Tag Archives: historical drama

The Bookseller’s Secret: A Novel of Nancy Mitford and WWII by Michelle Gable Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A one-time author suffering from a personal loss and the horrors of WWII must decide if a story she’s been asked to tell is worth the price her life may pay as the hunt for her manuscript 80 years later takes on a whole new meaning in author Michelle Gable’s “The Bookseller’s Secret: A Novel of Nancy Mitford and WWII”. 

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The Synopsis

From New York Times bestselling author Michelle Gable comes a dual-narrative set at the famed Heywood Hill Bookshop in London about a struggling American writer on the hunt for a rumored lost manuscript written by the iconic Nancy Mitford—bookseller, spy, author, and aristocrat—during World War II.

In 1942, London, Nancy Mitford is worried about more than air raids and German spies. Still recovering from a devastating loss, the once sparkling Bright Young Thing is estranged from her husband, her allowance has been cut, and she’s given up her writing career. On top of this, her five beautiful but infamous sisters continue making headlines with their controversial politics.

Eager for distraction and desperate for income, Nancy jumps at the chance to manage the Heywood Hill bookshop while the owner is away at war. Between the shop’s brisk business and the literary salons she hosts for her eccentric friends, Nancy’s life seems on the upswing. But when a mysterious French officer insists that she has a story to tell, Nancy must decide if picking up the pen again and revealing all is worth the price she might be forced to pay.

Eighty years later, Heywood Hill is abuzz with the hunt for a lost wartime manuscript written by Nancy Mitford. For one woman desperately in need of a change, the search will reveal not only a new side to Nancy, but an even more surprising link between the past and present…

The Review

This was a remarkable story. The way the author balances the history and knowledge of the infamous author’s life and the war itself with the more modern-day characters who begin discovering things about Nancy as they search for her long-lost manuscript was so fascinating to see unfold. The setting of both time periods and the descriptive way the author writes really does a great job of painting a picture of the events of this narrative so perfectly.

It was the character growth in this book that really sold me on this narrative. The modern-day protagonist, Katie, really drew the reader in and kept the mystery and wonder of discovering more about Nancy’s life alive, while Nancy herself was engaging and mesmerizing as she balanced her work in the bookstore, her standing in social circles in the midst of her loss and the war, and of course her passionate affair with the French General who became the love of her life. 

The Verdict

A beautiful, heartfelt, and creative approach to historical fiction narratives, author Michelle Gable’s “The Bookseller’s Secret” is a must-read novel of 2021. The perfect balance of dual-narratives with mystery and history blended in made this story shine brightly, and the setting really will engage history buffs while hitting the heartstrings in the process. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

MICHELLE GABLE is the New York Times bestselling author of A Paris Apartment, I’ll See You in Paris, The Book of Summer, and The Summer I Met Jack. She attended The College of William & Mary, where she majored in accounting, and spent twenty years working in finance before becoming a full-time writer. She grew up in San Diego and lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, with her husband and two daughters. Find her at michellegable.com or on Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest, @MGableWriter.

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Author website: https://michellegable.com/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MGableWriter 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mgablewriter/ 

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Google Books: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Bookseller_s_Secret.html?id=eyX3DwAAQBAJ

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Booksellers-Secret-Novel-Nancy-Mitford/dp/1525806467

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Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-booksellers-secret/id1527558782

Q&A with Michelle Gable

Q: What’s the “story behind the story” for The Bookseller’s Secret?  Why did you decide to write this book?

A: I’ve been a longtime fan of Nancy Mitford’s work and became obsessed with the entire Mitford clan after reading The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell, about twenty years ago. In short, Nancy was one of six beautiful sisters with very distinct (and controversial!) personas: Nancy the novelist, Pamela the countrywoman, Diana the Fascist (and “most hated woman in England”), Unity the Hitler confidante, Jessica the Communist, and Deborah the Duchess. Writing something about this crew has been in the back of my mind since long before I was published and when tossing around ideas, my agent brought up Nancy’s time at the Heywood Hill bookshop during the Blitz. I love London, and any novel set in a bookstore, as well as new takes on the World War II genre, so I was game. 

As for the modern storyline, though Katie’s life is vastly different from mine, let’s just say we share some of the same writerly angst!

Q: What message do you hope readers take from the story?

A: I never write with a message in mind, I just hope something about the story sticks with readers, whether it’s a character, some piece of history learned, or a new way of looking at a situation. I’m shocked how few Americans know about Nancy Mitford (even fellow writers) so I do hope readers walk away with an appreciation for her brilliance (and humor!) 

Q: Do you have any specific writing rituals (favorite shirt, pen, drink, etc)?

A: I don’t! Sometimes I handwrite, sometimes I write on a computer. Sometimes I have coffee, or water, or Diet Coke. Usually I work in my home office but have been known to write during my daughters’ softball games. I started this book in February 2020 so most of it was written when EVERYONE was home on lockdown. One of my daughters took over my office so I spent a lot of time writing in my bedroom, with the dog curled up next to me. This is when I learned my husband uses binders for work (click-click-click). 

One “habit” that is consistent is that I always stop in the middle of something that is going well so it’s easier to pick up the next day. Few things are more daunting than staring at a blank page! 

Q: Which character do you relate to the most?

A: I relate to Katie’s writerly angst, but I really connected to Nancy Mitford’s writing style. I’d like to think we have similar senses of humor but that is giving myself a lot of credit!

Q: What can you tell us about your next project?

A: Though I vowed no more WWII novels, I couldn’t help myself! This one takes place in Rome, near the end of the war, and centers on women who created propaganda to feed to the Germans, the goal to lower morale. It’s an exploration of how misinformation not only affects those receiving it, but those creating it. 

Q: What do you think drives authors to continue to find stories to tell set around WWII?

A: I think because there are endless stories to tell! It involves most every country, even so called “neutral” countries, and people from literally every walk of life. Brave and scared. Rich and poor. Powerful and powerless. Obedient and rebellious. Every combination of the human experience! 

Q: How are you hoping readers will relate to this story?

A: I don’t have any specific hopes, just that they do! And, of course, I want everyone to gain a new appreciation for Nancy Mtiford. 

Q: What’s something that you connected with personally as you researched and wrote this story?

A: While she was working at Heywood Hill, Nancy was struggling with ideas for her fifth book just as I had been with my fifth book when my agent suggested writing about her! Also, her husband and mine look exactly alike which is a little creepy. You don’t see a lot of tall, blonde, adult men. And Nancy Mitford died exactly one year to the day before I was born, which also felt like it meant something.

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An Exclusive Excerpt From “The Bookseller’s Secret”

April 1946

Hotel de Bourgogne, Paris VII

There they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment—click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes…and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves.

—Nancy Mitford,The Pursuit of Love

Alors, racontez!” the Colonel said, and spun her beneath his arm.

Nancy had to duck, of course. The man was frightfully short. 

“Racontez! Racontez!”

She laughed, thinking of all the times the Colonel made this demand. Racontez! Tell me!

Allô—allô,” he’d say across some crackling line. “Were you asleep?”

He might be in Paris, or Algiers, or another place he could not name. Weeks or months would pass and then a phone rang in London and set Nancy Mitford’s world straight again.

Alors, racontez! Tell me everything!

And she did.

The Colonel found Nancy’s stories comical, outrageous, unlike anything he’d ever known, his delight beginning first and foremost with the six Mitford girls, and their secret society. Nancy also had a brother, but he hardly counted at all.

C’est pas vrai!” the Colonel would cry, with each new tale. “That cannot be true!

“It all happened,” Nancy told him. “Every word. What do you expect with a Nazi, a Communist, and several Fascists, in one family tree?”

C’est incroyable!”

