Posted in 20th Century, African American, General Fiction

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Ray Colson just wants to get through life in one piece.

When the novel begins, Ray owns a small used goods and furniture store in Harlem, dealing mostly in honest trade. He and his wife are expecting their first child. Her parents, who live on Strivers Row in Harlem (the street name speaks for itself), don’t think much of Ray. They are sure their daughter could have done better for herself.

Ray had a challenging childhood, with a delinquent father, in more ways than one, and a dead mother. When his father disappeared for a couple of months, he went to live with his Aunt Millie, and his cousin, Freddie, and there he stayed. His aunt is a blessing. Freddie is a double edged sword.

Ray has a college education, but what can a black man who just wants to keep his head down do with that in 1950’s Harlem? He uses both the schooling he got on the streets and in the classroom to work sales both above and below board. He has a nose for quality new and used goods to display in his store. Behind the counter, he never deals in anything too shady or traceable. Ray is a smart and cautious man.

His cousin, Freddie, however is not. Freddie is always getting into trouble. When Freddie comes looking to Ray for assistance in handling the various scrapes he gets into, Ray is there for him like a brother. Freddie’s antics escalate until Ray has to use all of his wits to keep himself, his business and his family safe.

Harlem Shuffle is the July 2022 selection for my book club. I might not have picked it up otherwise. While I didn’t like it as much as Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, I’m glad I read it. I learned a few things, which is always a plus!

Although I was born almost two decades later than the main character, there are locations in the novel that are relatable and nostalgic. I remember early used electronics shops like Aronowitz’s and furniture stores much like Ray’s. Descriptions of the era brought back feelings from childhood. But as a white woman who grew up in middle class suburbia, much of the novel was like reading about a foreign land. Despite working both sides of the fence, pun intended, Ray is at heart a deeply honorable man who loves his family and his neighborhood. While I can’t begin to put myself in Ray’s shoes, I gained a deep respect for him. That was a fine accomplishment by the author.

My Rating 4.75 Stars, Grade A-

Posted in Historical Fiction, Romance, World War II

The Riviera House by Natasha Lester

The Past: When the Nazis invade Paris, they steal works of art owned by French museums and the Jewish people. Having been forewarned, the museum staff whisks away some of the most valuable works of art, including the Mona Lisa. But the plunder is astoundingly heartbreaking, in both quantity and value.

Two women work in secret and in constant danger to catalog the stolen art, so it can be returned to its rightful owners after the Nazis are defeated. One of them is a young woman named √Čliane. Before the war, she worked at the Louve, as well as her family’s small cafe. She risks her life to save the artwork and what is left of her family.

The Present: Remy is struggling with depression after the loss of her husband and young daughter in a car accident. She retreats to a house on the Riviera, which she inherited as a baby. There she meets a photographer, Adam, who helps her take photos for her vintage clothing business. As she starts to unravel the mystery of a stunning painting that was also part of her inheritance, she falls in love again.

I enjoyed the parts of the book that takes place in Paris in the 1940’s. The sections that take place in the present, not so much. The present timeline section read like a boilerplate romance with very little substance. In my opinion, if this book had only taken place in the 1940’s, it would have been a much better book. I also took issue with the cover, which depicts a glamorous woman casually looking through a window. This is not a book about high society and fashion. At its heart, this is a book about war, starvation, danger and the bravery of those who fought behind the scenes in the French Resistance.

The Riviera House, Book, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Natasha Lester

My Rating 3.5 Stars, Grade C+

Posted in General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction, World War II

Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

Publication Info: Expected publication date: August 4, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. I read the Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley. Other editions available at publication.

Summary: After nearly four years of Nazi occupation, the people of Paris are emotionally drained and starving. The German soldiers in the city, sensing the end of their rule, are increasingly cruel to the French. Citizens are harassed, rounded up, shot or sent to the camps. The tension is so great that Parisians are turning on each other, making accusations and killing their fellow citizens for reasons based on nothing but rumor. The primary allegation against the victims of the mobs is collaboration.

In 1944, Charlotte Foret and her baby daughter, Vivi, are struggling to survive. They work in a bookshop owned by her friend, Simone. Charlotte’s husband was killed in the war. Charlotte, Vivi, Simone and her young daughter live on the money from the meager book sales and their special ration cards, but food is still in extremely short supply. They they are slowly starving to death.

A German soldier begins to quietly frequent the bookshop. He says he is a doctor and helps Vivi through an illness. After Simone is taken by the Germans, Charlotte reluctantly accepts the doctor’s small gifts of food and his friendship. It is the only way they can survive. In the definition of the mobs, she is a collaborator.

