Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Giver of Stars: A Novel by Jojo Moyes

The Giver of Stars: A Novel. Jojo Moyes. Penguin Publishing Group. October 2019. pb, 400 pp.; ISBN #: 9780399562488.

Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains is a gorgeous gem of nature.  However, during the Depression years, families suffered from poor mining conditions and they were hamstrung by ignorance.  However, Eleanor Roosevelt began the project of traveling libraries, and this novel is about the five women known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.  Initially, they are composed of a motley crew of women.

Meet Alice Van Cleve, an English woman who married Bennet Van Cleve so that she would escape the stifling existence of British life and wound up strangled from the worse situation she was living in, with her father-in-law cruelly stifling her husband’s romantic expression.  Then meet Margery, a single woman with a hugely independent streak, who always did the right thing and couldn’t care less what anybody else thought about it.  She was loved by a young man but wouldn’t marry him because she wanted to maintain that independent status.  Then there is a gal with a physical injury who thought she had nothing to give life but turned out to have a gorgeous voice.  And meet Sophie, an African-American woman who has all the skills of a professional librarian; nothing will stop her although the racists of the area certainly have their say to try to stifle her presence.

You will find people falling in love with fairy tales, comics, romances, adventure stories, Bible stories and even a book about romantic sex.  Little by little the rural readers are reading and passing along more books than the Packhorse Librarians can handle.  Others begin to help them. 

Two marriages will fall apart, two new marriages will eventually happen, a woman will be physically battered, a woman will be charged with murder, and a family is disgraced for their brutal treatment of miners and their families.

This is a gorgeous, lovely novel readers will love!  It covers just about every form of virtue and vice, beauty and ugliness, defeat and victory that the imagination can consider.  It’s about victory, friendship, loyalty, honesty, truth and love in the worst of circumstances!  It’s joy-full.  Highly recommended historical fiction!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles: 44 Scotland Street Series by Alexander McCall Smith

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles: 44 Scotland Street Series. Alexander McCall Smith. Anchor Books: A Division of Penguin Random House. October 2019. pb, 336pp.; ISBN #: 9781984897817.

Welcome to summertime in Edinburgh, Scotland. The residents of Scotland Street are financially comfortable and for the most part sociable.  They have their ups and downs in life which are depicted herein in a mild manner.  They mirror everyday life anywhere.  They have discussions which make readers think from a more sensitive point of view than those opinions quickly glossed over elsewhere. The title refers to a refreshment occasionally shared when one is having an intimate but important conversation about something very meaningful to those partaking.

Stuart is sharing that tea with a young woman Katie.  Stuart’s wife is away, studying for a Ph. D. but also deliberately away from her marriage. So Stuart finally gives himself permission to enjoy life and his son Bertie has the same new feelings. He and his best friend Ranald Braveheart Macpherson take a jaunt to a local circus and wind up returning home with an unexpected gift. One of the issues on Scotland Street is freedom, that freedom to do what is best for one’s self and for one’s neighbors.  So Big Lou, who runs the local coffee and pastry shop, has a foster son who loves and has a great talent.  So she will do what she can to foster that love and freedom to nurture a career that’s loved, no matter how shocking it appears.

The wife of another couple, Delmonica, finds great joy in shopping for new clothes for her husband, Angus, which he doesn’t notice so accustomed is he to dress mindlessly.
Another woman loves living in the country but finally admits that even though she has small children to care for, she is lonely and yearning for more in life.  These are just a few of the delightful scenes accompanied by intriguing and stimulating conversations that lead to new situations and that are guaranteed to engage readers as well as yearn for more of the same.  There are also numerous witty exchanges that add to the realistically funny side of lives on Scotland Street a/k/a in our lives.

Lovingly crafted, enchanting contemporary fiction read with enchanting characters you will feel are like perfect friends!

Meg and Joe: A Contemporary Retelling of Little Women by Virginia Kantra

Meg and Jo: A Contemporary Retelling of Little Women. Virginia Kantra. Penguin Publishing Group. December 2019. pb, 400 pp.; ISBN: 9780593100349.

The March sisters each have a unique personality that thrilled readers in the renowned novel, Little Women.  In this contemporary retelling, Meg is still doing good things for everyone, Jo is still hot-tempered and independent, Amy is still stylish and Beth is still shy but ultra-loving to all around her.  They grew up on a farm in North Carolina, with their father still serving as a military chaplain and their mother handling home and the farm business. However, Meg is now married to John, a former teacher, and has two children.  Jo had moved to New York City, worked for a newspaper until she was laid off and now works as a prep cook in a famous restaurant, Gusto, and writes a food blog called Hungry that is growing with followers who interact.  Her dream is still to be a great writer but life takes these two eldest sisters in different directions for the duration of this novel.  Amy is involved in the world of fashion and Beth is involving in musical performances, albeit as a neophyte writer and singer.

This story is definitely a romance between Meg and John.  Both are super-busy but have initially little time to talk about what they really want out of life as well as what they expect of each other.  Shaped by their past in which the father did not take much part in family life, they learn through challenges how to truly listen to and talk to each other.  This makes their love very real and appealing to readers. 

