Review: Between You and Me by Susan Wiggs

Review: Between You and Me by Susan WiggsBetween You and Me by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on June 26, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Deep within the peaceful heart of Amish country, a life-or-death emergency shatters a quiet world to its core. Number-one New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs delivers a riveting story that challenges our deepest-held beliefs.

Caught between two worlds, Caleb Stoltz is bound by a deathbed promise to raise his orphaned niece and nephew in Middle Grove, where life revolves around family, farm, faith—and long-held suspicions about outsiders. When disaster strikes, Caleb is thrust into an urban environment of high-tech medicine and the relentless rush of modern life.

Dr. Reese Powell is poised to join the medical dynasty of her wealthy, successful parents. Bold, assertive, and quick-thinking, she lives for the addictive rush of saving lives. When a shocking accident brings Caleb Stoltz into her life, Reese is forced to deal with a situation that challenges everything she thinks she knows—and ultimately emboldens her to question her most powerful beliefs.

Then one impulsive act brings about a clash of cultures in a tug-of-war that plays out in a courtroom, challenging the very nature of justice and reverberating through generations, straining the fragile threads of faith and family.

Deeply moving and unforgettable, Between You and Me is an emotionally complex story of love and loss, family and friendship, and the arduous road to discovering the heart’s true path.

My Review:

Between You and Me is not quite what I was expecting. Much in the same way that neither Reese Powell’s nor Caleb Stoltz’ lives turn out quite the way that they – or anyone around them – expected.

The unexpected can turn out to be wonderful.

Reese Powell and Caleb Stoltz don’t seem to have much in common, at least not on the surface, and they certainly live lives that should never have intersected. But life is funny that way, and sometimes we meet the people we really need to when we really need them.

Even if, or especially because, they challenge us and everything we thought we believed. The best laid plans of mice, men and especially parents go oft astray.

Caleb’s nephew is injured in a tragic accident, and his tiny Amish farming community does not have the resources needed to keep the boy from bleeding out. His nearly severed arm is a lost cause, but the boy’s life isn’t – at least not yet. When the life flight helicopter comes to take Jonah Stoltz from Middle Grove to Philadelphia, Caleb rides along.

His first ride in a helicopter, something that he has always longed to do.

While Caleb may be Amish, his heart has always yearned for the wider world. When he went on his rumspringa, his version of going wild was to attend college. He had no plans to return to Middle Grove and his abusive father.

But when his older brother and sister-in-law were murdered, Caleb took up his duty and returned to care for his niece and nephew. Not just because he made a promise to his brother as he lay dying, but to prevent his father from abusing the two children who would otherwise be left in his care.

Jonah’s tragic accident gives Caleb a tiny, tempting chance to break away from his life for a brief moment, and in his care for the boy he lets himself take it.

Reese Powell is a fourth-year resident at the hospital where Jonah is taken. She’s part of the trauma team that preps the boy for surgery. And something in her heart reaches out to the boy whose life has just irrevocably changed, and to the lost, lonely man who is truly a stranger in a strange land in the urban setting.

Just as Caleb takes this brief opportunity to break free of the life he is expected to lead, in her friendship with him Reese discovers an opportunity to examine what she wants for herself, and to break free of the heavy weight of her parents’ expectation.

They expect her to become a pediatric surgeon so that she can become a partner in their high powered and highly successful OB/GYN IVF practice. A practice that produced Reese herself. But what they want for her is not what she wants for herself. Not that Reese does not want to be a doctor, but that she wants to be a different kind of doctor than her parents, or than her parents have planned for her to be.

And even though their attempts at any relationship beyond friendship seem doomed to failure, that they try gives both of them the courage to discover what they are truly searching for in life.

It might even lead them back to each other.

Escape Rating A+: Upon reflection, I don’t think that the blurb matches the book all that much, except for its final paragraph. Between You and Me is deeply moving and unforgettable, and it is an emotionally complex story of love, loss, family, friendship and just how difficult it can be to find your own true path and the people who you need to have walking that path beside you.

But this isn’t a story about faith, except possibly faith in oneself. It also is not a story about beliefs, at least not in the religious sense that feels implied in the blurb. Instead, it feels a story about the intersection of duty and commitment, about the weight of promises made and the guilt of promises broken. And how sometimes it’s necessary to break the literal meaning of a promise in order to keep the spirit of it.

Caleb is Amish, but he has never been baptised in the faith. In other words, he has always had plenty of doubts, and those doubts have kept him from becoming a full member of the community. He promised his brother that he would raise his children in Middle Grove, but he did not promise to make any religious commitments of his own to the community.