Many years later, teenage Vivi is searching for her identity. Charlotte, who has buried her past, comes face to face with her guilt for what she did to survive the war in Paris.

Comments: For me, the central theme of Paris Never Leaves You is guilt, both survivor’s guilt and Catholic guilt. I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience the former, but I sure know a lot about the latter. My mother was fiercely Catholic and sent me to Catholic School in the 60’s and 70’s for thirteen years (including Kindergarten).

I fully related to Charlotte’s inability to forgive herself and move on with her life. After the war, she became an emotional wraith, just passing through life without really living it. While physical present and functional, she lived in the past, unable to form attachments beyond her unduly protective relationship with her daughter, Vivi.

I’ve read several other women in WWII novels, but none quite like this one. Where most of them feature a heroine character drawn from real life, Paris Never Leaves You is about ordinary people just trying to survive in an extraordinary time.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction, Women’s Fiction and stories about World War II.

My Rating: 4.5 STARS, B+

Posted in British Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Historical Fiction, historical mystery, Historical Romance, Light Romance

Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen

Publication Info: Published February 11, 2020 by Lake Union Publishing. I listened to the audio edition through my Kindle Unlimited edition. Other editions available.

Summary: Raised in a genteel household, orphaned and impoverished Isabella Waverly finds herself with no skills to support herself and her younger sister after her parents die. She goes into service as a maid, but discovers she has a talent for cooking.

One day, a tragic bus accident critically injures another young woman who was on her way to interview for an apprentice cooking job at the palace. Isabella rushes to comfort the dying girl, who gives her an envelope. When Isabella opens it later, she realizes that fate has handed her an unique opportunity. The unfortunate woman was on her way to a job interview as a cook at the palace. Isabella, whose current employer is a cruel taskmaster, decides to take the other woman’s place. She becomes Helen Barton.

Helen’s cooking skills grow by leaps and bounds. Her pastries come to the attention of Queen Victoria. When the queen decides to move to a hotel in France for the summer, she takes a retinue of cooks and servants along with her. Helen’s ability to speak French gains her a place in the entourage and some additional status among her fellow chefs.

After a nobleman is murdered by poison, suspicion falls on Helen. She must use her knowledge of cooking and her wits to prove she is innocent.

Comments: I got hungry listening to this book! The descriptions of the French pastries and dinners were mouth watering. I loved the main character, who is a plucky, intelligent young woman. Isabella faces page-turning challenges and risks of exposure as she works to guard her secret. Rhys Bowen’s stand-alone novel, Above the Bay of Angels, is gentle and enthralling.

Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction, light romance and light mysteries, especially those set in the Victorian era.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, Best Sellers, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Southern Fiction

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Publishing Info: Published June 6, 2017. I listened to the audio edition by Random House Audio through my Audible.com subscription. Other editions available. Check with your favorite bookseller.

Summary: in 1939, five children live with their loving parents on a Mississippi river boat. Their mother goes into labor with twins. Unlike the other easy births, Queenie’s life is in danger. Her husband takes her to the hospital, where they are told their twins were born dead.

Meanwhile, a local boy helps look after the five other children, the oldest of whom is twelve year old Rill Foss. But he is helpless when the children are stolen and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. The children are now under the ruthless care of Georgia Tann. Georgia’s intent is to sell poor children to wealthy people at a great profit for herself. The children are fed minimum rations. They are punished by being tied up in small dark spaces. Pedophiles work at the orphanage. The only time a child is “spiffed up” is when a potential parent comes to visit. Georgia lies about their parentage and splits up families without blinking.

Growing up on the Mississippi river, Rill knows a thing or two about surviving. As the oldest, she feels responsible for her brother and sisters. But she is helpless when one of her sisters vanishes after being punished and two others are adopted away from her.

Meanwhile, Avery Stafford, a wealthy, privileged attorney, is trying to solve a family mystery. She comes across a photo of four women who all look very much alike — one of whom is her grandmother. As she digs deeper into this mystery, it changes the focus and foundation of her life and identity.

Comments: I’m very glad I finally got around to reading this book, which was on the best seller list for about two years. I’d never heard of Georgia Tann. When I looked her up after reading the novel, I realized that the author didn’t exaggerate anything in Before We Were Yours. In fact, she probably downplayed some of the horrors that the real children faced at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

I loved the characters of Rill Foss and Avery Stafford. Their voices, as narrated by Emily Rankin and Catherine Tabor rang true. I enjoy listening to some genres, because it forces me to slow down my reading speed and really get into the story. This was definitely a book that benefited from really getting into the characters and rich atmosphere.