Jo begins to have a sexual relationship with her boss, the famous chef and restaurant owner, Eric Bhaer.  However, after he discovers she has been writing about his cooking on her blog, he responds with fury and Jo quits working for him.  It’s just as well she returns to North Carolina because her Mom is about to have back surgery for damage done by a bone infection and will need a lot of help during her rehabilitation from that operation.

Beth and Amy also come in and out of the story, along with rich but nasty Aunt Phee and they all bond strongly in the face of so many challenges.  Jo’s old boyfriend Trey is still around and wants to marry Jo but he is just a very good friend to her, nothing more.  It provides for some funny as well as tense moments.  Family meals are a joy for all to share and it’s clear that these meals are just one manifestation of the very close bond that exists in this family.

While this retelling may not bear all the contrived mushiness of the original tale, Meg and Jo is a contemporary love story and family drama that is uniquely endearing and a grand read.  Highly recommended reading!  This reviewer is looking forward to the next book in this series which will be Amy and Beth! Happy reading, all!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Son of York: A Novel by Anne Easter Smith

This Son of York: A Novel. Anne Easter Smith. Bellastoria Press Llp. November 2019. pb, 506 pp.; ISBN: 9781942209638.

“Loyalty binds me” was King Richard III’s motto in the late 1490s in England.  Anne Easter Smith presents the life of Richard in a fairly even-handed manner, using multiple accepted sources as well as the DNA and anatomy studies from King Richard’s corpse found under a car park in Leicester, Great Britain.

Readers cannot help but recognize that Richard lived a very difficult life with most of it spent trying to repel the Tudor traitors from reigning, an endless enmity between the Lancaster and York families.  As a young boy, his brother Clarence demeaned Richard, calling him “runt” because of his smaller size.  Clarence was always the charmer around adults but his true mean streak often fell on Richard.  His brother Edward, the King, knew Richard was the serious moral son and acknowledged it in admiration but also in jest.  Richard begins to earn some self-respect when he is being prepared to be knighted under Warwick (“the Kingmaker”) and serve the King. 

Richard is late to experience romance but when he falls in love with Kate Haute, a commoner, he exhibits faithfulness and truly loving dedication to her for life.  She will have several children who receive life-long financial support, even after Richard marries Anne, Warwick’s daughter.  From this point, a series of disasters follow in which Richard is responsible for or connected with the death of King Henry VII, the two sons of King Henry VII, and several traitors including his brother Clarence.  Add to that his loss of his son Ned and his wife Anne and readers understand how Richard is afflicted by guilt and depression.

The War of the Roses is the main plot of this novel, with Yorkist kings for the most part accused of too much drinking, injustice, poor leadership, etc.  King Richard III actually only rules for two years before he is killed in the Battle of Bosworth. This story also deals with the scoliosis back problem that plagued Richard’s life.  The author does a superb job of creating a complex character who is credible and doubtful, proud but plagued by self-doubt, compassionate but formidably harsh.

The Son of York is a momentous work of historical fiction sure to garner praise, questions and avid commentary.  It deserves high praise for its excellent writing, characterization, depiction of setting and presentation of complex mysteries and challenges regarding 15th Century English history. Kudos to Anne Easter Smith for this highly recommended read!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars and the Lost Teachings of Christ by Glen Craney

The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars and the Lost Teachings of Christ. Glen Craney. Brigid’s Fire Press/Amazon Digital Services. September 2013 (second edition). pb, 505 pp.; ASIN: B00F8KTR5Q.

In researching this subject, the author had a dream in which Esclarmonde de Foix appeared to him and asked him to tell her story.  This extensive, multilayered story tells the story of the lost teachings of Christ that were passed down from Akhenaten to Moses, the Essenes, early Christians, Bogomils and Cathars.  It is about alternative teachings of the gnostic Cathars that deny the traditional Gospels and Pauline letters, the former speaking of the Light of Christ and God stemming from within each follower.  It’s a religious point of view that is deeply spiritual.  It began in what is now the southern part of France in Occitania and ends in Baragoza, Aragon in the 13th Century (1194 to 1250). It’s about the wild and passionate determination of Cistercian and Dominican clergy to quash these teachings and the Cathar believers.

This is history, romance, adventure, spirituality, theological debates and history told about a conflict that finally ended in disastrous massacre at Montsegur.  These are the teachings of the Essenes later taught by the dynamic female leader Esclarmonde de Foix who renounced physical love that her whole being might be attuned to the Divine Light. She is an aggregate of several real women but no less credible and compelling through the poetic license taken by the author to present her character.  The teachings suggest that those who practice violence will be doomed to be reborn into the same life and level of violence.  If so, there are dozens of characters in these pages who make torture, persecution and death into a level of violence that at times is beyond endurable.

At the same time, it casts doubt on teachings like Purgatory, hell, and salvation that sound more like condemnation than the love of a merciful, loving God.  Besides being a great story, in these pages is found several theological debates that will leave readers thinking and pondering personal beliefs.

There are Courts of Love begun by Eleanor of Aquitaine in which troubadours vie with each other to compose and sing of the ways of love, claiming them as a model of chivalric living and loving that all true knights and princes must follow.  Ironically, these sayings are also a mirror for the love of God, to be followed by those who claim to be Christian.  However, most of these same knights, princes, and clerical leaders manifest the exact opposite in their mission to destroy every Cathar follower, no matter their social and economic status.