But the Hon Society was the past, and this gilded Parisian hotel room was now, likewise Nancy’s beloved Colonel, presently reaching into the bucket of champagne. How had she gotten to this place? It was the impossible dream.

“Promise we can stay here forever,” Nancy said.

“Here or somewhere like it,” he answered with a grin.

Nancy’s heart bounced. Heavens, he was ever-so-ugly with his pock-marked face and receding hairline, the precise opposite of her strapping husband, a man so wholesome he might’ve leapt from the pages of a seedsman catalogue. But Nancy loved her Colonel with every part of herself, in particular the female, which represented another chief difference between the two men.

“You know, my friends are desperate to take a French lover,” Nancy said, and she tossed her gloves onto the bed. “All thanks to a fictional character from a book. Everyone is positively in love with Fabrice!”

Bien sûr, as in real life,” the Colonel said as he popped the cork.

The champagne bubbled up the bottle’s neck, and dribbled onto his stubby hands.

“You’re such a wolf!” Nancy said. She heaved open the shutters and scanned the square below. “At last! A hotel with a view.”

Their room overlooked Le Palais Bourbon, home to l’Assemblée nationale, the two-hundred-year seat of the French government, minus the interlude during which it was occupied by the Luftwaffe. Mere months ago German propaganda hung from the building: DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN. Germany is victorious on all fronts. But the banners were gone now, and France had been freed. Nancy was in Paris, just as she’d planned.

“This is heaven!” Nancy said. She peered over her shoulder and coquettishly kicked up a heel. “A luncheon party tomorrow? What do you think?”

“Okay, chéri, quoi que tu en dises,” the Colonel said, as she sauntered toward him.

“Whatever I want?” Nancy said. “I’ve been dying to hear those words! What about snails, chicken, and port salut? No more eating from tins for you. On that note, darling, you mustn’t worry about your job prospects. I know you’ll miss governing France but, goodness, we’ll have so much more free time!”

Nancy was proud of the work the Colonel had done as General de Gaulle’s chef du cabinet, but his resignation made life far more convenient. No longer would she have to wait around, or brook his maddeningly specific requests. I’ve got a heavy political day LET ME SEE—can you come at 2 minutes to 6?

“It’s really one of the best things that could’ve happened to us,” Nancy said. “Oh, darling, life will be pure bliss!” 

Nancy leaned forward and planted a kiss on the Colonel’s nose.

On trinque?” he said, and lifted a glass.

Nancy raised hers to meet it.

Santé!” he cheered.

Nancy rolled her eyes. “The French are so dull with their toasts. Who cares about my health? It’s wretched, most of the time. Cheers to novels, I’d say! Cheers to readers the world over!”

À la femme auteur, Nancy Mitford!” The Colonel clinked her glass. “Vive la littérature!”

Excerpted from The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable, Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Gable Bilski. Published by Graydon House Books.

Landscape of a Marriage by Gail Ward Olmsted Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Author Gail Ward Olmsted tells the riveting story of a widow who marries her brother-in-law, and fights to earn the affections of her new husband as she helps inspire him to become the father of American Landscape Architecture and find her own place in the world in the biographical and historical fiction novel, “Landscape of a Marriage”.

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The Synopsis

A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever.

New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother’s deathbed plea to “not let Mary suffer”. But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband’s love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a ‘beating green heart’ in the center of every urban space.

Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side. Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary’s journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man.

The Review

A truly original and yet historical read, the author has done a masterful job of bringing protagonist and real-life historical figure Mary Olmsted, wife of legendary landscape architect Frederick Olmsted. The unique perspective of Mary makes the history feel alive and within reach, highlighting the struggles and changes many women faced back in the day, from gender bias to finding balance within marriage and even bringing love and romance into a marriage, which flew in the face of so many’s belief that status and wealth were the keys to a successful marriage. 

The balance between history, professionalism, and family is felt early on in this narrative. The evolving relationship between Frederick and Mary is engaging, taking a tragedy and leading to a marriage-turned-romance situation. The bond between them and the growth of their relationship as the world around them changed was fascinating to see unfold. Yet it was Mary herself that made this narrative so inspired and heartfelt, exploring her commitment to her marriage, fighting against societal expectations for her marriage and family, and how she processed the emotional impacts in her life made this story feel not only investing but real. 

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The Verdict

Historically driven, entertaining, and heartfelt, author Gail Ward Olmsted’s “Landscape of a Marriage” was a must-read novel! Fantastic character development and a beautifully rich history to draw upon lead to a marvelously engaging narrative that readers won’t be able to put down. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a fulltime basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, an ancestor of her husband’s, and his wife Mary. For more information, please visit her on Facebook and at GailOlmsted.com

https://www.instagram.com/gwolmsted/

https://www.bookbub.com/books/landscape-of-a-marriage-central-park-was-only-the-beginning-by-gail-ward-olmsted

Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A woman finds herself drawn back to the California Estate of her Uncle after inheriting the property, but as she fulfills his final request to have an artist record his album at the property, memories of her time spent at the property in the summer of 1979, and the shocking mystery of her cousin Willa’s disappearance, come back to haunt her in this thrilling historical fiction from author Amy Mason Doan, “Lady Sunshine”.

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The Synopsis

For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods… until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.

Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.

The Review

A truly heartfelt and enthralling historical fiction and mystery read, author Amy Mason Doan is a master of weaving various genres together in a most natural way. The culture and setting of both the 70’s and 90’s California scene was felt wholeheartedly in this book, becoming a character all its own within the narrative. The pacing as the stories of both the past and the (nearer past) helped elevate not only the mystery and narrative of this book but the character’s interaction with one another. 

The characters and their relationships were the true heart of this novel. The way certain characters embodied the music scene of late 70’s era California was incredible to see unfold, and really informed the development of Jackie as a protagonist to the character’s present day. The addition of the mystery aspect of this family’s legacy and history really showcased the balance the author found within the historical fiction genre, making this a truly remarkable read.

The Verdict

A masterful, engaging, and thought-provoking mystery and historical-fiction novel, author Amy Mason Doan’s “Lady Sunshine” is a must-read story. A great blend of family dynamics, cultural evolution and family secrets and how they influence the development of our futures make this a stand-out narrative, and the perfect historical fiction read for the 2021 summer. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Headshots by Sash Photography http://sashphotography.com

AMY MASON DOAN is the author of The Summer List and Summer Hours. She earned a BA in English from UC Berkeley and an MA in journalism from Stanford University, and has written for The Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes, among other publications. She grew up in Danville, California, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter.

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Here is an Excerpt From “LADY SUNSHINE”

1

A Girl, Her Cousin, and a Waterfall

1999

I rattle the padlock on the gate, strum my fingers along the cold chain-link fence.

I own this place.

Maybe if I repeat it often enough I’ll believe it.

All along the base of the fence are tributes: shells, notes, sketches, bunches of flowers. Some still fresh, some so old the petals are crisp as parchment. I follow the fence uphill, along the coast side, and stop at a wooden, waist-high sign marking the path up to the waterfall. It wasn’t here the summer I visited.

The sign is covered in words and drawings, so tattooed-over by fan messages that you can barely read the official one. I run my fingertips over the engravings: initials, peace symbols, Thank you’s, I Love You’s. Fragments of favorite lyrics. After coming so far to visit the legendary estate, people need to do something, leave their mark, if only with a rock on fog-softened wood.

Song titles from my uncle’s final album, Three, are carved everywhere. “Heart, Home, Hope.”

“Leaf, Shell, Raindrop.”

“Angel, Lion, Willow.” Someone has etched that last one in symbols instead of words. The angel refers to Angela, my aunt. The lion is my uncle Graham.

And the willow tree. Willa, my cousin.

I have a pointy metal travel nail file in my suitcase; I could add my message to the rest, my own tribute to this place, to the Kingstons. To try to explain what happened the summer I spent here. I could tell it like one of the campfire tales I used to spin for Willa.

