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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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Buy Links:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Woman-Blue-Star-Novel/dp/0778389383/ 

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-woman-with-the-blue-star-pam-jenoff/1137387567 

Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/books/the-woman-with-the-blue-star-9780778311546/9780778389385 

IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780778389385 

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Walmart: https://www.walmart.com/ip/The-Woman-with-the-Blue-Star-Original-Edition-Paperback-9780778389385/304633554 

Indigo: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/the-woman-with-the-blue/9780778389385-item.html 

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/the-woman-with-the-blue-star 

AppleBooks: https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-woman-with-the-blue-star/id1524947358 

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/The_Woman_with_the_Blue_Star_A_Novel?id=De_yDwAAQBAJ&hl=en&gl=US 

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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.

Posted in reviews

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.

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Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg Review

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

A twist on the locked room murder tests a new investigative heroine in author T.A. Willberg’s historical fiction/thriller, “Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder”.

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The Synopsis 

The letter was short. A name, a time, a place.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.

Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant at Miss Brickett’s receives a letter of warning, detailing a name, a time, and a place. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see―her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.

Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and colleague is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie-style locked-room murder mystery, with an exciting new heroine detective.

The Review

It’s Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond with a heroine at the center in this explosive historical fiction thriller. The author does a great job of layering the narrative enough to weave together a complex mystery that will have readers analyzing every detail of the case and exploring this fully realized world themselves. 

Marion Lane is such a fantastic new heroine in detective mystery thrillers. The character’s growth over the course of the narrative is as equally exciting as the mystery itself, which delves into the heart of London’s underground scene and the vast mythology of this secret organization. The setting and tone play perfectly with the genre and story, as the city itself becomes as alive and memorable and the cast of characters. 

The Verdict

A gripping, suspenseful, and intriguing read, author T.A. Willberg’s “Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder” is a must-read narrative. The balance of character development, mystery, and setting help to elevate this historical fiction read to new heights and puts a unique spin on the classic whodunit style, closed room murder thriller storyline. With the hope that more stories within this universe will be told, this is not a book to be missed, so be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 8/10

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About the Author

T.A. Willberg was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and holds a chiropractic masters degree from Durban University of Technology. MARION LANE AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDER is her debut novel and launch of her detective series. She currently lives in Malta with her partner.

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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.

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The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner Review

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

A historian discovers an old Apothecary vial, and unravels a centuries old mystery surrounding a series of murders known as the “apothecary murders” in author Sarah Penner’s “The Lost Apothecary”.

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The Synopsis

In this addictive and spectacularly imagined debut, a female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Pitched as Kate Morton meets The Miniaturist, The Lost Apothecary is a bold work of historical fiction with a rebellious twist that heralds the coming of an explosive new talent.

A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to The Lost Apothecary…

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

The Review

A hauntingly entertaining and engaging read, author Sarah Penner does a fantastic job of crafting a narrative that speaks to both historical fiction fans and fans of a serial killer-driven thriller, with a focus on the struggles and hardships of women throughout 18th century England. 

The story is perfectly written to explore the past of the apothecary while showcasing how this mystery impacts the life of struggling historian Caroline, who’s dealing with an unfaithful husband and must somehow find her true calling in life. The story does an excellent job of showcasing how this woman in the past became a serial killer, in essence, helping women throughout London either gain vengeance or escape impossible struggles utilizing poisons, while also making her plight sympathetic at the same time. 

The Verdict

A masterfully-thrilling, thought-provoking, and lengthy yet memorable read, author Sarah Penner’s “The Lost Apothecary” is a must-read. The story is inviting and engaging, while the protagonists keep the reader invested. The story is perfect for both fans of history-driven backstories with a modern twist that explores the struggles of women in the world while searching to gain more power and confidence in themselves, making the characters truly remarkable to read. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Sarah Penner is the debut author of The Lost Apothecary, to be translated in eleven languages worldwide. She works full-time in finance and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida, with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit slpenner.com.