This is a novel that will haunt readers long after the last pages are read. The author is to be commended for the creation of this passionate depiction of true history and spirituality which has been hidden and denied for far too long.  Highly recommended historical fiction superbly created and presented!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bread, Bags & Bullies: Surviving the 80's by Steven Manchester

Bread, Bags & Bullies: Surviving the 80’s. Steven Manchester. Luna Bella Press. November 2019. pb, 208 pp.; ASIN: B07YR894QP.

Those who grew up in the 1980’s are going to love this novel which describes the family of Herbie, Wally and Cockroach, three brothers who loved and tormented each other while growing up.  They grow up in a strict family where the rules are definite although somewhat out of the box of today’s norms. Steven Manchester is uniquely talented to capture the essences of a person (or family’s) strengths and weaknesses that is real and without artifice. It’s funny as well!

They’re definitely addicted to the Atari 2600 games with two joystick controllers with red buttons, paddle controllers and black game cartridges.  They love and hate the Combat or Air Sea Battle.  In moments of quiet they confess their deepest fears to each other.  They never miss TV shows such as Knots Landing, Donny and Marie, Tony Orlando and Dawn, the Lawrence Welk Show with the bubbles and corny music, and the always funny Carol Burnett Show. They’re thrilled with the music of Def Leppard, Pink Floyd, REO Speedwagon and Queen.  They know their family is far from The Brady Bunch TV family.  They also know they are poor but don’t worry too much about it.  Instead, one works as a newspaper delivery boy and others can’t wait their appropriate age to do the same.  They can’t wait for high school with the ability to go to concerts, earn money for a dream car like a Camaro, Pontiac Firebird or Trans Am and drag racing.  They’re obvious fans of the Lakers basketball team over the Celtics.  They’re into Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics magazines with an occasional forced foray into reading novels like To Kill a Mockingbird.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an irresistible movie that feeds their young imaginations.  MTV is starting to get rave reviews as well as numerous Billboard Chart idols.

Daily lessons are frequent but the largest one is to stand strong against bullies.  It’s believed that not facing fear will allow that fear to become a monster in one’s life, and so one of the brothers prepares to face one of his most formidable opponents on the school bus.  Mom and Dad are to be heard and obeyed.  The brothers may fight and rag on each other constantly but they are always there for each other in time of need, including when they have physical or emotional challenges.

Steven Manchester’s latest novel is a delightful look back to an age when families could name their challenges and meet them accordingly with love and toughness where appropriate.  Nicely crafted coming of age story, Steven Manchester!

A Bottle of Rum: A Spider John Mystery by Steven Goble

A Bottle of Rum: A Spider John Mystery. Steven Goble. Seventh Street Books.  November 2019. pb, 264 pp.; ISBN: 9781645060031.

Spider John Rush appears in this third pirate novel by Steven Goble.  Spider has had enough of the dangers of pirating, never knowing whether he will be caught, tortured and/or hung.  He longs to return to Nantucket to live with his wife Em and his son Johnny whom he has not seen since he was a baby.  For now he’s sitting in a tavern with his friend Odin when trouble brews.  The owner of the tavern does little work and it’s his wife who carries the burden.  The night when Spider is having a drink is the one in which the owner of the tavern is murdered.  Spider promises to find the killer or killers.  He just can’t seem to escape trouble wherever he goes. For the knife sticking out of the neck of the tavern owner is the one Spider had made and given to his pirate friend Hob.  So now Spider is determined to find Hob as well as the murderer(s).

Spider and Odin are led down a trail of smugglers and attacking knaves to a madhouse being run by some land-lubbered former pirates.  A young woman challenges them and it is clear she is suffering from some form of madness as she’s totally obsessed with death and torture.  Experiments are being conducted on the patients in the madhouse, ones that frequently wind up in the death of those patients.  Is it from poison, amputations or some other evil?  Hints are later given that the experimenter is trying to locate the “soul” of individuals.  The story will develop to the point where Spider and Odin find Hobs but must make a dangerous escape.  The mystery will be solved but not until Spider and Odin have been treated as spies and traitors, thereby earning multiple attacks and wounds that were just as horrible as what they had suffered when out at sea as pirates.  It’s still a hard and dangerous life they are living but they are now seeking justice and mercy out of compassion and not crime.

Spider is at heart a funny, wise and caring individual whose personality is depicted in a way that immediately engages the reader.  One wonders why there’s a touch of evil and insanity in former pirates but recognizes that there are some good souls among them worthy of admiring and rooting for.  Taverns are not only sources of satisfying drinks but also unexpected but probable fights.

A Bottle of Rum is a fascinating tale that puts a new twist on Spider John and his friends and enemies.  Nicely crafted, Steve Goble!

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Gary Gatlin Reluctant Hero: World War II Trilogy Book 1 by Carl F. Haupt

Gary Gatlin Reluctant Hero: World War II Trilogy Book 1. Carl F Haupt. Dudley Court Press. November 2019. pb, 318 pp.; ISBN: 9781940013572.