This is the story of a girl, her cousin, and a waterfall…

But there’s no time for that, not with only seven days to clear the house for sale. Back at the gate, where Toby’s asleep in his cat carrier in the shade, I dig in my overnight bag for the keys. They came in a FedEx with a fat stack of documents I must’ve read on the plane from Boston a dozen times—thousands of words, all dressed up in legal jargon. When it’s so simple, really. Everything inside that fence is mine now, whether I want it or not.

I unlock the gate, lift the metal shackle, and walk uphill to the highest point, where the gravel widens into a parking lot, then fades away into grass. The field opens out below me just like I remember. We called it “the bowl,” because of the way the edges curve up all around it. A golden bowl scooped into the hills, rimmed on three sides by dark green woods. The house, a quarter mile ahead of me at the top of the far slope, is a pale smudge in the fir trees.

I stop to take it in, this piece of land I now own. The Sandcastle, everyone called it.

Without the neighbors’ goats and Graham’s guests to keep the grass down, the field has grown wild, many of the yellow weeds high as my belly button.

Willa stood here with me once and showed me how from this angle the estate resembled a sun. The kind a child would draw, with a happy face inside. Once I saw it, it was impossible to un-see:

The round, straw-colored field, trails squiggling off to the woods in every direction, like rays. The left eye—the campfire circle. The right eye—the blue aboveground pool. The nose was the vertical line of picnic benches in the middle of the circle that served as our communal outdoor dining table. The smile was the curving line of parked cars and motorcycles and campers.

All that’s gone now, save for the pool, which is squinting, collapsed, moldy green instead of its old bright blue.

I should go back for my bag and Toby but I can’t resist—I move on, down to the center of the field. Far to my right in the woods, the brown roofline of the biggest A-frame cabin, Kingfisher, pokes through the firs. But no other cabins are visible, the foliage is so thick now. Good. Each alteration from the place of my memories gives me confidence. I can handle this for a week. One peaceful, private week to box things up and send them away.

“Sure you don’t want me to come help?” Paul had asked when he dropped me at the airport this morning. “We could squeeze in a romantic weekend somewhere. I’ve always wanted to go to San Francisco.”

“You have summer school classes, remember? Anyway, it’ll be totally boring, believe me.”

I’d told him—earnest, sweet Paul, who all the sixth-graders at the elementary school where we work hope they get as their teacher and who wants to marry me—that the trip was no big deal. That I’d be away for a week because my aunt in California passed away. That I barely knew her and just had to help pack up her old place to get it ready for sale.

He believed me.

I didn’t tell him that the “old place” is a stunning, sprawling property perched over the Pacific, studded with cabins and outbuildings and a legendary basement recording studio. That the land bubbles with natural hot springs and creeks and waterfalls.

Or that I’ve inherited it. All of it. The fields, the woods, the house, the studio. And my uncle’s music catalog.

I didn’t tell him that I visited here once as a teenager, or that for a little while, a long time ago, I was sure I’d stay forever.

Excerpted from Lady Sunshine @ 2021 by Amy Mason Doan, used with permission by Graydon House.

The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

Two young women in very different circumstances during the German occupation of WWII find themselves becoming quick friends, but soon that friendship is tested as the war grows far deadlier in author Pam Jenoff’s “The Woman with the Blue Star”.

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The Synopsis

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris comes a riveting tale of courage and unlikely friendship during World War II.

1942. Sadie Gault is eighteen and living with her parents in the Kraków Ghetto during World War II. When the Nazis liquidate the ghetto, Sadie and her pregnant mother are forced to seek refuge in the perilous tunnels beneath the city. One day Sadie looks up through a grate and sees a girl about her own age buying flowers.

Ella Stepanek is an affluent Polish girl living a life of relative ease with her stepmother, who has developed close alliances with the occupying Germans. While on an errand in the market, she catches a glimpse of something moving beneath a grate in the street. Upon closer inspection, she realizes it’s a girl hiding.

Ella begins to aid Sadie and the two become close, but as the dangers of the war worsen, their lives are set on a collision course that will test them in the face of overwhelming odds. Inspired by incredible true stories, The Woman with the Blue Star is an unforgettable testament to the power of friendship and the extraordinary strength of the human will to survive.

The Review

The author does a truly fantastic and haunting job of capturing the horrors of WWII and the conditions that so many were forced to live in. Right off the bat readers are shown the pain of loss that one of the protagonists goes through in the heart-pounding moments a family attempts to find an escape from the overwhelming German forces. The imagery and sense of setting really are powerful in this story, as readers are immediately brought to the very different and distinct lives that separated those being hunted by the German occupation and those living “normally” during the occupation. 

What really stands at the heart of this story however is the relationship between the two young women that become the protagonists of the story. Sadie and Ella’s stories are heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once, highlighting their individual struggles in this time of war while also showcasing how friendship, love, and relationships, in general, can give those in a time of need or struggle the hope they need to either endure or overcome those struggles. Readers will instantly be drawn into their friendship and the path their lives take during this tumultuous time. 

The Verdict

A mesmerizing, haunting, and emotional historical-fiction read, author Pam Jenoff’s “The Girl with the Blue Star” is a must-read novel and the perfect historical-fiction read for the upcoming summer season. For those who love history and stories that delve into personal relationships that help overcome struggles, this is a truly engaging and intriguing read that cannot be missed. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Pam Jenoff is the author of several books of historical fiction, including the NYT bestseller The Orphan’s Tale. She holds a degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a degree in history from Cambridge, and she received her JD from UPenn. Her novels are inspired by her experiences working at the Pentagon and as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and 3 children near Philadelphia, where she teaches law.

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An Excerpt from THE GIRL WITH THE BLUE STAR

Sadie

Kraków, PolandMarch 1942

Everything changed the day they came for the children.

I was supposed to have been in the attic crawl space of the three-story building we shared with a dozen other families in the ghetto. Mama helped me hide there each morning before she set out to join the factory work detail, leaving me with a fresh bucket as a toilet and a stern admonishment not to leave. But I grew cold and restless alone in the tiny, frigid space where I couldn’t run or move or even stand straight. The minutes stretched silently, broken only by a scratching—unseen children, years younger than me, stowed on the other side of the wall. They were kept separate from one another without space to run and play. They sent each other messages by tapping and scratching, though, like a kind of improvised Morse code. Sometimes, in my boredom, I joined in, too.

“Freedom is where you find it,” my father often said when I complained. Papa had a way of seeing the world exactly as he wanted. “The greatest prison is in our mind.” It was easy for him to say. Though he manual ghetto labor was a far cry from his professional work as an accountant before the war, at least he was out and about each day, seeing other people. Not cooped up like me. I had scarcely left our apartment building since we were forced to move six months earlier from our apartment in the Jewish Quarter near the city center to the Podgórze neighborhood where the ghetto had been established on the southern bank of the river. I wanted a normal life, my life, free to run beyond the walls of the ghetto to all of the places I had once known and taken for granted. I imagined taking the tram to the shops on the Rynek or to the kino to see a film, exploring the ancient grassy mounds on the outskirts of the city. I wished that at least my best friend, Stefania, was one of the others hidden nearby. Instead, she lived in a separate apartment on the other side of the ghetto designated for the families of the Jewish police.

It wasn’t boredom or loneliness that had driven me from my hiding place this time, though, but hunger. I had always had a big appetite and this morning’s breakfast ration had been a half slice of bread, even less than usual. Mama had offered me her portion, but I knew she needed her strength for the long day ahead on the labor detail.