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An Exclusive Excerpt From “The Lost Apothecary”

Nella

February 3, 1791

She would come at daybreak—the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know.

I knew neither her age nor where she lived. I did not know her rank in society nor the dark things of which she dreamed when night fell. She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan.

But despite all that I did not know, I understood this: the woman knew exactly who she wanted dead.

I lifted the blush-colored paper, illuminated by the dying f lame of a single rush wick candle. I ran my fingers over the ink of her words, imagining what despair brought the woman to seek out someone like me. Not just an apothecary, but a murderer. A master of disguise.

Her request was simple and straightforward. For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb. At once, I drew to mind a middle-aged housemaid, called to do the bidding of her mistress. And with an instinct perfected over the last two decades, I knew immediately the remedy most suited to this request: a chicken egg laced with nux vomica.

The preparation would take mere minutes; the poison was within reach. But for a reason yet unknown to me, something about the letter left me unsettled. It was not the subtle, woodsy odor of the parchment or the way the lower left corner curled forward slightly, as though once damp with tears. Instead, the disquiet brewed inside of me. An intuitive understanding that something must be avoided.

But what unwritten warning could reside on a single sheet of parchment, shrouded beneath pen strokes? None at all, I assured myself; this letter was no omen. My troubling thoughts were merely the result of my fatigue—the hour was late—and the persistent discomfort in my joints.

I drew my attention to my calfskin register on the table in front of me. My precious register was a record of life and death; an inventory of the many women who sought potions from here, the darkest of apothecary shops.

In the front pages of my register, the ink was soft, written with a lighter hand, void of grief and resistance. These faded, worn entries belonged to my mother. This apothecary shop for women’s maladies, situated at 3 Back Alley, was hers long before it was mine.

On occasion I read her entries—23 Mar 1767, Mrs. R. Ranford, Yarrow Milfoil 15 dr. 3x—and the words evoked memories of her: the way her hair fell against the back of her neck as she ground the yarrow stem with the pestle, or the taut, papery skin of her hand as she plucked seeds from the flower’s head. But my mother had not disguised her shop behind a false wall, and she had not slipped her remedies into vessels of dark red wine. She’d had no need to hide. The tinctures she dispensed were meant only for good: soothing the raw, tender parts of a new mother, or bringing menses upon a barren wife. Thus, she filled her register pages with the most benign of herbal remedies. They would raise no suspicion.

On my register pages, I wrote things such as nettle and hyssop and amaranth, yes, but also remedies more sinister: nightshade and hellebore and arsenic. Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets.

Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever. My register laid it all bare: these were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thorn apple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.

Oh, but if only the register told my own secret, the truth about how this all began. For I had documented every victim in these pages, all but one: Frederick. The sharp, black lines of his name defaced only my sullen heart, my scarred womb.

I gently closed the register, for I had no use of it tonight, and returned my attention to the letter. What worried me so? The edge of the parchment continued to catch my eye, as though something crawled beneath it. And the longer I remained at my table, the more my belly ached and my fingers trembled. In the distance, beyond the walls of the shop, the bells on a carriage sounded frighteningly similar to the chains on a constable’s belt. But I assured myself that the bailiffs would not come tonight, just as they had not come for the last two decades. My shop, like my poisons, was too cleverly disguised. No man would find this place; it was buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London.

I drew my eyes to the soot-stained wall that I had not the heart, nor the strength, to scrub clean. An empty bottle on a shelf caught my reflection. My eyes, once bright green like my mother’s, now held little life within them. My cheeks, too, once flushed with vitality, were sallow and sunken. I had the appearance of a ghost, much older than my forty-one years of age.

Tenderly, I began to rub the round bone in my left wrist, swollen with heat like a stone left in the fire and forgotten. The discomfort in my joints had crawled through my body for years; it had grown so severe, I lived not a waking hour without pain. Every poison I dispensed brought a new wave of it upon me; some evenings, my fingers were so distended and stiff, I felt sure the skin would split open and expose what lay underneath.