Very highly recommended for readers of General Fiction, Historical Fiction and stories about adoption.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, Family Saga, Historical Fiction

The Ice Palace Waltz by Barbara L. Baer

Publication Info: Published February 2, 2020 by Open Books. I read the Kindle edition courtesy of the publisher.

Summary: In the late 1800’s, two German Jewish immigrants marry and settle in Leadville, Colorado. Their life wasn’t easy in the rough mining town. As their children grew, some stayed in Leadville, while others moved to find the comforts of big city life in Denver. A few didn’t survive, leaving their families emotionally scarred and in near poverty, while others lived in comfort.

Immigrants continued to arrive, intermarrying with the previous settlers. Some of them blossomed, while others had debilitating health problems due to the high altitude. Some chose to move further away, to seek — and claim — their fortunes in cities like Chicago and New York.

Comments: The Ice Palace Waltz takes its name from a folly built in Leadville in 1895. When the town’s fortunes started to die along with the silver boom, Leadville tried to turn itself into a tourist destination by building an enormous replica of a Norman castle out of wood framing and ice. The palace included a ballroom, skating rink, a restaurant, a carousel and other marvels. Tourists did flock to see it, but it melted within three months after an unusually warm winter. The feat was never attempted again.

The Ice Palace Waltz describes the Jewish American experience of a couple extended families from the late 19th century until the beginning of the Second World War. It is richly detailed with historical facts, like the stock market crash of 1929, and real people, such as the Guggenheims. In the author’s acknowledgments, she mentions that the story is strongly drawn from her own family’s experiences. As I read the novel, I could tell the author was fully invested in the story. This final note gave me more insight into her motivation for writing this family saga.

Recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and Family Sagas, especially those interested in the history of Colorado or the early 20th century.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction

Cartier’s Hope by M.J. Rose

Publication Info: Expected publication date January 28, 2020 by Atria Books. Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of NetGalley.

Summary: Vera Garland’s family is very wealthy. Her father was the owner of Garland’s Emporium, a very prosperous department store in early New York. As the daughter of a socialite, Vera was raised to be a fine lady of leisure, but she wants more than her mother’s lifestyle. Vera works as a reporter and newspaper columnist under the pseudonym Vee Swann. As Vee, she disguises herself as a common woman, so she can write about the social issues of the day. Children are working long hours and women are marching to get the vote. Charlatans fleece customers in elaborate ruses during seances. Newspapers publish gossip and salacious stories to attract readers.

Women working in journalism in the early 1900’s were most frequently relegated to fashion and society columns. Vera is determined to write more serious articles and exposes. After her father dies, she discovers a huge, shocking secret about him and another close relative that lead to their deaths. She decides to seek revenge against the sleazy newspaper owner who threatened to expose the men.

Vera’s investigation into the stories Pierre Cartier is telling about Hope Diamond in his possession gives her an opportunity to kill two birds with one very expensive stone.

Comments: I was drawn to reading Cartier’s Hope because of the story line involving the Hope Diamond. I’ve seen the famous blue stone many times at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. I’m also a fan of early 20th century America historical fiction.

I actually liked this book a lot more than I expected to. First, it had more than one unexpected twist. Second, during the first incarnation of The Brown Bookloft about 12 years ago, I was sent a very early M.J. Rose novel. I didn’t care for it and haven’t read anything by her since then. She’s obviously honed her writing skills since those early days!

I acutely related with plucky Vera Garland. I had many fights with my own mother, who overly valued societal expectations. She tried in vain to “raise me to be a good housewife” (her own words). I wanted more for myself, too. The book also made me consider the issues that faced women one hundred years ago–some of which we still face today.

Recommended for readers of General Fiction, Women’s Fiction and Historical Fiction (especially early 20th Century New York.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Cultural, French, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, World War I

The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell

Publication Info: Published January 21, 2020 by Berkley. Kindle Pre-Pub edition courtesy of Berkley and NetGalley. Other editions now available.

Summary: Rosalyn Acosta works as a wine sales rep for her friend Hugh in California. He offered her the job and some essential financial support after her husband died of cancer, leaving her grieving and bankrupt. She dislikes sales and is an artist at heart, but it’s hard to support herself and make enough money to pay back creditors by painting.

Hugh sends Rosalyn to a sales conference in the Champagne region of France. She doesn’t want to go since she dislikes champagne and has too many painful memories of her honeymoon in Paris.