As the morning wore on in my hiding place, my empty belly had begun to ache. Visions pushed into my mind uninvited of the foods we ate before the war: rich mushroom soup and savory borscht, and pierogi, the plump, rich dumplings my grandmother used to make. By midmorning, I felt so weak from hunger that I had ventured out of my hiding place and down to the shared kitchen on the ground floor, which was really nothing more than a lone working stove burner and a sink that dripped tepid brown water. I didn’t go to take food—even if there had been any, I would never steal. Rather, I wanted to see if there were any crumbs left in the cupboard and to fill my stomach with a glass of water.

I stayed in the kitchen longer than I should, reading the dog-eared copy of the book I’d brought with me. The thing I detested most about my hiding place in the attic was the fact that it was too dark for reading. I had always loved to read and Papa had carried as many books as he could from our apartment to the ghetto, over the protests of my mother, who said we needed the space in our bags for clothes and food. It was my father who had nurtured my love of learning and encouraged my dream of studying medicine at Jagiellonian University before the German laws made that impossible, first by banning Jews and later by closing the university altogether. Even in the ghetto at the end of his long, hard days of labor, Papa loved to teach and discuss ideas with me. He had somehow found me a new book a few days earlier, too, The Count of Monte Cristo. But the hiding place in the attic was too dark for me to read and there was scarcely any time in the evening before curfew and lights-out. Just a bit longer, I told myself, turning the page in the kitchen. A few minutes wouldn’t matter at all.

I had just finished licking the dirty bread knife when I heard heavy tires screeching, followed by barking voices. I froze, nearly dropping my book. The SS and Gestapo were outside, flanked by the vile Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst, Jewish Ghetto Police, who did their bidding. It was an aktion, the sudden unannounced arrest of large groups of Jews to be taken from the ghetto to camps. The very reason I was meant to be hiding in the first place. I raced from the kitchen, across the hall and up the stairs. From below came a great crash as the front door to the apartment building splintered and the police burst through. There was no way I could make it back to the attic in time.

Instead, I raced to our third-floor apartment. My heart pounded as I looked around desperately, wishing for an armoire or other cabinet suitable for hiding in the tiny room, which was nearly bare except for a dresser and bed. There were other places, I knew, like the fake plaster wall one of the other families had constructed in the adjacent building not a week earlier. That was too far away now, impossible to reach. My eyes focused on the large steamer trunk stowed at the foot of my parents’ bed. Mama had shown me how to hide there once shortly after we first moved to the ghetto. We practiced it like a game, Mama opening the trunk so that I could climb in before she closed the lid.

The trunk was a terrible hiding place, exposed and in the middle of the room. But there was simply nowhere else. I had to try. I raced over to the bed and climbed into the trunk, then closed the lid with effort. I thanked heavens that I was tiny like Mama. I had always hated being so petite, which made me look a solid two years younger than I actually was. Now it seemed a blessing, as did the sad fact that the months of meager ghetto rations had made me thinner. I still fit in the trunk.

When we had rehearsed, we had envisioned Mama putting a blanket or some clothes over the top of the trunk. Of course, I couldn’t do that myself. So the trunk sat unmasked for anyone who walked into the room to see and open. I curled into a tiny ball and wrapped my arms around myself, feeling the white armband with the blue star on my sleeve that all Jews were required to wear.

There came a great crashing from the next building, the sound of plaster being hewn by a hammer or ax. The police had found the hiding place behind the wall, given away by the too-fresh paint. An unfamiliar cry rang out as a child was found and dragged from his hiding place. If I had gone there, I would have been caught as well.

Someone neared the door to the apartment and flung it open. My heart seized. I could hear breathing, feel eyes searching the room. I’m sorry, Mama, I thought, feeling her reproach for having left the attic. I braced myself for discovery. Would they go easier on me if I came out and gave myself up? The footsteps grew fainter as the German continued down the hall, stopping before each door, searching.

The war had come to Kraków one warm fall day two and a half years earlier when the air-raid sirens rang out for the first time and sent the playing children scurrying from the street. Life got hard before it got bad. Food disappeared and we waited in long lines for the most basic supplies. Once there was no bread for a whole week.

Then about a year ago, upon orders from the General Government, Jews teemed into Kraków by the thousands from the small towns and villages, dazed and carrying their belongings on their backs. At first I wondered how they would all find places to stay in Kazimierz, the already cramped Jewish Quarter of the city. But the new arrivals were forced to live by decree in a crowded section of the industrial Podgórze district on the far side of the river that had been cordoned off with a high wall. Mama worked with the Gmina, the local Jewish community organization, to help them resettle, and we often had friends of friends over for a meal when they first arrived, before they went to the ghetto for good. They told stories from their hometowns too awful to believe and Mama shooed me from the room so I would not hear.

Several months after the ghetto was created, we were ordered to move there as well. When Papa told me, I couldn’t believe it. We were not refugees, but residents of Kraków; we had lived in our apartment on Meiselsa Street my entire life. It was the perfect location: on the edge of the Jewish Quarter but easy walking distance to the sights and sounds of the city center and close enough to Papa’s office on Stradomska Street that he could come home for lunch. Our apartment was above an adjacent café where a pianist played every evening. Sometimes the music spilled over and Papa would whirl Mama around the kitchen to the faint strains. But according to the orders, Jews were Jews. One day. One suitcase each. And the world I had known my entire life disappeared forever.

I peered out of the thin slit opening of the trunk, trying to see across the tiny room I shared with my parents. We were lucky, I knew, to have a whole room to ourselves, a privilege we had been given because my father was a labor foreman. Others were forced to share an apartment, often two or three families together. Still, the space felt cramped compared to our real home. We were ever on top of one another, the sights and sounds and smells of daily living magnified.

“Kinder, raus!” the police called over and over again now as they patrolled the halls. Children, out. It was not the first time the Germans had come for children during the day, knowing that their parents would be at work.

But I was no longer a child. I was eighteen and might have joined the work details like others my age and some several years younger. I could see them lining up for roll call each morning before trudging to one of the factories. And I wanted to work, even though I could tell from the slow, painful way my father now walked, stooped like an old man, and how Mama’s hands were split and bleeding that it was hard and awful. Work meant a chance to get out and see and talk to people. My hiding was a subject of much debate between my parents. Papa thought I should work. Labor cards were highly prized in the ghetto. Workers were valued and less likely to be deported to one of the camps. But Mama, who seldom fought my father on anything, had forbidden it. “She doesn’t look her age. The work is too hard. She is safest out of sight.” I wondered as I hid now, about to be discovered at any second, if she would still think she was right.

The building finally went silent, the last of the awful footsteps receding. Still I didn’t move. That was one of the ways they trapped people who were hiding, by pretending to go away and lying in wait when they came out. I remained motionless, not daring to leave my hiding place. My limbs ached, then went numb. I had no idea how much time had passed. Through the slit, I could see that the room had grown dimmer, as if the sun had lowered a bit.

Sometime later, there were footsteps again, this time a shuffling sound as the laborers trudged back silent and exhausted from their day. I tried to uncurl myself from the trunk. But my muscles were stiff and sore and my movements slow. Before I could get out, the door to our apartment flung open and someone ran into the room with steps light and fluttering. “Sadie!” It was Mama, sounding hysterical.

“Jestem tutaj,” I called. I am here. Now that she was home, she could help me untangle myself and get out. But my voice was muffled by the trunk. When I tried to undo the latch, it stuck.

Mama raced from the room back into the corridor. I could hear her open the door to the attic, then run up the stairs, still searching for me. “Sadie!” she called. Then, “My child, my child,” over and over again as she searched but did not find me, her voice rising to a shriek. She thought I was gone.

“Mama!” I yelled. She was too far away to hear me, though, and her own cries were too loud. Desperately, I struggled once more to free myself from the trunk without success. Mama raced back into the room, still wailing. I heard the scraping sound of a window opening and felt a whoosh of cold air. At last I threw myself against the lid of the trunk, slamming my shoulder so hard it throbbed. The latch sprang open.