Killing and secret-keeping had done this to me. It had begun to rot me from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open.

At once, the air grew stagnant, and smoke began to curl into the low stone ceiling of my hidden room. The candle was nearly spent, and soon the laudanum drops would wrap me in their heavy warmth. Night had long ago fallen, and she would arrive in just a few hours: the woman whose name I would add to my register and whose mystery I would begin to unravel, no matter the unease it brewed inside of me.

Excerpted from The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Penner. Published by Park Row Books. 

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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. 

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The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little Review

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

The history of iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel is shown through a new lens as her sister Antoinette takes center stage in author Judithe Little’s “The Chanel Sisters”.

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The Synopsis

A novel of survival, love, loss, triumph—and the sisters who changed fashion forever

Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel know they’re destined for something better. Abandoned by their family years before, they’ve grown up under the guidance of pious nuns preparing them for simple lives as the wives of tradesmen or shopkeepers. At night, their secret stash of romantic novels and magazine cutouts beneath the floorboards are all they have to keep their dreams of the future alive.

The walls of the convent can’t shield them forever, and when they’re finally of age, the Chanel sisters set out together with a fierce determination to prove themselves worthy to a society that has never accepted them. Their journey propels them out of poverty and to the stylish cafés of Moulins, the dazzling performance halls of Vichy—and to a small hat shop on the rue Cambon in Paris, where a business takes hold and expands to the glamorous French resort towns. But when World War I breaks out, their lives are irrevocably changed, and the sisters must gather the courage to fashion their own places in the world, even if apart from each other.

The Review

A truly fascinating look into the life and challenges of Coco Chanel, the author brilliantly places the less well-known sister of Coco, Antoinette, into the shoes of the protagonist, giving readers a perspective of the iconic French fashion designer that few probably had. The blending of known facts from the icon’s life with fiction helps to fill in some of the mysterious gaps in Coco’s life. From an early life spent at a convent as a child, where she learned to sew and began her steps into the world of fashion, to the rise of her stardom and even the early beginnings of her infamous scent, the author shows the icon and her sisters as dreamers who sought “chic” to contrast the mundane, everyday life they were forced to lead as orphans at this convent. 

As a fan of history, it was fascinating to see Coco’s life through Antoinette’s eyes. It has been said that the designer herself was known to embellish or change the story of her past as her fame grew, so to see the history through her own sister’s eyes was an inspired choice creatively. Antoinette herself managed to become the emotional core of this story, despite her sister’s rising fame, and how events like WWI impacted both the business side of things and their lives personally was definitely an emotional driving force in the book’s closing chapters.

The Verdict

A mesmerizing historical fiction like no other, author Judithe Little’s “The Chanel Sisters” is a must-read. Impactful imagery used early on in the book to showcase the harsh reality of the girl’s lives after losing their mother and being abandoned by their father made for an early emotional start, and the shocking and heartfelt finale to this tale will leave readers breathless. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy of this amazing read today!

Rating: 8/10

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About the Author

JUDITHE LITTLE is the award-winning author of Wickwythe Hall. She earned a BA in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She grew up in Virginia and now lives with her husband, three teenagers, and three dogs in Houston, Texas. Find her on Instagram, @judithelittle, and on Facebook, facebook.com/judithelittle.

SOCIAL LINKS:

Author website: http://www.judithelittle.com/

Instagram: @judithelittle

FB: @judithe.little

BUY LINKS:

Murder By The Book

Barrington Books

IndieBound

Bookshop.org

Indigo

Amazon

Apple

Kobo

Barnes & Noble

Libro.FM

Audible

Google Play


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Author Q&A

Q: I didn’t know Coco had a sister. How did you come up with the idea for your novel?

A: When I read in a biography of Coco that she had a sister, I knew right away I wanted to write about her.  A lot of books have been written about Coco, but none have been written from the point of view of Antoinette. I thought that the sister of Coco Chanel might have an interesting story to tell, and it turns out that she did.

