REVIEW: A DANGEROUS CROSSING, BY RACHEL RHYS

 

1939: Europe is on the brink of war when young Lily Shepherd boards an ocean liner in Essex, bound for Australia. She is ready to start anew, leaving behind the shadows in her past. The passage proves magical, complete with live music, cocktails, and fancy dress balls. With stops at exotic locations along the way—Naples, Cairo, Ceylon—the voyage shows Lily places she’d only ever dreamed of and enables her to make friends with those above her social station, people who would ordinarily never give her the time of day. She even allows herself to hope that a man she couldn’t possibly have a future with outside the cocoon of the ship might return her feelings.

But Lily soon realizes that she’s not the only one hiding secrets. Her newfound friends—the toxic wealthy couple Eliza and Max; Cambridge graduate Edward; Jewish refugee Maria; fascist George—are also running away from their pasts. As the glamour of the voyage fades, the stage is set for something sinister to occur. By the time the ship docks, two passengers are dead, war has been declared, and Lily’s life will be changed irrevocably.

My Thoughts: For me, a crossing such as this would be the last thing I would choose. I get a bit claustrophobic when confined to any sort of space, and surrounded by water…well, I can imagine how every conflict would be exacerbated and tiny issues might become huge, and then there would be no escape.

Mix in personalities that should never be mixed…and nothing good will come of any of it.

Despite the glittering parties that could almost make someone like Lily feel carefree, there was always that sense of class distinctions beneath the surface, reminding her of her place in the world.

I disliked Max and Eliza immediately. They were fake and rude and abrasive. But for some reason, Lily was drawn to them.

I could understand her wanting to spend time with Edward, although his inconsistencies were annoying and mysterious. Maria was someone I felt sorry for…but I could also understand Lily’s reactions toward the end.

Ida, a cabin mate, was harsh and judgmental. And then there was George, seething with rage, an undercurrent of open hostility present in every word he spoke.

A pleasant and somewhat unexpected surprise awaits them all in Melbourne, when Eliza introduces them to the actor Alan Morgan and his wife Cleo (Bannister). * A little tidbit about how the author chose that moniker for a character came from the blogger Cleopatra Loves Books.

Aboard the ship was a mixed pot of trouble that could not help but boil over. The mysteries that unfolded in A Dangerous Crossing seemed inevitable and I couldn’t stop reading. There were parts in the middle that dragged for me, but I pushed on, knowing I would enjoy the ending. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE NIGHTINGALE, BY KRISTIN HANNAH

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Our story begins in 1995, in Bend, Oregon, where an unnamed elderly woman is our first person narrator, describing moments from her past. Remembering the secrets she kept, some of them locked away in an old trunk. She is preparing to leave the house in which she has lived for many years, at her son’s urging. She is very ill and she is pondering whether or not she can share the truths of her life. One truth in the narrator’s voice: “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

Seamlessly, the story sweeps between the past and the future, beginning in 1939, in France, with a war on the horizon, into moments in the mid-nineties, and finally, we realize just who that unnamed old lady is and what she has done to sacrifice for the cause. Halfway through the story, I thought I knew who the narrator was, so imagine my surprise at the end to discover I was wrong.

When Viann and her daughter Sophie are left behind after her husband Antoine goes off to war, and Isabelle leaves the village to return to Paris, wanting to do something to make a difference, none of them could even begin to imagine what lies ahead.

The Nightingale is the riveting story of the acts of courage that each of them will take and the unexpected events that will change them forever.

What does Isabelle do to make a difference? How will she move beyond the early activities as a courier for the Resistance to something so dramatic that nobody who knows her could imagine it? And in the face of the unspeakable acts she witnesses, what sacrifices will Viann make that she could not have imagined taking on?

Through the author’s talented prose, the reader is drawn into the emotional and physical lives of the characters, experiencing what they experience: feeling their pain, their loss, and their fear. The complexity of the sibling rivalries between the two sisters, whose mother had died early in their lives and whose father emotionally abandoned them, was vividly drawn. The feelings were evocative, leaving this reader fully engaged and eager to find out what would happen next. Definitely a five star read for me.

REVIEW: MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY, BY SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL

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It is London in 1940, and while Maggie Hope has gone to London to sell her grandmother’s house, she ends up staying and working as a typist for Mr. Churchill.

She has so much more to offer, she believes, since she has degrees and a background that would be suitable for espionage work. With a war on and invasion seemingly imminent, everyone is on high alert. Maggie is poised to make herself invaluable.

She is living in her grandmother’s house with several roommates, some of whom are old friends or friends of friends.

Maggie was born in England, but grew up in the US with her Aunt Edith because of her parents’ death in an accident when she was three.

Her life sounds ordinary, doesn’t it? Well, it is soon very extraordinary when a series of events take place that pique her interest, and soon she is trying to figure out codes and confiding her findings. But nobody seems to pay attention.

And then when she takes a trip to Cambridge on a quest, her discoveries are both confusing and astounding. Was her whole past life a lie? Suddenly she finds herself on a frightening mission that could only lead to disaster.