On the plane, Rosalyn is befriended by a boisterous, wealthy Australian woman, Emma, who offers her assistance. Rosalyn just wants to be left alone, but becomes intrigued by some old letters that Emma is trying to organize and translate. The letters were a legacy from Emma’s great Aunt, written to a young soldier in France during WWI, as part of the marraines de guerre project. Emma was captivated by the soldier’s love of a young woman named Lucie Marechal, who lived in the wine caves under Reims during the war. Emma is traveling to France for both business and research.

While helping Emma translate the letters, lonely, grieving Rosalyn is pulled into the simpler pace of the French vineyards and people. With the help of new friends, she discovers her true calling and begins to heal.

Comments: There are so many things that pulled me deeply into The Vineyards of Champagne. In this warm and lovely novel, I deeply related to Rosalyn’s numbed feelings of grief and betrayal. Emma is such a bright light despite her own issues. The determination of Lucie and the other townspeople to make champagne and and thrive amidst daily bombings and shootings tugged at something deep within me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would survive or give up in despair in similar circumstances. I was reminded of my paternal grandfather, himself a soldier during the Great War.

And bright and shining, flowing through the grief and loss, is a sparkling reminder of the many joys and celebrations in life: the champagne.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction and novels about World War I, as well as those with an interest in France, champagne and wine history.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Southern Fiction

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Publication Info: Expected publication date: January 14, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. Pre-Pub Kindle edition courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions will be available at publication.

Summary: A year ago, Morgan Christopher never expected she’d be sitting in a jail cell, charged with a DUI when she wasn’t the driver. Her boyfriend ran off, leaving her to face the consequences. Now, her dream of a career in art shattered, she lives day to day in fear for her life.

Her nightmare gets an unexpected reprieve when she is visited by Lisa Williams, the daughter of the recently deceased artist, Jesse Jameson Williams. Before his death, Jesse had been known for his charitable support of young artists. He left a stipulation in his will that Morgan should restore a mural, and that it be done within a very short time period. Lisa was required to execute the will according to her father’s instructions or risk losing her full inheritance.

The mural was painted by an unknown artist named Anna Dale, who won a contest sponsored by the WPA in the 1940’s. Her mural, a depiction of life in a small southern town, was to have been hung in the Edenton, North Carolina Post office. It was never installed, but was found in very poor condition among Jesse’s belongings. As Morgan begins the restoration process, she discovers some very peculiar and disturbing objects in the painting and is determined to learn more about Anna Dale. The answers to her questions will shake up more than one family.

Comments: This book greatly exceeded my expectations. There are trends in publishing and one of the current ones is books with a version of Lies, Lying or Liar in the title. These are meant to grab attention, sometimes like a cheap trick. Big Lies in a Small Town is far, far better than its title.

The book takes place in two time periods — the 1940’s and present day. The author drew me into both with nary a misstep. The process of creating the original mural and its restoration are described with enough detail to feel realistic. The characters, both major and minor, are complex and compelling.

This is the first book I’ve read by Diane Chamberlain. I’m so sorry I’ve overlooked her previous novels. I’ll have to remedy that soon!

Highly recommended for readers of General Fiction, Historical Fiction (especially the 1940’s), Southern Fiction, Mysteries and those with an interest in art.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Historical Romance

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley

Publication Info: Audible Audio edition published December 19th 2016 by Stella Riley. First published April 11th 1985 by Fontana. I listened to this book through my Audible Escape membership.

Summary: After Justin Ambrose, a cavalier loyal to King Charles I, annoys a superior officer, he finds himself stuck in a crumbling back country castle. His job consists of rounding up supplies for the Royalists at the front lines and fighting off boredom hanging out with the rest of the officers and soldiers assigned to the garrison in Banbury.

One evening, Justin rescues a young woman being accosted by two drunken soldiers. He offers to escort her home, but she balks, knowing that her Puritanical, overly pious, bigoted older brother, Jonah, would punish her for even crossing paths with a Royalist soldier. Justin forgets about Abby until he enters Jonah’s fabric shop to purchase material for uniforms and finds her hiding in the corner. One thing leads to another and the two of them begin to form an uneasy friendship. When the battle reaches Banbury, Abby helps heal Justin’s wounds, putting both of them in danger from more than just the war.

Comments: The quality of A Splendid Defiance was quite a surprise! The author really brings the period of the English Civil War to life. The main characters are well drawn against a highly detailed period backdrop. I knew absolutely nothing about that particular period in British history until I read this book. The author has several other titles that take place during this time, including the “Roundheads and Cavaliers” series.

There is more emphasis on history than romance in this book, which appealed to me, but some readers may find it less satisfying.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and Historical Romances.

My Rating: 4.5 STARS