Q: Explain the staying power and interest in (anything) Chanel?

A: I think that Chanel is the symbol for reinvention and the idea that you can be whoever you want to be and that has a universal appeal.

Q: Do you plan your books in advance or let them develop as you write?

A: They are planned in the sense that they’re based on historical events so there’s already a timeline in place and I know generally what happens. The characters themselves develop as I write.

Q: Have you ever had a character take over a story, and if so, who was it and why?

A: I’ve had minor characters take over small parts of a story such as the baron at Royallieu (I attribute the kite dance idea to him). Arturo also seemed to take over the scenes he was in and tell me what he was going to do instead of vice-versa. 

Q: Which one of The Chanel Sisters’s characters was the hardest to write and why?

A: Julia-Berthe was the hardest to write because of the three sisters, she’s the one about whom the least is known. 

Q: What does a day in the life of Judithe Little look like?

A: Busy! I’m a lawyer so during the day I take care of my law firm work and in the evenings I typically write or do other book-related activities. Mixed in is typical stuff like grocery shopping, errands, and driving my youngest who is a high school sophomore here and there.

Q: What do you use to inspire you when you get Writer’s Block?

A: This may sound strange but I rearrange furniture or shelves or redecorate in some way. Maybe it’s the new perspective but changing my surroundings seems to get the juices flowing again.

Q: Do you have stories on the back burner that are just waiting to be written?

A: I usually have one or two waiting in the wings. 

Q: What advice would you give budding authors about publishing?

A: I think it’s important to have critique partners or a critique group. Mine has been invaluable to me. Persistence and thick skin help too. 

Q: What was the last thing you read?

A:  Bryn Turnball’s The Woman Before Wallis which I loved.

Q: Book you’ve bought just for the cover?

A: Susan Meissner’s Secrets of a Charmed Life because I loved the color of the green dress and the way the figure of the woman was interposed with the river and London. More recently, Jane Smiley’s Perestroika because it has a horse and the Eiffel Tower on the cover–two of my favorite things.

Q: Tell us about what you’re working on now.

A: I’m working on a new novel that takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the perspective once again of someone close to Coco Chanel but who was famous in her own right. 


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Excerpt From “The Chanel Sisters”

IN LATER YEARS, I WOULD THINK BACK TO THAT COLD MARCH day in 1897 at the convent orphanage in Aubazine.

We orphelines sat in a circle practicing our stitches, the hush of the workroom interrupted only by my occasional mindless chatter to the girls nearby. When I felt Sister Xavier’s gaze, I quieted, looking down at my work as if in deep concentration. I expected her to scold me as she usually did: Custody of the tongue, Mademoiselle Chanel. Instead, she drew closer to my place near the stove, moving, as all the nuns did, as if she were floating. The smell of incense and the ages fluttered out from the folds of her black wool skirt. Her starched headdress planed unnaturally toward heaven as if she might be lifted up at any moment. I prayed that she would be, a ray of light breaking through the pitched roof and raising her to the clouds in a shining beam of holy salvation.

But such miracles only happened in paintings of angels and saints. She stopped at my shoulder, dark and looming like a storm cloud over the sloping forests of the Massif Central outside the window. She cleared her throat and, as if she were the Holy Roman Emperor himself, made her grim pronouncement.

“You, Antoinette Chanel, talk too much. Your sewing is slovenly. You are always daydreaming. If you don’t take heed, I fear you will turn out to be just like your mother.”

My stomach twisted like a knot. I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from arguing back. I looked over at my sister Gabrielle sitting on the other side of the room with the older girls and rolled my eyes.

“Don’t listen to the nuns, Ninette,” Gabrielle said once we’d been dismissed to the courtyard for recreation.

We sat on a bench, surrounded by bare-limbed trees that appeared as frozen as we felt. Why did they lose their leaves in the season they needed them most? Beside us, our oldest sister, Julia-Berthe, tossed bread crumbs from her pockets to a flock of crows that squawked and fought for position.