Caleb has always had a foot in both camps. He lives in Middle Grove, but he works for the English in nearby Grantham Park, as the lead horse trainer for the Budweiser Clydesdales as well as other big, beautiful horses. And he does accounting on the side.

Much of the clash of cultures in the story is about the clash within Caleb’s heart. He wants to leave. He’s always wanted to leave. A big part of this story comprises the circumstances that finally make him realize that he needs to leave, both for his niece and nephew’s sake and for his own.

It’s often a hard choice, and it’s one that we see Caleb struggle with every step of the way.

Reese’s problem often seem much easier, but that doesn’t mean that her difficulties aren’t real or that we don’t feel for her as well. Because we do.

There is a romance at the heart of Between You and Me, but this is not a romance in the genre sense. The story here revolves around Caleb’s and Reese’s separate journeys to find themselves and the truth of their own hearts – not in the romantic sense but in the finding true purpose sense.

The happy ending is their reward for taking the difficult path. And it’s the reader’s reward for following them on their journey.

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Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann MahThe Lost Vintage by Ann Mah
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, family saga, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sweetbitter meets The Nightingale in this page-turning novel about a woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy and unexpectedly uncovers a lost diary, an unknown relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II

To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy, to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife Heather, who now oversee the grapes’ day-to-day management. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a neighbor vintner and her first love.

At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousins clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of the Second World War and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great half-aunt who was teenager during the Nazi occupation.

As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?

My Review:

This book is every bit as delicious as the wines produced by the region that it celebrates. And the history that it uncovers has just as many top notes, undertones and hidden flavors as the wine.

The Lost Vintage combines two different fictional varietals, the contemporary second-chance at love story with a heartfelt exploration of the history of the Burgundy region under the Nazi Occupation, along with the excesses enacted after liberation. And it is a story about one family finally coming to terms with all the beautiful and terrible secrets hidden in its past.

This is Kate’s story. The present we watch is her present, and it is her determination and blind luck that uncovers the hidden past.

Kate’s family are wine growers in the Burgundy region of France. Kate has always planned to have a career in the wine industry, but not as a grower. Her plan was to study, become a sommelier and eventually take the prestigious Master of Wine test.

And that’s where she’s stuck.

She’s failed the test twice, and is preparing herself to tackle the test for the third and final time. (It’s a three-strikes and you’re out kind of test). But Kate has a blind spot that is ruining her chances of achieving her dream. She just can’t seem to taste the wines from the region that her family calls home.

A place that she once, almost, made her life.

So she goes back to confront the family history, and her own. She goes back to help her cousin bring in the harvest, and to avoid as much as possible the man she almost married.

And get to the heart of everything that is holding her back from her dream. In the process, she discovers the secrets that her family has buried for 70 years – along with more than enough wine to recover their fortunes.

But first they have to resurrect the past, and begin to forgive while consciously choosing not to forget. And so does Kate.

Escape Rating A: This is an absolutely marvelous book, whether you love family sagas, wine culture, French history, World War II history or even second chances at love stories, because The Lost Vintage is all of the above.

It’s so easy to fall into this book, and especially to feel for Kate on the horns of her many, many dilemmas. She’s been driven to pursue her dreams, and she’s unconsciously following the example of her mother, a woman who pursued her own dreams at the cost of her family.

At the same time, the history that Kate uncovers eats her up, and consumes her family on multiple levels. The Burgundy region was infamous for its collaborators during the Occupation. The young woman who Kate first discovers through a yellowing high school diploma and a box of old science textbooks seems like a woman Kate would like to have met – until she discovers that her great-aunt was punished as a collaborator after the war. Sickened by the discovery of her family’s history of bigotry, at the same time she uncovers the fruits of their lost labor – a hidden collection of famous pre-war vintages, enough to save the family fortunes several times over.

But the discovery comes at too high a cost, as her Jewish cousin discovers that she has married into a family that sent others just like her to the concentration camps. And as their great-uncle creates rifts in the family by refusing to discuss the history that his own parents made him promise never to reveal.

Kate is caught between her need to learn the truth about her family, her need to learn as much as she can to pass her test, and her desire to avoid at all costs the man she almost married. A man whose family holdings are next door to her own, and whose life is interwoven with those of her cousins in France.

There’s history, mystery and romance woven into this story. We feel both for the characters in the present who desperately need to know, and those in the past who just as desperately need to conceal that knowledge.

Even though I guessed some of the history, I was still surprised by the twist at the end. And pleased to be so surprised.

The Lost Vintage is a story to savor. Preferably with a glass of wine. Or several. And some tissues.