I broke free and stood up quickly. “Mama?” She was standing in the oddest position, with one foot on the window ledge, her willowy frame silhouetted against the frigid twilight sky. “What are you doing?” For a second, I thought she was looking for me outside. But her face was twisted with grief and pain. I knew then why Mama was on the window ledge. She assumed I had been taken along with the other children. And she didn’t want to live. If I hadn’t freed myself from the trunk in time, Mama would have jumped. I was her only child, her whole world. She was prepared to kill herself before she would go on without me.

A chill ran through me as I sprinted toward her. “I’m here, I’m here.” She wobbled unsteadily on the window ledge and I grabbed her arm to stop her from falling. Remorse ripped through me. I always wanted to please her, to bring that hard-won smile to her beautiful face. Now I had caused her so much pain she’d almost done the unthinkable.

“I was so worried,” she said after I’d helped her down and closed the window. As if that explained everything. “You weren’t in the attic.”

“But, Mama, I hid where you told me to.” I gestured to the trunk. “The other place, remember? Why didn’t you look for me there?”

Mama looked puzzled. “I didn’t think you would fit anymore.” There was a pause and then we both began laughing, the sound scratchy and out of place in the pitiful room. For a few seconds, it was like we were back in our old apartment on Meiselsa Street and none of this had happened at all. If we could still laugh, surely things would be all right. I clung to this last improbable thought like a life preserver at sea.

But a cry echoed through the building, then another, silencing our laughter. It was the mothers of the other children who had been taken by the police. There came a thud outside. I started for the window, but my mother blocked me. “Look away,” she ordered. It was too late. I glimpsed Helga Kolberg, who lived down the hall, lying motionless in the coal-tinged snow on the pavement below, her limbs cast at odd angles and skirt splayed around her like a fan. She had realized her children were gone and, like Mama, she didn’t want to live without them. I wondered whether jumping was a shared instinct, or if they had discussed it, a kind of suicide pact in case their worst nightmares came true.

My father raced into the room then. Neither Mama nor I said a word, but I could tell from his unusually grim expression that he already knew about the aktion and what had happened to the other families. He simply walked over and wrapped his enormous arms around both of us, hugging us tighter than usual.

As we sat, silent and still, I looked up at my parents. Mama was a striking beauty—thin and graceful, with white-blond hair the color of a Nordic princess’. She looked nothing like the other Jewish women and I had heard whispers more than once that she didn’t come from here. She might have walked away from the ghetto and lived as a non-Jew if it wasn’t for us. But I was built like Papa, with the dark, curly hair and olive skin that made the fact that we were Jews undeniable. My father looked like the laborer the Germans had made him in the ghetto, broad-shouldered and ready to lift great pipes or slabs of concrete. In fact, he was an accountant—or had been until it became illegal for his firm to employ him anymore. I always wanted to please Mama, but it was Papa who was my ally, keeper of secrets and weaver of dreams, who stayed up too late whispering secrets in the dark and had roamed the city with me, hunting for treasure. I moved closer now, trying to lose myself in the safety of his embrace.

Still, Papa’s arms could offer little shelter from the fact that everything was changing. The ghetto, despite its awful conditions, had once seemed relatively safe. We were living among Jews and the Germans had even appointed a Jewish council, the Judenrat, to run our daily affairs. Perhaps if we laid low and did as we were told, Papa said more than once, the Germans would leave us alone inside these walls until the war was over. That had been the hope. But after today, I wasn’t so sure. I looked around the apartment, seized with equal parts disgust and fear. In the beginning, I had not wanted to be here; now I was terrified we would be forced to leave.

“We have to do something,” Mama burst out, her voice a pitch higher than usual as it echoed my unspoken thoughts.

“I’ll take her tomorrow and register her for a work permit,” Papa said. This time Mama did not argue. Before the war, being a child had been a good thing. But now being useful and able to work was the only thing that might save us.

Mama was talking about more than a work visa, though. “They are going to come again and next time we won’t be so lucky.” She did not bother to hold back her words for my benefit now. I nodded in silent agreement. Things were changing, a voice inside me said. We could not stay here forever.

“It will be okay, kochana,” Papa soothed. How could he possibly say that? But Mama laid her head on his shoulder, seeming to trust him as she always had. I wanted to believe it, too. “I will think of something. At least,” Papa added as we huddled close, “we are all still together.” The words echoed through the room, equal parts promise and prayer.

Excerpted from The Woman With the Blue Star @ 2021 by Pam Jenoff, used with permission by Park Row Books.

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Q&A With Author Pam Jenoff

  • Why did you decide to write this story?

While looking for an idea for my next book, I discovered the incredible story of a group of Jewish people who had hidden from the Nazis by living for many months in the sewers of Lviv, Poland.  I was struck by the horrific circumstances which they endured, as well as their ingenuity and resilience in surviving there.  I was also moved by the selflessness of those who helped them, most notably a sewer worker, and by their search for human connection in such a dark and isolated place. 

After twenty-five years of working with World War II and the Holocaust, I find a story that makes me gasp, I know I am onto something that will make my readers feel the same way.  This was certainly the case with the true inspiration for The Woman With The Blue Star.

  • How much research went into your story?

Immersing myself in the world where my story is set, whether the circus in The Orphan’s Tale or the sewer in The Woman With The Blue Star, is always one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of beginning a book.  I had so many questions:  What did the sewer look and feel like?  How was it possible to eat and sleep and even see in the dark underground space?  Fortunately, there was an excellent non-fiction book, In The Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall, that explained so much of it.  I learned that there were so many dangers beyond getting caught by the Germans, from drowning to floods.  Every day was a battle for survival.  

When I decided to move the story to Krakow, Poland (where I had lived for several years), I planned a research trip there.  Those plans were scuttled by the pandemic, but I am lucky enough to still have good friends there who put me in touch with experts on the sewer and the city to help me (hopefully) get it right.

  • What takeaway message do you hope readers get from your book?

Sadie and Ella, two women from completely different worlds, form a deep bond that has profound and lasting consequences.  I hope readers will see in them the ways in which we can transcend our differences and connect.  I also hope readers recognize the ways in which reaching out to someone, even in the smallest or most fleeting way, can have a tremendous impact on that person’s life as well as his or her own.

  • What can you tell me about your next project?

My new book is set in Belgium and inspired by the incredible true story of the only Nazi death train ever to be ambushed on its way to Auschwitz.

  • Do you have any specific writing rituals, such as a certain pen, drink, outfit, etc?

I find that my writing routine has evolved over the years.  For example, at one point I went in to my office to write, at another I went to a coffeeshop, now sometimes I am on the couch.  I have written in castles and mountain getaways, but I have also written in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car.  There are certain constants, though.  I love the early morning and I would write from five to seven every day if I had the chance.  I just love getting that first burst in before the day gets hectic.  I am a short burst writer, which means I have no stamina.  If you give me eight hours in a day, I don’t know what to do with that.  I would much rather have an hour seven days per week.  And as much caffeine as possible!

  • Which character is most like you and why?

In this book, I suppose I relate to Sadie because her sense of isolation in some ways reflects what we have all felt during this pandemic.  

  • Readers can’t get enough of WWII stories. Why the interest?

Personally, m love for the World War II era comes from the years I spent working in Krakow, Poland as a diplomat for the State Department.  During that time. I worked on Holocaust issues and became very close to the surviving Jewish community in a way that deeply moved and changed me.  More globally, I think World War II has great resonance for authors and readers.  There is a drive to capture and tell stories from survivors now while we still have a chance.  There is also a great deal of archival material that became available to authors as researchers after the Cold War ended that provides new ideas for books.  And as an author, my goal is to take my reader and put her or him in the shoes of my protagonist so she or he asks, “What would I have done?” World War II, with its dire circumstances and stark choices, is incredibly fertile ground for storytelling.