Meanwhile, back in London, a group of IRA dissidents have unleashed a chain of events, and the participants will turn out to be closer to Maggie than she could have realized.

At this point in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary: A Maggie Hope Mystery, I could not stop turning the pages, wondering about the connections between everyone on the canvas, and trying to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. The author did a great job of revealing only bits and pieces until the very end. The story is a mix of fact and fiction that captures the spirit of the times. A five star read…and the first book in a series.

REVIEW: THE TULIP EATERS, BY ANTOINETTE VAN HEUGTEN

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In November, 1980, Nora De Jong, a young pediatric neurosurgeon arrives home from work, in the home she shares with her mother and daughter in Houston, Texas, to discover her mother’s dead body. And that her six-month-old daughter Rose is missing.

What the reader learns, in alternate chapters narrated from different perspectives, is that, presumably, Nora’s mother Anneke had an unsavory past in Holland, as a member of the Dutch Nazis during WWII. And that some of those from that very past may be bent on revenge.

From Houston to Amsterdam, we follow Nora’s quest to find her daughter. While the detectives at home believe that she is foolish, Nora has a sense that in Amsterdam, she will find answers.

What unexpected facts will Nora learn as she pursues unknown persons who may have her daughter? How will her reunion with Nico, the love of her life and Rose’s father, figure into the quest? And what final secrets will she discover back home in Houston again? What is the significance of the book’s title?

A fast-paced story that kept me rapidly turning pages, The Tulip Eaters is a reminder that the past informs the present, and that sometimes, the secrets from the past can bring peace. 4.5 stars.

HAUNTING MOMENTS DURING ONE PIVOTAL SUMMER — A REVIEW

16034245During one pivotal summer toward the end of WWII, ten-year-old Helen, whose mother died when she was three, is still grieving over the loss of her grandmother (Nonie). When her father goes away to work for the summer, she is left in the charge of a cousin, Flora, from Alabama. Flora was Helen’s mother’s cousin, and often spoke highly of her. But at twenty-two, there is something very simple about Flora. Helen thought of her as simple-minded, and often bemoaned Flora’s tendency to spill her guts whenever she had the opportunity.

During the summer days of isolation, due to the mountain top home and to a polio outbreak that had residents of the community in a panic, there were times when the two of them grew closer. But Helen always felt superior to Flora…and there were other feelings that grew slowly and seemingly exploded near their final days together. Were those feelings envy? How was that even possible when Flora had so little to offer?

How does the growing friendship with Finn, the grocery delivery boy, seemingly set in motion a competitiveness between Flora and Helen? What secrets are Helen’s father keeping that will come back to haunt them all? And how will the evening before Helen’s eleventh birthday change everything forever?

Helen’s story is told from the point of view of that “haunted child”…and also from the vantage point of her life in her later years. We come to see how those weeks changed many things for her….and were her defining moments. Themes of loss, betrayal, and unrequited love form the core of Flora: A Novel. A lovely, poignant, and sad read that had me feeling like I was living inside the skins of the characters. Five stars.

A SUSPENSEFUL JOURNEY THROUGH GORGEOUS SETTINGS — A REVIEW

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Fia Jennings believes that, after the loss of her job, she will begin to find more bonding time with her teenaged twins. So when her Uncle Martin calls from Provence, asking her to take over his and Aunt Lucie’s Bed & Breakfast while they take a vacation, she sees it as a perfect opportunity. Serendipity, even.

But her husband Grayson is adamant about not taking the trip. He is, in fact, stubbornly resistant. In the end, he does accompany Fia and the kids, but from the moment they set foot in the B & B, he is unavailable. Physically and emotionally. Soon he is traipsing off with a woman named Jeanne-Marie, and flaunting it in Fia’s face.

Meanwhile, Uncle Martin and Aunt Lucie have departed so quickly that Fia is left wondering what is going on? Why has her uncle taken off without leaving instructions, almost as if he is trying to escape something?

In the weeks ahead, Fia becomes exhausted from overwork and the complete disappearance of her husband and children. She feels like a drudge. So when she goes to the beach one day, accompanied by a handsome Frenchman Christophe, whom she met in the early weeks, she feels relaxed for the first time. But they return to find the B & B has been broken into and tossed. What were the intruders looking for? And why, when her husband returns, does he seem to be searching for something, too?

Discovering the answers will keep Fia focused until she finally stumbles upon Uncle Martin’s secret. But then she has to make a plan, take some risks, and decide who, if anyone, she can trust to help her.

The characters were vivid and real: so much so that I had strong feelings of disgust for Grayson, suspicion of many of the other characters, and annoyance with the teens. A strong reminder of real life and people we encounter along the way.

THE SUMMER OF FRANCE was like a mystery novel, a suspense tale, and a romantic departure to lovely settings. The journey takes the reader through France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Poland. My heart was pounding as I followed Fia’s adventurous voyage toward righting the wrongs of a time long ago. Narrated alternately from Uncle Martin’s and Fia’s perspectives, the story carried us from WWII, and a mistake a young man made, to a woman in the present who is trying to figure out a way to save her family. Captivating and wonderfully engaging, I could not put this book down. Five stars.