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Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen BrusatteThe Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dinosaurs, nonfiction, science
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on April 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"THE ULTIMATE DINOSAUR BIOGRAPHY," hails Scientific American: A sweeping and revelatory new history of the age of dinosaurs, from one of our finest young scientists.

"This is scientific storytelling at its most visceral, striding with the beasts through their Triassic dawn, Jurassic dominance, and abrupt demise in the Cretaceous." — Nature

The dinosaurs. Sixty-six million years ago, the Earth’s most fearsome creatures vanished. Today they remain one of our planet’s great mysteries. Now The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reveals their extraordinary, 200-million-year-long story as never before.

In this captivating narrative (enlivened with more than seventy original illustrations and photographs), Steve Brusatte, a young American paleontologist who has emerged as one of the foremost stars of the field—naming fifteen new species and leading groundbreaking scientific studies and fieldwork—masterfully tells the complete, surprising, and new history of the dinosaurs, drawing on cutting-edge science to dramatically bring to life their lost world and illuminate their enigmatic origins, spectacular flourishing, astonishing diversity, cataclysmic extinction, and startling living legacy. Captivating and revelatory, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a book for the ages.

Brusatte traces the evolution of dinosaurs from their inauspicious start as small shadow dwellers—themselves the beneficiaries of a mass extinction caused by volcanic eruptions at the beginning of the Triassic period—into the dominant array of species every wide-eyed child memorizes today, T. rex, Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and more. This gifted scientist and writer re-creates the dinosaurs’ peak during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, when thousands of species thrived, and winged and feathered dinosaurs, the prehistoric ancestors of modern birds, emerged. The story continues to the end of the Cretaceous period, when a giant asteroid or comet struck the planet and nearly every dinosaur species (but not all) died out, in the most extraordinary extinction event in earth’s history, one full of lessons for today as we confront a “sixth extinction.”

Brusatte also recalls compelling stories from his globe-trotting expeditions during one of the most exciting eras in dinosaur research—which he calls “a new golden age of discovery”—and offers thrilling accounts of some of the remarkable findings he and his colleagues have made, including primitive human-sized tyrannosaurs; monstrous carnivores even larger than T. rex; and paradigm-shifting feathered raptors from China.

An electrifying scientific history that unearths the dinosaurs’ epic saga, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs will be a definitive and treasured account for decades to come.

My Review:

The dinosaurs may be dead, but the study of the dinosaurs is downright lively, at least according to this book.

Or to put it another way, if your kid really, really, really loves dinosaurs, there’s a chance he’ll become a bit like the author of this book – at least in his enthusiasm for his subject. And that’s a good thing – even if it may be driving you crazy at the moment.

Just as elephants and polar bears are the charismatic megafauna of the 21st century, dinosaurs fill that same space in the popular imagination as representatives of, well, the Jurassic period of prehistory. There are even dinosaur analogs for those two species, with the horned triceratops filling the plant-eater niche while there is no better representative for carnivores than the tyrannosaurus rex – the great lizard king of the dinosaurs.

We all recognize them, and many other dinosaurs, because those great beasts, their impressive rise and their sudden and thunderous fall, have captured the popular imagination.

This book is both the story of one relatively young paleontologist, and to a significant extent the experiences and enthusiasms that made him into the scientist that he is today.

And it is also the story of the rise of the dinosaurs from one species among many all the way back in the Triassic period, through their apex as the dominant species on this planet, to their sudden and catastrophic elimination at the hands – or rather the crash – of a massive asteroid.

It is their demise that eventually led to us. Unlike the fictional world of The Flintstones comics, man and dinosaur never occupied this planet together – but we live with their descendants.

Reality Rating B: Every once in a while I pick up a popular science book, if it is about a topic that interests me. A long time ago I listened to the audio of Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, about another great proliferation of species that are no longer among us. It’s from the period before the dinosaurs begin their long rise, but the books remind me of each other a bit.

There are both written in a popular style, intended to be read by an educated layperson. One doesn’t need to be a scientist, or even an aficionado, to get the point of that book. Or this one.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is an exploration, based on the science that is now known, of the conditions that gave rise to these iconic beasts, the world in which they lived and the contemporaries against whom they fought for dominance.

They didn’t come out of nowhere, and the author does a good job of introducing readers to the evolution that created them, and the evolution that allowed them to become the dominant life on earth. That they no longer are is fate, or chance, or karma, or destiny. Just as Monty Python chanted that “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition”, no one expects the planet to get whacked by a giant meteor – at least until it happens.