Those Gary Catlin begins his life as the son of a Utah farmer, in a family that grows and sells product fruit.  Upon reaching his teen years, he accompanies his father to learn more about how to grow better apples.  During this time he learns more about agriculture, learns to fluently speak and write Japanese and meets a young Japanese-American woman for whom he has feelings but is unable to pursue because of other business agenda he wants to master before making a family commitment.

This is the story of his wild sea journey to Formosa where he hopes to learn more about modern apple pruning techniques.  During this time he is kidnapped by Formosan brigands, saves one of them from death, becomes their friend and then he is rescued from the Japanese soldiers who believe he is a spy.  On that escape he escapes death several times and actually is responsible for bombing a Japanese ship, a formidable task given the onset of WWII between America and Japan as well as Germany.  He meets several British spies during this time, all quietly carrying out their service. 

The essence of this book is about dedication and commitment no matter how difficult the civilian or military task to which one is assigned.  Gary Catlin is an honest man of integrity who gives his all to whatever he does and moves beyond that mode to help those who are unjustly persecuted and are suffering.  The author depicts a man whose heroism is in living true to decent human values.  In the course of these scenes, Gary makes dear friends for life and dramatically changes the world both in America and overseas.  This reviewer found this novel to be adventurous, mysterious, dangerous and real; I think readers will join me in looking forward to further books in this planned trilogy.

Finely crafted, Carl F. Haupt.  Highly recommended reading!

Firewall: An Emma Streat Mystery by Eugenia Lovett West

Firewall: An Emma Streat Mystery. Eugenia Lovett West. Spark Press.  November 2019. pb, 352 pp.; ISBN: 9781684630103.

Emma Streat is no stranger to mysteries and solving international and domestic crime.  Her husband was killed in the first case she later got involved in.  Now the threat is a bunch of criminals involved in international cyberterrorism.  This story begins when her elderly godmother is blackmailed, gives in to the demand but then sets out to find who is the blackmailer. She may be elderly but she’s a feisty lady who is no slouch and Emma shares many of the same attitudes and determination!

Her involvement will force Emma to bond with an ex-lover and other secret agents.  She will be compelled to travel to France, Italy, Ireland and Geneva, Switzerland.  In each place, more attempts at kidnapping will occur, some with horrendous attacks causing multiple deaths.  The flair of each character involves twists and turns that are unexpected.  Criminals may be multiple smart people but there are always miniscule mistakes they did not foresee which expose them to capture.

The bottom line of this mystery concerns multiple attempts to bribe wealthy individuals followed by the laundering of criminal monies.  All of this costs big money that must be moved around by other criminal types and the criminal plot just keep growing more convoluted and complex, with Emma moving forward on her best instincts, both with and without legal protection. Violence and death will occur to many involved, both planned and accidental.  She’s obviously a woman who thrives on following her instincts and love for adventure.  Her children are in college and now she has taken up what seems to be a new career, being a sleuth who’s very good at listening to people, observing them and following her gut instincts in a process that is breath-taking and nerve-wracking, a double whammy package that keeps the reader reading rapidly, flipping the pages and wanting both a solution and yet also not wanting it all to end.

Ms. West has remarkable talent and skills to make this a nail-biting, satisfying international mystery.  Readers are guaranteed to remember this read and to want more of the same in the near future!

Flying Alone: A Memoir by Beth Ruggerio York

Flying Alone: A Memoir. Beth Ruggerio York. FSB Associates. December 2019. pb, 246 pp.; ISBN: 978173399609.

Once flying got into Beth Ruggerio’s blood as a teen, she was totally hooked.  At first she was sidelined with a brutal diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.  But with medication she was able to make a plan to get into flying.  It wasn’t to be through the Navy training she had initially planned but she decided to would take lessons and earn and licenses through the hours she put in flying and the tests she would have to take along the way.  This is as much an adventure story as it is a memoir for Beth’s way was far from easy and fraught with numerous examples of dangerous events which became life or death challenges to overcome.

Beth finds a flying instructor who also becomes her boyfriend.  However, as Beth puts it, Flying is number one for Steve and everything else comes after that.  Steve is a great instructor but is not too beg on building up a person’s ego. He pushes her as hard as he does himself.  But she learns to handle every difficulty, even to the point where it begins to impair her mental health.  She flies in poor visibility, in storms, with mechanical plane problems and more.  She also doesn’t work for the employers who place employees’ needs and well-being on a priority list.  She even works for a company that is flying dangerous material and newspapers that top over the weight limit.  While she is doing all this, some of the friends and acquaintances she has met die in brutal accidents that should never have happened.

Eventually Beth winds up in counseling and taking anti-depression medication and realizes she will die if this pattern continues. She therefore works her way into commercial pilot work and then returns to school to do Chinese translation work.  Her story is riveting, harrowing and a whole message of wisdom and caution about the choices one makes for achieving one’s dreams.  The costs may be larger than the dream.  Interestingly, the challenges are also about personal victories that shape an individual with or without the assistance of others.  There are also some scenes that point out the changes in the airline industry from male to female employees.  All in all, this is a fascinating memoir full of unrelenting tension, insecurity and triumphs that will leave readers thinking and asking questions about choices and decisions.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Love is Blind: The Rapture of Brodie Moncur by William Boyd

Love is Blind: The Rapture of Brodie Moncur. William Boyd. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.  October 2019. pb, 384 pp.; ISBN: 9780525655268.