  • Your stories are always Jewish related. What is the universal idea that captures readers of all backgrounds?

I would not describe my stories as “always Jewish related” but rather predominantly set around World War II and the Holocaust.  This era is not only important in its own right but has many uniersal themes regarding human rights, prejudice and hate that are very relevant for our times.

  • Where do your stories come from? Do you do research?

I do research for new ideas and I am generally looking for two things.  First, I would like to take a true bit of history and illuminate it so that readers can learn.  Second, I am looking for an incredible, untold story.  I have worked with World War II and the Holocaust for twenty-five years and if I find an idea that makes me gasp with surprise, I’m hopeful readers will feel the same way. 

  • Do you work from an outline or do you write from the seat of your pants?

Well, I’m a “pantser” and that means I write by the seat of my pants and not from an outline, at least most of the time.  So I don’t have a neat idea of where the book will wind up.  I have an opening image and some general idea of where I will wind up and if I am lucky there are one or two high moments that I can see along the way, like lighthouses to guide me.  But I am sometimes surprised by the end and that was certainly the case with The Woman With The Blue Star.  That moment when you realize it is all going to come together is just one of the best feelings ever.

  • You are a bestselling author. How many books are expected from you per year? How many edit passes does your novel go through?

I used to write a book a year, but I’ve slowed down and now it is more like 18-24 months.  I really prefer that creatively.  My manuscripts go through many rounds of edits.  The first round of changes are usually big picture and then it goes back and forth with the feedback getting increasingly more granular with each round of revision until my editor, agent and I are all satisfied.

  • Is there anything about you or your work that you’d like to share with readers?

I consider my books that are set around World War II and the Holocaust to be love songs to the people who lived through that most horrific period.  I try to approach it with a great deal of respect and do them justice.  On a very different note, I’d like to share that I always love connecting with readers.  I invite each reader to find me online – through my website, Facebook author page, Twitter, Instagram or wherever they are hanging out.

The Girl From the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A young Jewish woman who has been forced to flee German Occupation once before finds herself trapped on the only island in Great Britain to become occupied by German forces and must find a means of surviving in author Jenny Lecoat’s “The Girl from the Channel Islands”.

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The Synopsis

An extraordinary story of human triumph against impossible odds

The year is 1940, and the world is torn apart by war. In June of that year, Hitler’s army captures the Channel Islands–the only part of Great Britain to be occupied by German forces. Abandoned by Mr. Churchill, forgotten by the Allies, and cut off from all help, the Islands’ situation is increasingly desperate.

Hedy Bercu is a young Jewish girl who fled Vienna for the island of Jersey two years earlier during the Anschluss, only to find herself trapped by the Nazis once more–this time with no escape. Her only hope is to make herself invaluable to the Germans by working as a translator, hiding in plain sight wIth the help of her friends and community–and a sympathetic German officer. But as the war intensifies, rations dwindle, neighbors turn on neighbors, and Hedy’s life is in greater danger every day. It will take a definitive, daring act to save her from certain deportation to the concentration camps.

A sweeping tale of bravery and love under impossible circumstances, Hedy’s remarkable story reminds us that it’s often up to ordinary people to be quiet heroes in the face of injustice.

The Review

What a complex and tense story. Anytime a historical fiction novel explores WWII, readers know that heartbreak and emotional turmoil are sure to follow suit. It was a tumultuous and deadly time, especially for those of Jewish descent. What makes this story stand out immediately is the background that showcases this is based on true events. The haunting nature of the occupation and the impact it has on the island’s residents is gripping for the reader, drawing them in slowly but surely.

It is the strong character growth of this narrative that makes the novel stand out. From protagonist Heady and her struggle to hide within a German-occupied land to highlighting German soldiers who didn’t believe in the “cause” or Hitler’s Vision of the future, but instead were forced to participate in the army and worked to help protect innocents from the crimes of their nation, this novel really helped develop complex and emotional characters that viewed the war from multiple angles and highlighted how many people suffered during this time.

The Verdict

A memorable, heartbreaking, and engaging read, author Jenny Lecoat’s “The Girl from the Channel Islands” is a must-read historical fiction novel. The war was devastating, as were the millions of lives lost to a madman and his ruthless, savage cause. The author perfectly captures the raw emotions and cruel reality of the war and those impacted by it. A truly heartfelt journey, be sure to grab your copy of this fantastic read today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Jenny Lecoat was born in Jersey, Channel Islands, where her parents were raised under German Occupation and were involved in resistance activity. Lecoat moved to England at 18, where, after earning a drama degree, she spent a decade on the alternative comedy circuit as a feminist stand-up. She also wrote for newspapers and women’s magazines (Cosmopolitan, Observer), worked as a TV and radio presenter, before focusing on screenwriting from sitcom to sketch shows. A love of history and factual stories and a return to her island roots brought about her feature film Another Mother’s Son (2017). She is married to television writer Gary Lawson and now lives in East Sussex. The Girl from the Channel Islands is her first novel.

Buy Links: 

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Social Links:

Author Website

Twitter: @JennyLecoat

Facebook: @JennyLecoat

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The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal by Bryn Turnbull Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A young woman caught in a complex love affair with a member of British Royalty leaves for America to support her beloved sister in a grueling custody battle, never knowing the person she asked to stay behind with her beloved would become one of history’s most remembered figures for twentieth century royals in author Bryn Turnbull’s “The Woman Before Wallis”.

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The Synopsis 

For fans of The Paris Wife and The Crown, this stunning novel tells the true story of the American divorcée who captured Prince Edward’s heart before he abdicated his throne for Wallis Simpson.

In the summer of 1926, when Thelma Morgan marries Viscount Duke Furness after a whirlwind romance, she’s immersed in a gilded world of extraordinary wealth and privilege. For Thelma, the daughter of an American diplomat, her new life as a member of the British aristocracy is like a fairy tale—even more so when her husband introduces her to Edward, Prince of Wales.

In a twist of fate, her marriage to Duke leads her to fall headlong into a love affair with Edward. But happiness is fleeting, and their love is threatened when Thelma’s sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, becomes embroiled in a scandal with far-reaching implications. As Thelma sails to New York to support Gloria, she leaves Edward in the hands of her trusted friend Wallis, never imagining the consequences that will follow.

Bryn Turnbull takes readers from the raucous glamour of the Paris Ritz and the French Riviera to the quiet, private corners of St. James’s Palace in this sweeping story of love, loyalty and betrayal.

The Review

This was a fantastic and unique historical fiction drama. The author brilliantly delves into the dynamics of this complex love affair and the inherent problems that arise within the Royal Family and high society as a whole in the early twentieth century. 

What stood out obviously was the fact that this novel focused not on the infamous Edward and Wallis of Windsor, but on the equally infamous Thelma and Gloria of the Vanderbilt family. Getting two distinct timelines to explore, (Thelma’s love life and the later custody battle for “Little Gloria”), was an inspired and creative choice of topic for this novel, and allowed readers to delve more distinctly into not only these two infamous sisters but the dynamics between each other and those surrounding them. 

The novel also does an excellent job of capturing the importance placed upon high society and perception back in those days. From the scandals created for both sisters as they each underwent some loss of a marriage, to love affairs with royalty, this novel captures the era and the atmosphere of that time perfectly.

The Verdict

A remarkable, entertaining, and engaging historical fiction novel, author Bryn Turnbull’s “The Woman Before Wallis” is a must-read story. The slow build between both timelines explored by the author accompanied by the infamous history behind this narrative and fantastic character development make this a truly special read that is not to be missed. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Bryn Turnbull is a writer of historical fiction with a penchant for fountain pens and antique furniture. Equipped with a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of St. Andrews, a Master of Professional Communication from Ryerson University, and a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from McGill University, Bryn focuses on finding the stories of women found within the cracks of the historical record. When she’s not writing, Bryn can be found exploring new coffee shops, spending time with her family in cottage country, or traveling. She lives in Toronto, and can generally be found with a book in hand.

