becomes inspired by the spirit of her exuberant predecessor, and decides to live with abandon in the wicked city too. . . .

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked City because I absolutely adored A Certain Age and wanted to read more by this author.

The Wicked City is a very different book from A Certain Age, even though the lion’s share of the story is set in the same period, the early 1920s, and among some of the same people. Possibly even the same people.

But The Wicked City is a story split between two very different eras and two very different women, with each story blending just a bit into the other.

In the late 1990s, Ella Hawthorne has just moved into a slightly crumbling apartment with a whole lot of character (and characters) in Greenwich Village. She’s also just left her philandering husband, after catching him screwing a prostitute in the hallway of their condo building while he was pretending to fetch a pizza. If the whole scene hadn’t been so tragic, at least in its consequences, it would have slipped into farce.

But Ella’s drama isn’t in her impending divorce, it’s in the building of her new sanctuary. There’s a stream of hot jazz emanating from the basement of the building next door, and that beautiful music is coming not from a live club, but from the ghost of the speakeasy that once thrived there.

While Ella’s late 20th century story is interesting, the real heart of The Wicked City lies in the events of the 1920s, events that centered around both the speakeasy and the apartment building next door, where Geneva Kelly lived in the 1920s and Ella Hawthorne finds herself in the 1990s.

Ella’s story is a tale of wandering husbands, forensic accountants and handsome jazz musicians of the past and present.

Geneva Kelly’s story, on the other hand, is a tale of cold-hearted bootleggers, hot federal agents, and deadly family secrets.

Geneva’s stepfather was an abusive two-bit criminal back home in Western Maryland, but only Gin seems to have seen his true face. Everyone else saw the charm, while she experienced the rot underneath. But after she fled her Appalachian home town for the bright lights of the big city, Duke Kelly moved from small-time crook to big-time racketeer, controlling a major piece of the illegal booze market in thirsty New York, as well as every single soul in his little town.

It was Prohibition, and the feds were looking for a way to take Duke Kelly down. Gin was too, so when a handsome federal agent offered her the chance to get the goods on the snake, she was all in.

Until she was very nearly all the way out.

Escape Rating B+: At first, the story moved a bit slowly, as did A Certain Age when I look back. Both stories take a while to get themselves set up, but once they do, the action careens quickly from boat chase to shoot out to romance, and back again, with lightning speed.

Particularly Gin’s story. Ella’s story feels less fleshed out, and I’m not convinced it was really necessary. Gin’s story is the one that sparkles like a flapper’s sequined dress.

While we don’t feel much of Ella’s dilemma, we do become all too well acquainted with Gin’s. She fled her hometown in the wake of her stepfather’s abusive, and she tries very hard not to look back. She’s also a young woman with not enough education and no family ties trying to make a living in the big city. Some of her choices arise from desperation, and some from pure pragmatism. It’s a hard-knock life.

She wants to bring her stepfather down, which makes her a plum ripe for the plucking by Prohibition agent Oliver Anson. She’s attracted to his stalwart honor even more than she is his good looks. But like everyone else in her life, Anson is keeping secrets that threaten both Gin’s life and her heart. Everything that happens between them feels screened by a haze of smoke and mist, and neither ever knows quite where the other stands until the very end.

cocoa beach by beatriz williamsIn addition to the connection between Gin and Ella, there’s also a connection between Gin and the characters in A Certain Age, and indeed the characters of many of the author’s previous books. It’s not such a tight connection that the reader needs to worry about having read the other books, and it’s also not completely revealed or resolved. But these people all inhabit the same social circles, and everyone seems to know, or at least know of, everyone else.

I’m looking forward to exploring this more, both in the author’s upcoming novel, Cocoa Beach, and by diving back into some of her earlier works. All in all, I’m glad I took this little trip to The Wicked City.

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