Falling in love is so much more than just physical lust.  Brodie Moncur becomes a highly killed and popular piano tuner.  His past is fraught with the unexplained hatred by his father who considers Brodie a blackguard and many other curse words.  But due to the financial support of a beloved neighbor, Brodie is able to get a decent education and a successful job with a company that produces Channon pianos. 

For now, Brodie is tuning the piano of a performer Kilbarron and accompanying him on his tour of performances.  Kilbarron is known as “the Irish Liszt.”  His partner is Lida or Lika Blum and Brodie falls completely in love with her on their first meeting.  This is a passion that is beyond words and it’s not long before she responds in the same way.  So grows Brodie’s reliance on the family for employment and on his soaring passion for Lika. 

Brodie in the middle of his soaring success suffers a frightening consumption attack which will haunt him for the rest of his life and force him to take convalescent breaks to restore his health to a semblance of normalcy.  Eventually he is forced out of the Channon company but finds another concert pianist to accompany on tours.  During these years Brodie and Lika meet in secret at hotels and elsewhere throughout Europe.  So proceeds the path of “the cuckold, the lover and the mistress” although there is a surprise later added about these relationships.

The title of the novel refers to Lika’s statement that Brodie’s idea of love is blind, that he only sees the good in her and not the negative.  But isn’t that frequently so in all love relationships?  They will eventually be separated because of a secret fact unknown to Brodie but his reflections and descriptions of their love and union are so realistic and the European scenes so beautifully described that the reader feels a part of the whole story, including the evils trying to destroy Brodie’s success. 

The life of Brodie Moncur is indeed a rapture despite all the conflicts that beset him.  This is a lovely historical work of fiction that truly reveals the beauty of the late 19th and early 20th Century Europe and two of its characters who parallel that beauty and passion! Remarkable and realistic story!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Art of Theft: Lady Sherlock #4 by Sherry Thomas

The Art of Theft: Lady Sherlock #4. Sherry Thomas. Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright 2019. Pb. 304 pp.; ISBN: 9780451492470

Lady Charlotte, a/k/a Lady Sherlock, has a new mystery to solve which involves adventure and romance.  A Maharani from India visits Lady Charlotte and at first decides she will not allow Lady Charlotte to help her because the Indian royalty does not believe Sherlock exists.  Over a brief time, however, after the visits of Lord  Ingram (who yearns for Charlotte as a lover) and Mr. Marbleton, who wants to court Livia, Livia’s sister, the plot is revealed.  It turns out the Maharani has a weak son who rules but has made a serious mistake that if revealed could make them lose the support of the ruling British. 

The questions are many.  What written secrets are hidden in the back of a painting about to be auctioned and perhaps sold at a ball being held in Paris, France.  The Maharani’s son had contacts with Prussia in which the latter promised to militarily help against the British.  But what’s on the papers is in code.  Her son is now in ill health due to this international communication gone nowhere and these paper machinations may be very dangerous if recovered by the wrong people.

Nevertheless, Lady Charlotte, with the help of Lord Ingram, Mr. Marbleton, and Livia set out to recover the papers.  This involves learning more about the price of art, those who attend the ball and will auction after much eating and drinking.  Does such partying increase the value and worth of famous and valuable paintings? 

Of course, danger lurks in their pursuit.  Lord Ingram and Mr. Marbleton are almost drowned in the grounds of the site of the castle where the ball will be held.  Meanwhile, romantic ideas increase as the characters discover what their intended lovers are really like in peaceful and chaotic times. It all proceeds even to the very cliff-hanger style ending which leaves the reader anxious to read more of this group’s daring adventures and hope that these romantic plans will become serious.  For those who love a good mystery with lots of riddles and threats, this is your next read. Although this is the fourth novel in a series, it’s also an enticing stand-alone novel. Nicely crafted, indeed, Sherry Thomas!  More please!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Secrets We Kept: A Novel by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept: A Novel. Lara Prescott. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.  September 2019. pb, 368 pp.; ISBN: 9780525656159.

Secrets are held to protect individuals, groups, and nations.  Our story begins with a group of typists working for the CIA who are told to type but not think about what they are typing and to forget what they are typing.  Slowly but surely, however, they realize that certain typists are being pulled from their work to do more for the CIA, then known as the OSS.  They are actually spies trained to deliver messages, packages and sensitive material.  Irina Drozdova is the daughter of a Russian seamstress and a man who died under interrogation as they were leaving Russia.  She is now a typist and she now has a reason to serve America in order to punish Russia for the loss of her father.

The novel alternates between these ladies and spies and the world of the famous Boris Pasternak, his wife and his mistress Olga Ivinskiya.  Olga supports her lover while he is inspired by the Muse to create Dr. Zhivago for which he will one day be awarded the Novel Prize in Literature.  Olga serves three years in a Russian Gulag and knows she has sacrificed her children and life for Boris; she has lived as the Lara in her lover’s novel.