Buy Links: 

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Social Links:

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Find Me In Havana: A Novel by Serena Burdick Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A young woman must navigate the shocking and mysterious death of her mother, who spent her adult life as a famous actress and singer, in author Serena Burdick’s historical fiction drama, “Find Me In Havana”. 

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The Synopsis 

Cuba, 1936: When Estelita Rodriguez sings in a hazy Havana nightclub for the very first time, she is nine years old. From then on, that spotlight of adoration—from Havana to New York’s Copacabana and then Hollywood—becomes the one true accomplishment no one can take from her. Not the 1933 Cuban Revolution that drove her family into poverty. Not the revolving door of husbands and the fickle world of film. Not even the tragic devastation of Castro’s revolution that rained down on her loved ones.

A new historical novel from Serena Burdick, the author of THE GIRLS WITH NO NAMES, based on the true story of Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban-born Hollywood actress and singer, as her daughter Nina traces her mother’s life from Cuba to Hollywood to understand her mysterious death, think NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA meets THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO.

Thirty years later, her young adult daughter, Nina Rodriguez, is blindsided by her mother’s mysterious, untimely death. Seeking answers no one else wants to hear, the grieving Nina navigates the troubling, opulent memories of their life together and discovers how much Estelita sacrificed to live the American dream on her own terms.

Based on true events and exclusive interviews with the real Nina Rodriguez, Find Me in Havana weaves two unforgettable voices into one extraordinary journey that explores the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the ever-changing landscape of self-discovery.

The Review

A beautiful story of two women connected by family and fate, the novel expertly crafts a narrative of how the daughter of a renowned actress and singer must come to terms with the childhood she had and the life she’s led thus far after her mother’s passing. The shift in perspective between both Nina and her mother Estelita was an inspired choice, as readers are able to get a better sense of where each of them was coming from, and the tragic circumstances they each found themselves in. 

The backdrop of Cuba and the nation’s violent history of revolution and war did a great job of highlighting not only the nation’s history but the vast culture that the people of Cuba had as well. However the core of this story is undoubtedly the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and the daughters need to understand her mother’s life and how to let go of the past in order to move on with her own life. The novel is marred by tragic events to be sure, but the emotional journey is well worth the known outcome and makes this a truly intimate historical fiction read.

The Verdict

A mesmerizing, emotional, and heartfelt read of the relationship between a mother and her daughter, author Serena Burdick’s “Find Me In Havana” is a must-read historical fiction novel. The real-life people within this novel come to life in a memorable way, and the honest look into the lives of these two women will be something so many of us can connect with. If you haven’t yet, grab your copies today!

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About the Author

Serena Burdick graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in California before moving to New York City to pursue a degree in English Literature at Brooklyn College. Author of the International Bestseller THE GIRLS WITH NO NAMES and GIRL IN THE AFTERNOON, she lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

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Excerpt From “Find Me In Havana”

One

Big Sur, 1966

CLIFFS

Mother,

In August, Big Sur crackles with drought. Grass dries to a crisp and turns gold as ember. Rattlers lay in wait. Fat insects purr, and banana slugs languish. The air is ripe with eucalyptus, their slender, green leaves blanketing the canyon paths. Poison oak claws the hillside. This is not the season of lemons trees or emerald hills or crisp sunshine. Summer on the coast is a season of bone-chilling fog.

Overlooking the Pacific, I stand on Nepenthe’s stone patio, the restaurant’s windows spilling light around me as I watch the gray mass of fog crawl and heave up the cliff. You would have liked it here, Mom, but we never drove up the coast together. We never had the chance. I close my eyes as the fog settles over me, damp and soft as a whisper. Below, the surf thunders against the rocks, and I feel the sway of the sea in my legs and picture myself stepping over the low stone wall and lifting my arms into the air. The ocean will catch me, release me, hollow out my body and wash it up on the shore like an empty shell.

I need a shell. Hard skin. A barrier against the world of missing you. 

How is there no you left? No Mom. No Wife. No Movie Actress. No Singer. There are photographs, and moving pictures where you swing your hips and make funny faces, but I cannot touch or smell or feel or speak to this two-dimensional version.

I want an explanation.

Memories root and twist inside me, blossom, grow thorns, beautiful and gnarled, but the truth remains hidden, and I am left with the image of the bathroom floor and the weight of you in my arms.

I do not want this to be our last memory.

Opening my eyes, I take a deep breath, let the cool wetness lie over my tongue. Next to me, a fire crackles in the open hearth warming one side of my leg. I think how outdoor fires do this, warm only one side of you while the other side freezes. I wear a short skirt without pantyhose, white tennis shoes and a tight, knit sweater. The guests have all gone, the movie stars and bohemian artists, the former donning glitter and fur, the latter beads and loose-folding fabric, each hoping to authenticate themselves in originality. Each failing.

“Nina?” I jump at the sound of my manager’s voice. He stands in the open patio doorway of the restaurant polishing a wineglass. “Your ride is here.”

He looks at me kindly, unconcerned. He doesn’t know anything about me. I feel the warmth of the fire on my backside and think how cold it will be in the hollowed-out redwood tree where I sleep.

“I’ll just wipe down the tables,” I say, stalling. I don’t want to face my ride any more than I want to face the cold night on the forest floor with the insects.

My manager is a slender, vigorous man who looks as if he’s been breathing ocean air since birth. “It’s late,” he smiles. “You go on home now. I’ll take care of the tables.”

Walking away from the restaurant, the stone path slick with moisture, I dig my doll from the bottom of my bag and tuck her under one arm. She has a cloth body and a plastic head with blue eyes that open and close when you tilt her. Her plastic head is dotted with dark holes where her carefully arranged hair used to be. On her stomach is a scar—held together with a safety pin—from the time I cut her open and pulled out the stuffing.

Bret waits in his mint-green Volvo with the engine running. He is smoking a joint and doesn’t open the door for me. I slide into the passenger seat and he leans over and gives me a sloppy kiss, his hand pressed to the back of my head as if this is something romantic. His tongue tastes of stale smoke and alcohol. “Hey, baby,” he breathes into my face and passes me the joint. I take it, inhale and try to stifle a cough as Bret maneuvers the car onto the dark road.

We met five months ago when I first arrived in Big Sur. My friend Delia and I had eaten a handful of mushrooms and were dancing around a bonfire at a beach party when Bret slipped into the wavy, illuminated light of my vision. His embroidered shirt rippled over his chest and I thought he was something supernatural. The next morning when I woke up beside him on the beach, he’d turned solid. He was nothing more than a thin-chested man with a tangled beard and skinny legs sticking out from his cutoff jean shorts.

Bret hooks the car around a sharp bend, and the wheels kick up gravel that makes a sound like thunder under our feet.

“You’re going too fast,” I say, pressing my hand flat against the passenger window.

He grins and steps on the gas, a man who likes to challenge a woman. This is familiar to me. I watched men challenge you your whole life, each one of your four husbands, in their own way, pushing you to the edge. Despite your effort to understand them, to please them, it was, in the end, your unwillingness to be controlled or possessed that got you killed.

The car takes another corner, and the cliff drops to my right at a precarious angle where sumac and sagebrush cling to the edge. People love Highway 1 for its beauty. They think it cuts a benevolent path along the ocean cliff for our pleasure. What I see is a snake luring us with its curvaceous body, a thing of nature waiting for us to step on it so it can strike and fling us off.

I squish my doll’s head in, making her face look like something in a distorting mirror. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I say, watching the doll’s features slowly inflate and pop back into place.