I pulled my hands into my sleeves, trying to warm them. “I’m not going to be like our mother. I’m not going to be anything the nuns say I’m going to be. I’m not even going to be what they say I can’t be.”

We laughed at this, a bitter laugh. As the temporary keepers of our souls, the nuns thought constantly about the day we would be ready to go out and live in the world. What would become of us? What was to be our place?

We’d been at the convent for two years and by now were used to the nuns’ declarations in the middle of choir practice or as we worked on our handwriting or recited the kings of France.

You, Ondine, with your penmanship, will never be the wife of a tradesman.

You, Pierrette, with your clumsy hands, will never find work with a farm woman. 

You, Hélène, with your weak stomach, will never be the wife of a butcher.

You, Gabrielle, must hope to make an adequate living as a seamstress. 

You, Julia-Berthe, must pray for a calling. Girls with figures like yours should keep to a nunnery.

I was told that if I was lucky, I could convince a plowman to marry me.

I pushed my hands back out of my sleeves and blew on them. “I’m not going to marry a plowman,” I said.

“I’m not going to be a seamstress,” Gabrielle said. “I hate sewing.”

“Then what will you be?” Julia-Berthe gazed at us with wide, questioning eyes. She was considered slow, “touched,” people said. To her everything was simple, black and white like the tunics and veils of the nuns’ habits. If the nuns said it, we would be it.

“Something better,” I said.

“What’s something better?” Julia-Berthe said.

“It’s…” Gabrielle started but didn’t finish.

She didn’t know what Something Better was any more than I did, but I knew she felt it just the same, a tingling in her bones. Restlessness was in our blood.

The nuns said we should be content with our station in life, that it was God-pleasing. But we could never be content where we were, with what we had. We came from a long line of peddlers, of dreamers traveling down winding roads, sure that Something Better was just ahead.

Excerpted from The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little, Copyright © 2020 by Judithe Little. Published by Graydon House Books. 

Posted in reviews

Water Sight (Last of the Gifted Book 2) by Marie Powell Review

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

As the Kingdom of England threatens to take over Wales, two siblings must use their magic gifts to save their home. Yet one must choose to save their sibling, or the love of their life, in author Marie Powell’s “Water Sight”, the second book in the Last of the Gifted series. 

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The Synopsis

Wales, 1283: A world at war

Catrin can see the future in a drop of water.

Her brother Hyw can take the shape of any bird or animal.

Only their magic can thwart the invading English forces determined to bring down the country.

The Prince of Wales needs three magical relics to rally the straggling Welsh forces. Catrin’s gift of Second Sight may be the only hope for success—if she can outwit the English lord who wants to use her gift to capture the prince.

Her brother Hyw is on the run with the prince and the dwindling Welsh army. To escape the betrayal dogging their heels, Hyw takes refuge in his evolving gift—until shifting shapes puts his humanity in jeopardy.

With Hyw trapped in his magic and her betrothed in an English jail, Catrin faces an impossible choice: save her brother, or save the man she loves.

The Review

An incredible read, author Marie Powell showcases a strong mastery of the fantasy/historical fiction style storytelling that has become so popular over the years. The protagonists, brother and sister Hyw and Cat, are well rounded, and the author does an amazing job of highlighting the well-rounded nature of each hero, flaws and all. 

The emotional core of the story is Cat’s struggle to not only save her people but protect her brother and the man she loves all at the same time while helping to fight off the English invaders led by King Edward. The amount of history the author was able to incorporate into the narrative was amazing. As a history buff, it was incredible to learn more about the era before Wales officially became part of England, when revolts were fought to maintain their independence and kingdom. The fantasy elements feel natural as the story progresses, as each hero’s power leads to difficult choices that many readers will be able to identify with. 