The spies become messengers to deliver the Pasternak novel which is banned in Russia. They evolve into women and men with alternative lives.  Sally Forrester and Irina become lovers in a very intense but brief affair, given that homosexuality is illegal in these times.  Their separation becomes like a crushing loss like that of death.  Because of their work they will never know love or solid relationships as all who marry are dismissed by the CIA.

Espionage and literature are forces that change the world, often with a very heavy cost to those carrying out the spying or writing.  They are ready to kill or be killed to see it accomplished.  This story is also about repression and exposure, a celebration of true liberty achieved through agony and ecstasy.  Divided into alternate sections of “East” and “West,” the publication of the famous novel is charted from its original publication to its gradual spread throughout Europe and Russia itself.  Olga suffers the result after the death of her love.

The Secrets We Kept… is an exciting, reflective, poetic and adventuresome read – marvelous, memorable historical fiction – highly recommended reading! Finely crafted, Lara Prescott!!!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution's Women by Kate Quinn et al

Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women. Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Sophie Perinot, Heather Webb and E. Knight. William Morrow/Harper Collins.  October 2019. pb, 560 pp.; ISBN: 9780062916075.

Six dynamic women’s part in the French Revolution is depicted in this historical novel by six very talented, skilled writers, ensuring that every aspect of the Revolution is covered. The terrible fears, passionate hopes and dreams, debilitating confusion, truthful and lying promises, and torturous resignations are vividly described as the life-changing reality of true revolution.

Sophie de Grouchy is the voice behind her husband, the Marquis de Condorcet.  She believed that royalists and commoners were working toward the same end – a better world.  Bread is up to fourteen sous a loaf and France waits for King Louis XVI to call the Estates General which will guarantee a place in government for all economic and social classes.  Even the poor believe the Condorcet family is denying rights to those not so fortunate such as fruit-seller Louise Audu who learns to read in one of Sophie’s saloniere gatherings. 

Louise is the Revolutionary, leading the people in the streets to join the National Assembly where they will present their demands for liberty, equality and fraternity in practical ways that will hopefully remove their dire, starving conditions. Louise’s primary goal is vengeance. This results in the storming of the Bastille, with resultant bloodshed and chaos as well as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.  They now avidly own and present their “Pride, Purpose and Passion” in their demanded rights.

Princess Elizabeth, the King’s sister, is depicted as a true royalist.  Loving her brother as blood family as well as the man appointed by God to rule, Elizabeth also has a compassionate heart that reaches out to those suffering in France.  Such loyalty will not save her eventually, but she naively hopes against hope when her family attempts to escape Paris only to be brought back and imprisoned. She fails to acknowledge her brother’s responsibility for the horrible state of affairs in France.  She, however, does foresee that those who sow violence now will later be “eaten up” by it.

Manon Roland, the wife of writer Jean-Marie Roland, is a complex woman.  She is a woman who suffered sexual trauma when younger but now is an author who assists her husband in writing revolutionary pamphlets and attempts to fend off a lover.  Those who now screech counterrevolutionary terror are Robespierre, Danton and Marat, leaders who are after the Girondists, those who suggest less violent government and methodology.  Her confession of past and present thoughts will prove to be her undoing. Political involvement is her end when she announces, “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name?”

Charlotte Corday comes to Paris to assassinate Marat and becomes infamous as the “Angel of Assassination, a murderous harlot from Caen.”  Her motivation is to end the betrayal of the revolution for love of country. Her acquaintance, Pauline, fights for women’s rights but then loses them because of “lust and weakness.”

Finally, when Robespierre’s power is unassailable, terror reigns.  Citizeness de Ainte-Amaranthe or Emilie de Sartine, renowned for her beauty, becomes the object of Robespierre’s lustful admiration and then his destructive power.  She is the last victim of “our revolution…a great wheel of torture upon which women have been broken and silenced.”  

So many more scenes and discussions are presented that readers will never forget, all dramatically told.  We share their powerful, poignant and comprehensive thoughts and feelings which are unspoken but lie behind their words and deeds in public.  We see France ripped apart, citizens destroying each other in partisan bickering and violence.  If fervor were a virtue, all these women and the people associated with them would be canonized.  Instead, their futile efforts turn to mourning but still leave hope, prayers and dreams for a better future, including the Declaration of the Rights of Women.

This is stunning historical fiction which is highly recommended reading!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Blackbird Blues by Jean K. Carney

Blackbird Blues. Jean K. Carney. Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company.  October 2019. pb, 218 pp.; ISBN: 978-1949290226.

Mary Kay O” Donnell lives a life parallel to a masterful jazz performance.  She’s an aspiring jazz singer who initially has to decide whether she will enter a convent in Chicago.  Then she has to make a decision about an unwanted pregnancy.  During this time, she is mourning the death of a nun, Sister Michaeline, who as Mary Kay’s mentor.  Sister Michaeline was a nun who always responded out of the box but who guided Mary Kay with advice that built up Mary Kay’s positive self-image.  The loss is so huge and the pain staggering.

