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 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 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

Posted in 20th Century, Historical Fiction

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Publication Info: Published Oct 8, 2019 by Pamela Dorman Books. Hardcover edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: Alice Wright leaps at the opportunity to escaped her stilted life in England by marrying a handsome American. Handsome, wealthy Bennett Van Cleve wooed her with kisses and promises, leading Alice to dream of a glittering life of restaurants, theaters and New York. But Bennett brought his wife to Baileyville, Kentucky, a mining town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains.

Alice, initially disappointed, determines to make the most of her situation, but her hard hearted, domineering father-in-law and her completely sexless marriage with Bennett throws her into despair. Surrounded by useless trinkets and the enshrined memories of her deceased mother-in-law, Alice has no control over her home or her life.

At a town meeting Alice hears about the WPA sponsored Packhorse Library, promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite the disapproval of her father-in-law and husband, Alice volunteers to deliver library books to the people in remote areas near Baileyville. Headed by a strong-willed, independent woman named Marjory, the library becomes more than a job for Alice. By forging bonds with Marjory and the other women working at the library, Alice finds the inner strength to change her life — and the lives of the people she meets.

Comments: I’ve read a lot of excellent books this year, but none that have felt so deeply personal. The Giver of Stars is based on the true story of the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, a real WPA project that began in the mid 1930’s. Shortly after the project ended, bookmobiles sprang up to deliver books to people in remote areas. The project not only promoted literacy, it gave remote people contact with new ideas and other people. The job also changed the lives of the librarians.

I can make that final, bold statement because I am proud to have held a more modern job pioneered historically by the Packhorse Librarians. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, I spent twelve years as part of a small team of library staff that delivered books to the home bound. Driving a van hundreds of miles each week, we delivered books to families in tenement apartments and rural shacks. Our patrons included those who were bedridden in fine homes overlooking the Chesapeake Bay and those for whom our monthly visit was the only bright spot in their lives.

At the time I was doing this job assignment, my personal life was a mess with an abusive, drug addicted (first) husband and two young children. There were days I could barely keep my head on straight. Yet, seeing these people, giving them a few minutes of human contact while delivering books, magazines and audio materials, had the most amazing effect – it lifted my spirits as well, giving me hope and strength.

The recipients of the books and the librarians in The Giver of Stars felt so real to me because I lived that life, fifty years later.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, novels about rural America, as well as any book lover or librarian — especially those whose jobs included Community Outreach.

My Rating: 5 STARS +

Posted in Historical Fiction, Soviet Union

Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris (The Tattooist of Auschwitz #2)

Publication Info: Expected publication date October 1, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley. Other editions will also be available.

Summary: Although the Tattooist of Auschwitz was primarily about Lale Sokolov and his experiences at the infamous Nazi concentration camp, one of the other memorable people from that story was Cilka Klein. Only sixteen when she was sent to the concentration camp, her youth and beauty caught the attention of a brutal Commandant. Her choice was either death in the showers or to endure being repeatedly raped, but with a hope of survival. Cilka chose to survive.

Her choice kept her alive in the concentration camp, but she was then sentenced for fifteen years to one of the Soviet Gulags as punishment for being a Nazi “collaborator” and suspected spy. At the Vorkuta Gulag, she is thrown in with a mix of political prisoners and criminals. She lives in a crude, dirty dormitory and is sent to work with other women gathering coal mined by the male prisoners. She and the other women deal with almost nightly rape by the men in the camp.

When a woman is burned by the stove in the dormitory, Cilka’s quick thinking and ministration saves her hand. This brings her to the attention of a female doctor who recognizes Cilka’s intelligence. Cilka’s life improves somewhat after she is given work in the hospital. But once again, preference sets her apart and she justifiably fears repercussions.

Comments: Although Cilka’s background story is told in flashbacks, I strongly suggest reading the Tattooist of Auschwitz before Cilka’s Journey. As horrible as the conditions are in the Gulag, they don’t begin to compare to Auschwitz. Cilka’s situation is incredibly cruel in light of what she’s already been through.