The Verdict

An amazingly written, emotionally driven, and fantasy-fueled read, author Marie Powell’s second entry into the Last of the Gifted series, “Water Sight”, is a must-read for fans of the historical fiction/fantasy genres. Action-packed and evenly paced, this is the perfect end of 2020 fantasy book for all readers, but especially fans of the YA genre. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Marie Powell’s castle-hopping across North Wales to explore her family roots resulted in her YA historical fantasy Spirit Sight (Last of the Gifted Book 1). Book 2, Water sight, will be released in fall 2020. Among other degrees, she holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing from the University of BC. Marie lives on Treaty 4 land in Regina, Saskatchewan, and her writing workshops are popular across the region.

Posted in reviews

Salamis by Harry Turtledove Review

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

Two men and the neutral country they call home are caught in the midst of a legendary battle between two warring Marshalls of Alexander the Great in author Harry Turtledove’s historical fiction novel, “Salamis”. 

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The Synopsis

In 306 BC, the small, free, and independent polis of Rhodes is trying to stay neutral between the local great powers, each ruled by one of Alexander the Great’s marshals: Asia Minor, controlled by one-eyed Antigonos, and the Egypt of Ptolemaios. Antigonos’ son, Demetrios, comes to Rhodes seeking an alliance against Ptolemaios. The Rhodians, who trade a lot with Egypt, refuse his offer.

Menedemos and Sostratos take the Aphrodite to Egypt for business…and to tell Ptolemaios what has been going on. Just before they leave, they learn Demetrios has invaded the island of Cyprus, which Ptolemaios dominates. He is advancing on the southeastern town of Salamis, where Ptolemaios’ brother, Menelaos, has concentrated his forces.

After they pass on their news, Menedemos does business in the brash new city of Alexandria while Sostratos travels up the Nile to old, old Memphis to trade there, and to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Ptolemaios, meanwhile, readies a fleet to rescue his brother and drive Demetrios back to Asia Minor.

Ptolemaios, needing shipping to carry weapons for the army he intends to land, coerces Menedemos into bringing the Aphrodite along as part of his expeditionary force. And so, very much against their will, Menedemos and Sostratos become small parts of one of the ancient world’s greatest naval battles. 

The Review

A wonderful deep-dive into ancient history, author Harry Turtledove has done it again with a stellar novel. The balance the author achieves with the historical background and events of the war between Ptolemaios and Demetrios and the personal relationships and struggles of the protagonists Menedemos and Sostratos is remarkable. War was an all too common event in this period of history, and getting to know the characters personally who were caught in the midst of this war was fascinating to see unfold.

The author’s use of imagery shone brightly in this narrative, with the cities of Salamis, Alexandria, and Memphis coming to life and exploring pivotal locations in Ancient Greece and Egypt. As a history fan, exploring the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s passing as his successors fought over who deserved to rule over the empire he had built was amazing, and giving the role of protagonist to a small historical figure and a fictitious character both was an inspired choice. 

The Verdict

Enthralling, action-packed, and historically driven, author Harry Turtledove’s “Salamis” is a must-read historical fiction novel. The fifth of the Hellenic Traders Universe that the author has crafted around Menedemos and Sostratos was a massive success, with an evenly-paced narrative and engaging characters that made the story come to life as one of history’s greatest battles became the stage for this plot to come to life. From the way, society ran during those days in places like Rhodes to the bond between a family being tested, especially for Menedemos, made this a truly entertaining read. Be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Dr Harry Norman Turtledove is an American novelist, who has produced a sizeable number of works in several genres including alternate history, historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction.

Harry Turtledove attended UCLA, where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977.

Turtledove has been dubbed “The Master of Alternate History”. Within this genre he is known both for creating original scenarios: such as survival of the Byzantine Empire; an alien invasion in the middle of the World War II; and for giving a fresh and original treatment to themes previously dealt with by other authors, such as the victory of the South in the American Civil War; and of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

His novels have been credited with bringing alternate history into the mainstream. His style of alternate history has a strong military theme.

https://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/turtledove.html