At the same time Mary Kay’s neighbor introduces her to the literary works of James Baldwin and the other nuns to the growing civil rights movement.  Then Mary Kay finds herself wrapped up in the world of an African-American Lucius who is a jazz performer.  He also gives Mary Kay the diary of Sister Michaeline which was written during her early years as a nun.  The excerpts have a major impact on Mary Kay as do the singing lessons from Lucius.  They also make visits to local art museums and galleries and they visit jazz clubs that are popular in the African-American world.

Mary Kay’s decision about her pregnancy provides a devastating chapter, a time she will forever mourn.  During this period, she discovers things about Sister Michaeline that are shocking and which Mary Kay understands from her present feelings for Lucius.

This is remarkable historical fiction that is poignant and mind-blowing in intensity. The greatest jazz pieces are depicted as swirling bands of rising and falling notes that sometimes spin out of control and then develop into a harmonious sound that is unpredictable.  That is also Mary Kay’s life during the turbulent 1960s, a time in which change is feared, misunderstood, delighted in and held close.  Jean Carney is a talented writer who has penned an unforgettable story that reflects a time of change and emergence into new culture and form.  It holds parallels with our present age! Delightful and highly recommended read!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Where the Light Enters: A Novel by Sara Donati

Where the Light Enters: A Novel. Sara Donati. Penguin Publishing Group.  September 2019. hb, 672 pp.; ISBN: 9780425271827.

Dr. Sophie Savard and Dr. Anna Savard, Sophie’s cousin and best friend, want to start a medical school and hospital for disadvantaged women in the 1800s.  Both doctors are women of color and have had their past experiences of prejudice and suspicion.  Now, Dr. Sophie’s husband has died of tuberculosis in Europe and she has returned to New York.  She’s had plenty of condolences and her own memories in grief to now process.  But activities in the city quickly garner her interest and involvement. 

A number of deaths have occurred to women who were pregnant, went to a criminal doctor who punished them with surgery, infection and eventual death.  But now that doctor is gone and there are still problems.  The wife of a reputable banker has disappeared and another woman is found dead by very suspicious wounds which lead the investigators to believe the same type of murder has again occurred.  Dr. Anna’s husband, Detective-Sergeant Jack Mezzanotte, asks the cousins to consult on the investigation.  They agree to consult and gradually the story unfolds to show who the captors or kidnappers are and who has once again murdered.

This is a tough and tender story that will grip every reader who is interested in both medicine and crime.  The main characters are financially well-settled but still have enormous compassion for women who seek criminal doctors hoping to end pregnancies or illness.  Women who are mistreated have multiple reasons to seek illicit treatment and the Savard doctors believe education and compassion will change the horrific nature of these losses.  This is a timely subject as the nation is coping with the possibility of abortions becoming illegal as it was fifty years ago and earlier.  It is not too hard to realize that these dark days could become reality again and that there are even now numerous women, both health care professionals and regular women, who seriously are concerned about this issue.  Dr. Anna and her husband Jack, as well as Dr. Sophie stand for the protection of women’s rights.  This would be an excellent novel to use in a book club or to share in other contemporary issue discussions.

The topic is obviously well-research and is presented with all sides of the issues covered.  Sara Donati is a highly-skilled, creative and talented writer.  This, her latest novel, is highly recommended historical fiction!!! Enjoy the read!

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

The Vanished Bride.  Bella Ellis. Penguin Publishing Group.  September 2019; pb, 304 pp.; ISBN #: 9780593099056.

In between writing poetry, novels and stories, Charlotte, Emily and Ann Bronte are looking into a criminal matter.  They call themselves “detectors.” That means there’s no official police designation and no spy attachment.  The nicest part of this novel is that these are talented but ordinary sisters who have talents with weaknesses.  They quarrel with and pick on each other as sisters do but there is a deep abiding and protective love that is rock solid no matter what happens.  They grow up in a time when a woman is a possession and really has absolutely no rights of her own.  However, they are raised by a liberal pastoral father who teaches them otherwise and respects the decisions they make.  So when a friend of theirs, Maddie, tells of a horrible occasion where her mistress has gone missing and all that is left behind is a gross amount of blood all over her bedroom.  Maddie implies that the behavior of Mr. Chester is cruel beyond reason and comes close to being criminal.  So the three sisters decide to become sleuths and tell their father nothing of plans.

Bram, the sisters’ brother, is an enigma of a character in this story.  He helps them during the day and seems strongly supportive.  But his nights are full of drinking himself into oblivion and he seems aimless in life because of a lost love.  However, he does come through in all the right places where woman must be accompanied by a male.  All the characters who loved Mrs. Chester are warm and have nothing but good things to say about her.  So they also will do what they can to find this missing woman.

The solution to the mystery comes after numerous clues are provided with many different interpretations as to meaning and how they fit with the obvious plan. Mr. Chester has a hyperactive brain that imagines wrongs that lead him to jealous and cruel treatment of his brides and everyone else in the house.  Others try to protect the victims from Mr. Chester’s outrageous attacks.

However, the right people will be discovered and the criminal will pay for wrongs committed.  Overall, readers will be pleased with the detective-like activities of these three sisters who vow to do no wrong and always work on the right side of the law.  They are very good “detectors” and the reader hopes they will have other efforts published on their mystery talent skills.  Nicely done, Bella Ellis!