While Cilka was a real person, her story is a fictionalized blend of research and interviews of people who knew her or went through similar experiences, as Cilka passed away years before this book was researched and written. But this novel is more than just Cilka’s story. It shines a light on a shameful period in the history of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Eighteen million people were incarcerated and forced into hard labor in the Gulags. Considering that separating families and forcing people deemed undesirable into camps is a practice happening in this country today, this is more than a novel. It is a solid reminder of what happens when the power of a few is allowed to corrupt an entire nation.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, World War I

The Courage of Others by James Hitt

Publication Info: Published January 1, 2016 by Open Books. Kindle edition courtesy of the publisher.

Summary: Like many women during times of war, Esther Langston did her best to keep their home and small shop running while her husband Marsh was off fighting. But as she and her nephew, Davey Stoneman, awaited Marsh’s return with a combination of eagerness and trepidation, she worried. She worried about the condition of the store, but mostly her husband. His letters gave little indication of his health other than she knew he had been injured in the Great War.

When Marsh disembarks from the train, they barely recognize him. Thin and frail, his face covered with gray spots and his lungs in ruins, Marsh has come home to die. But Esther is determined not to let that happen. She quickly sends for Sister Rose, a black woman known for her healing potions, and pays her a small wage to sit with Marsh while she tends the store. Over time, Sister Rose’s ministrations take effect and Marsh begins to heal.

Rose has a grandson named Daniel who is close to Davey’s age. But because Davey is white and Daniel is black, friendship between the two boys is not only unlikely but forbidden. This is small town Texas in 1919 and blacks are expected to be subservient and uneducated. But Daniel is an intelligent young man and the school teacher illegally lends him books to read. It is because of this love of reading that the two boys initially strike up an uneasy friendship.

As Davey becomes more involved with Daniel, his grandmother and the black community, he secretly helps them convert an old building to a school. But when the narrow-minded townspeople get wind of this, tragedy strikes that alters several lives forever.

Comments: The Courage of Others takes place one hundred years ago, yet ignorance and bigotry are still unrestrained and frequently encouraged across the United States. It is terrible that as a nation we have not only made so little progress toward inclusion and humanitarianism, we’ve lately gone backwards.

The concise, direct writing style gets the message across without being preachy. The the tone and setting reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, but was completely original. This book is appropriate for adults as well as middle grades and up, if it doesn’t get stuck on some banned book list for daring to speak the truth.

Highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction

Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati (The Gilded Hour #2)

Publication Info: Published September 10, 2019 by Berkley Books. Pre-pub Kindle edition sent to me by Berkley Books via Netgalley.

Summary: In 1884, Dr. Sophie Savard returns to New York to throw herself back into work following the death of her husband from tuberculosis. In New York, she is surrounded by friends and family, but also people who would love to see her fail. These are pioneering days for women in medicine and if that wasn’t enough cause for disgust and dislike among her male peers, she is also of mixed race.

Sophie’s husband left her a fortune, which she intends to put to good use by creating a scholarship for women of color to pursue medical careers as well as using her home as a dormitory. Sophie soon realizes that she must find and manage a staff in order to realize her dreams.

Meanwhile, her cousin Anna’s husband, a police officer, is dealing with a series of crimes against pregnant women. The women were murdered when they sought illegal abortions. When a prominent socialite goes missing after speaking to a person of interest in the case, everyone, especially the rumor-mongering press, fears the worst.

Sophie’s extended family faces additional challenges when a young child in their care becomes gravely ill.

Comments: Although Where the Light Enters is the second book in the series, it stands on its own. I read the first book, The Gilded Hour, when it came out in 2015 and loved it as much as this new one. In both novels, the author breathes life into her characters, including many of the more minor ones. I am hoping to get to know some of them better in future books! The historical setting is well-researched and although there are some timeline discrepancies that are spelled out in the author’s notes, they are minor. The pacing of the book is gentle, yet there were enough twists and turns in the plot lines to keep me turning the pages eagerly.

I think Sara Donati has found her writing niche in historical fiction. I read her Wilderness series several years ago. While those are more historical romance, her writing brought the settings and time period to life, foreshadowing her ability to write solid historical fiction. I still remember some of the characters in that series–a rarity for me.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and Women’s Fiction. Also recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of women in medicine.

My Rating: 5 STARS