Bret’s profile remains neutral, his eyes on the road as he reaches over and strokes my thigh. “Don’t be like that, baby. This is good.”

I’ve tried to break up with him before. I don’t know why he won’t let me go, or how he can feel anything for me when I feel nothing inside. After your death, they sedated me because I was angry and didn’t behave properly. Now, I do what I can to sedate myself.

“I mean it. I’m done.” I shove his hand away, and this makes him angry.

He puts both hands on the wheel, grips it with white knuckles, his eyes forward, his jaw clenched. “What the fuck, Nina?” he says.

The headlights strike the road. Yellow lines blink past like winking eyes.

His anger scares me. “I’m sorry,” I say. I’m not good at this. Charming men. Giving them what they want. Doing what I watched you do, for the good ones and the bad. You appeased the good men, hoping they’d stay with you; placated the bad ones, hoping they wouldn’t hurt you. With each husband you tried a little harder, stayed a little longer, so certain you’d get it right.

If Bret is any indication, I won’t get it right, either. Looking at him, his hard profile reflected in the dashboard lights, his scruffy beard and long hair curling at the base of his neck, he reminds me of the rebel soldiers in Cuba.

This is not a memory I want. “Bret, I really can’t do this. Please, pull over. I need to get out.”

“You don’t know what you need.”

The arrogance in his voice disgusts me, the anger I’d been tamping down with drugs is now rising in my throat. For all his meditating and chanting and seeking enlightenment, Bret is a prick. I am twenty years old, you are dead, and there’s no one to tell me what to do anymore. You are not here to laugh it away, or tell me to chin-up, to silence me or put me in a mental institution or stick me in a boarding school. “Fuck you, Bret!” I shout. “Pull over. I want to get out.”

“Fuck me?” He speeds up, swerves the car near the shoulder of the road, gravel and dirt hitting my window and ricocheting off the glass like buckshot.

I suck in my breath and grip the door handle. “Don’t do that!”

“Do what? This?” He swerves again, and all I see, for a moment, is empty, black space.

What I should do is calm him down, convince him I’m sorry and that I won’t break up with him. Stop the car, and we’ll talk about it, I should say, but a part of me wants him to do something drastic. To pull the trigger for me.

We are crossing Bixby Bridge. The fog has receded, and I can see all the way down to the dark strip of beach where the waves crash and foam like a giant frothing at the mouth. I know, in that split second right before Bret takes us over the edge, that he’s going to do it. It’s not the plunge into water I’d imagined on the patio at Nepenthe. I am not sailing peacefully off the cliff with my arms out but trapped in a metal box that jerks to the right so abruptly my head smacks the window. I expect free fall, silence, stillness, but the air is sharp and compact and splintered with glass.

And then you are in my arms, your face flushed, your dark hair limp on your wet forehead, vomit ringing the corners of your mouth. “Help me,” I plead, even though you are the one dying. “Don’t go,” I cry. “I need you,” but I have already hit bottom, and the world has gone quiet.

Excerpted from Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick, Copyright © 2021 by Serena Burdick. Published by Park Row Books. 

Blood and Silver by Vali Benson Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A young girl must find a way to save her mother from a nefarious Madame in the town of Tombstone in author Vali Benson’s “Blood and Silver”. 

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The Synopsis

What is a twelve year old girl to do when she finds herself in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, and her only home is a brothel and her only parent is a drug-addicted mother? If she is Carissa Beaumont, she outsmarts the evil madam and figures a way out.

After tricking the madam, Miss Lucille, into summoning a doctor for her mother, Lisette, she discovers that Miss Lucille has been drugging her. She and the kind doctor make a plan to try to save Lisette by dosing her down on the drug.

Doctor Henderson tells Carissa that the only source for the drug is a Chinese immigrant named China Mary, who lives in Hoptown, at the other end of Tombstone. Carissa has no choice but to go to the powerful woman for help. Many say that China Mary is the one who really controls Tombstone.

China Mary admires Carissa’s brave spirit, and uses her influence to get her a job at the new Grand Hotel, which will free Carissa from her many duties at Miss Lucille’s. She will work along with Mary’s twelve year old niece, Mai-Lin. The two girls become fast friends.

Then, disaster strikes, and the two girls must work together to stay alive.

With a host of colorful characters and meticulous attention to period detail, Blood and Silver is a story of the best and worst of human nature, the passion for survival and the beauty of true friendship.

The Review

This was a fast-paced, intricate character study and intense YA historical read. The author does a great job of focusing on character development within the narrative, and the historical nature of the novel was very well researched and integrated naturally into the book as well. 

The story takes off immediately from the very first pages, with a murder leading to Carissa’s discovery of her mother’s condition and the lengths Miss Lucille will go to secure her business. The young woman risks it all to save those closest to her, and historical fiction and YA fans will love the intricate way the setting plays into the character’s arc and the narrative overall. 

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The Verdict

A must-read novel, author Vali Benson’s “Blood and Silver” is a truly one-of-a-kind read. The historical fiction YA adventure is filled with a gritty Western theme and does a great job of giving a voice to people who are usually relegated to background characters in the typical Western novel, making this a wonderful read. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Vali grew up in the Midwest. She now lives in Tucson with her husband, two sons and grandchildren.

After graduating from the University of Illinois, Vali started and sold two successful businesses before she decided to pursue her real passion of writing. She published several articles in a variety of periodicals, including History Magazine before she decided to try her hand at fiction.

In April of 2020, Vali published her first novel, “Blood and Silver”. That same month, she was also made a member of the Western Writers of America.

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The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Race relations, immigration, and the role government plays in our daily lives take center stage in author Lisa Braxton’s historical fiction novel “The Talking Drum”.

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The Synopsis

Displacement/gentrification has been happening for generations, yet few novels have been written with the themes of gentrification, which makes this book unusual.

It is 1971. The fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts, is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place.

Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi’s dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.

For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage.

Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.

Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.

The Talking Drum explores intra-racial, class, and cross-cultural tensions, along with the meaning of community and belonging.

The novel delves into the profound impact gentrification has on people in many neighborhoods, and the way in which being uprooted affects the fabric of their families, friendships, and emotional well-being. The Talking Drum not only explores the immigrant experience, but how the immigrant/African American neighborhood interface leads to friction and tension, a theme also not explored much in current literature involving immigrants.

The book is a springboard to an important discussion on race and class differences, the treatment of immigrants, as well as the government’s relationship to society. 

The Review

There has never been a more relevant or prominent moment for a novel of this magnitude than now. Such a rich and powerful narrative takes center stage in this book, creating a tense and emotional atmosphere that many today can identify with. 

The characters are true standouts, as the author expertly creates relatable and memorable characters that do an amazing job of embodying the theme of immigration, race relations, and government roles as a whole. While a historical fiction and fiction setting, the message, and heart of the story shines brightly through and conveys the hardships that have come with trying to find common ground, find equality, and integrate it into everyone’s daily lives. 

Especially when readers are taken into an often overlooked subject like the tension that can arise in communities such as African American/Black neighborhoods amongst its citizens and immigrants settling into the area, and the need to find common ground and come together as a whole community in the face of great upheaval and tragedy. 

The Verdict

A well-read, highly engaging and richly drawn-out narrative, author Lisa Braxton’s “The Talking Drum” explores so much, from history and the culture of a group of people and the importance of remembering that culture, to the struggles for immigrants to make a new life for themselves and the hardships that come with intra-racial relationships as well. It’s a novel that speaks volumes in its message and theme and deserves to be read during these tumultuous times. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Fiction Writers Program and was a finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University, her M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University, and her B.A. in Mass Media from Hampton University. Her stories have been published in anthologies and literary journals. She lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area. www.lisabraxton.com 

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