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Passengers by John Marrs

The Passengers: A Novel. John Marrs. Penguin Publishing Group.  August 2019. pb, 352 pp.; ISBN: 9781984806970.

Libby is part of a Vehicle Inquest Jury deciding who is to blame when driver-less vehicles in England are in accidents with driver-controlled vehicles or pedestrians.  The outcome angers her because the driver-controlled vehicles are always cleared.  Now Libby and we share a phenomenal nightmare.  Eight driver-controlled vehicles are hacked by an unknown enemy; each of the people in those locked vehicles are told they will die in two-and-a-half hours. 

Libby and her jury peers are told they must choose who must die and which single person be allowed to live.  This whole scenario is obviously pre-planned and set up as each person has many reasons to live but all have at least one horrendous part of background which would negate the innocence of his or her life.  The disclosure of each biography plus the revelation of dark secrets is equal in shock value to the participants, public social media audience and each reader.  One is married to a pedophile, one is married to a bigamist, one has a dead husband in the trunk of the car, one is an abused illegal immigrant, one is bent on suicide and more. 

The premise of the novel will eventually be explained albeit condemned.  This novel will force readers to think about the Artificial Intelligence (AI) behind driver-less vehicles and about the decision to grant justice or injustice on those who survive such collisions.  Jack, the MP running the Vehicle Inquest Jury, is motivated by personal greed and is very much part of decisions that are immoral and downright injustice.  His end in this plot is as frightening as the rest of the novel.

Catch up on your sleep before you begin this novel because you will be gripped by its hair-raising plot and unable to stop reading, even while the tension mounts over and over with each changing scene and challenge.  It’s important satire but also a warning that AI needs to be monitored, maintained and controlled because it’s not as objective and detached as it seems.  Science can be deleterious and damning if not examined and measured on how it affects individuals and the public within society. It has criminal possibilities as well as technological progress.  As in this novel, You Decide!

Mind-blowing plot, carefully crafted and a nail-biting, hair-raising story.  A truly thrilling read!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Perfect Son: A Novel by Lauren North

The Perfect Son: A Novel.  Lauren North. Penguin Publishing Group.  August 2019; pb, 368 pp.; ISBN #: 9781984803849.

How far will grief take over the mind and heart of its victim?  Tessa Clarke has just lost her husband in a tragic airplane accident.  Now at the beginning of this story, she wakes up in the hospital with a knife wound in her stomach and the realization that her son Jamie is missing.  The plot goes back to months before Jamie’s birthday and his disappearance.  Many have reached out to Tess in her grief but she remains totally incommunicado.  The only person to approach her is her late husband’s brother, Ian, who claims that he loaned Mark a huge amount of money that he needs repaid now.  Tessa is the Executrix of her husband’s will but hasn’t given any thought to a will or the future.

All of a sudden, Tessa finds some temporary relief in a visit from Shelly, a grief counselor, who herself lost a child and has been through this grief process.  She knows exactly what Tessa is thinking and feeling, and that is some small comfort as Tessa struggles to keep her head together for her son.  Jamie however has reverted to his former shy nature and fear of anything out of the normal occurrences of everyday.  He, however, also enjoys Sherry’s visits.

The story plays out and the reader discovers a mystery lurking that she cannot handle even though once it does play out forces her to wake up to how her grief is destroying her life and perhaps even forcing the loss of her son.  But that truth takes a while to evolve as it does.

Lauren North is a psychologist who knows the mind and hearts of her characters.  Thing tie up a bit pat by the end but it’s satisfactory to the reader who has been taking sides with the characters since this nightmare began.  Nicely crafted, Lauren North – a mysterious, touching and sincere read!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Ellie and the Harpmaker: A Novel by Hazel Prior

Ellie and the Harpmaker: A Novel.  Hazel Prior. Penguin Publishing Group.  August, 2019; pb, 336 pp.; ISBN #: 9781984803788.

Ellie on a wandering walk in the Exmoor country finds a Harpmaker Barn owned by Dan who creates Celtic harps that produce gorgeous music.  The story is narrated from the points of view of Ellie and Dan.  Dan is a sensitive soul who loves nature, the rocky pebbles that he uniquely places at the bottom of each harp he builds, and culture that is in touch with beauty. 

Ellie is married to Clive, a man who enjoys his work, football and food.  He loves Ellie but has no place in him for the loneliness she feels and her craving for expressing the beauty in the world she perceives.  However, all that is about to change as she meets Dan, receives a harp he has made and begins to take lessons which she loves.  But Ellie’s curiosity leads her into trouble as she perceives something in Dan’s life that he needs to know.  That in turn sets off Ellie’s conflict with Clive, who believes Ellie has been unfaithful to him.  Clive makes no accusations but stays cold and distant.

Meanwhile Dan is making friends with someone very close to him and a new life is beginning.  It is only when Ellie tells him that Clive has thrown her out that their future together becomes a happy, fulfilling reality.  Ellie now has the opportunity to become who she really is, allowing her inner world to blend with her Exmoor reality – a dream come true!

This is a lovely story of two people who must overcome who they are not to venture into a new possibility.  The conflicts are sad but develop as they must.  Some changes are painfully necessary for dreams to come true!  Delightful romantic, contemporary fiction!!!