There’s a lot to love in this book, especially if you’ve never gotten over your fascination with dinosaurs – as it seems that no paleontologist ever does. There’s plenty of history to sink into, both the history of the dinosaurs and the history of the finding and figuring out about the dinosaurs.

At the same time, there’s also more than a bit of name-dropping about well-known paleontologists and their discoveries. The discoveries are always fascinating, but we don’t get quite enough about the individuals for them to stick in the mind.

In the end, it’s the dinosaurs themselves that stand out. Or fly. The idea that modern-day birds are themselves the last of the dinosaurs is an arresting idea. One that will make non-scientist readers look at our feathered friends in a whole new way.

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle TellerAll the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the vein of Wicked, The Woodcutter, and Boy, Snow, Bird, a luminous reimagining of a classic tale, told from the perspective of Agnes, Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My Review:

As Agnes says, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power.” And that is as true of the story that Agnes tells of her own life as it is about the fairy tale that becomes wrapped around the life of her stepdaughter Ella – known to legend as Cinderella. Although Ella never spent a day amongst the cinders in her entire privileged life.

Well, there was that one day, but it wasn’t exactly like the fairy tale. Then again, nothing was like the fairy tale. Because fairy tales aren’t real. They are just more compelling than day-to-day reality.

At least reality according to Ella’s not-so-wicked stepmother. Who may, of course, be an unreliable narrator of her own life – but then, aren’t we all?

Agnes begins her life as the second daughter of a poor serf in the village of Aviceford. Her family is too poor to feed her along with everyone else, so she is sent to the manor to become a laundry maid. It’s the best/worst thing that ever happens to her, and pretty much sets the pattern for her entire life.

Agnes is a woman who never manages to take two steps forward without taking at least one step back. While there are some happy moments in her life, they seem to mostly occur in spite of every single deck stacked against her pretty much all the time.

It’s a sad tale.

Just when it seems Agnes has finally found a way to have a fairly good and productive life, if not exactly a happy one, she finds herself face to face, or tantrum to tantrum, with her stepdaughter Ella. The world may see Ella as a fairy tale princess, but Agnes has to deal with her as a spoiled little brat who grows into a spoiled and self-indulgent young woman.

Not that Agnes ever says any of that to herself. She’s doing her level best to raise Ella, and she’s actually a pretty reasonable stepmother, but circumstances, along with the girl’s father and her godmother – who is certainly no magical being – thwart any attempt at the slightest amount of discipline at every turn.

What we’re left with is the story of a young woman who managed to get her way all her life, and the poor woman who has been cast as evil not because of anything she actually said or did, but because it fits the fairy tale so much better.

Escape Rating B: The obvious comparison is to Wicked, which I admit I have not read. Just as in Wicked, we have the “true” story, told in her own words, of a character that myth has turned into an absolute monster. Of course no one ever sees themselves as a monster.

At the end, I found myself sympathizing with Agnes and her two daughters, and thinking that Ella is at best a spoiled and self-indulgent little brat, who barely has the intelligence to keep manipulating circumstances to her own advantage.

Agnes’ story, on the other hand, reads like a tragedy. She does her best, and life knocks her down at every turn. But I did like the way that the author turned the whole “ugly stepsister” trope on its tiny little head.

It is true that we have an unfortunate tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and that correlation is far from proven. Ella’s stepsisters Charlotte and Matilda are objectively not beautiful by the standards of the time. Their father was one of the Moors from Spain, and as a consequence their skin is too dark for conventional beauty. Charlotte suffered an accident with scalding water as a child, and Matilda survived a terrible case of smallpox. Both left scars. But they both are considerably more beautiful on the inside (and a whole lot cleverer) than Ella has the wit to be. I wish we saw a bit more of them.

I also enjoyed the way that Agnes simply questioned the logic of some of the stranger conclusions drawn by the fairy tale. Of course the Prince could easily find Ella. That’s what loyal retainers are for. And while he may have been completely smitten, he would instantly recognize her the moment they were face to face again. And that whole business of cutting off toes and heels – UGH!

I enjoyed Agnes journal entries in the present much more than her memories of the past. Her story seems to move from downtrodden tragedy to downtrodden tragedy, and while it feels at least somewhat true to medieval life and its lack of opportunities for women, it becomes disheartening to read after a time.

The story ends with poor Agnes worrying that she was not charitable enough in her behavior towards Ella. Not because that behavior has resulted in her current circumstances, but because she finds herself believing that she didn’t bend over backwards to indulge the child nearly enough.

In this version of the fairy tale, at least, the stepmother has nothing to feel guilty about.

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Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.