Book Recommendation: D-DAY GIRLS

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“On Baker Street, at No. 64, a government office was hiding in plain sight of heady wartime London, operating under a false name: Inter Services Research Bureau, or ISRB…It was special. It was secret. It fell outside the ordinary command structure of both the Civil Service and the military, answerable only to the war’s most senior planners. With Europe in the balance, this shadow organization was staffing up for the battle that would end the war.” ~Sarah Rose, D-DAY GIRLS: THE SPIES WHO ARMED THE RESISTANCE, SABOTAGED THE NAZIS, AND HELPED WIN WORLD WAR II

Publisher Synopsis:

The dramatic, untold true story of the extraordinary women recruited by Britain’s elite spy agency to help pave the way for Allied victory in World War II.

In 1942, the Allies were losing, Germany seemed unstoppable, and every able man in England was on the front lines. To “set Europe ablaze,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was forced to do something unprecedented: recruit women as spies. Thirty-nine answered the call, leaving their lives and families to become saboteurs in France.

In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently de­classified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the thrilling story of three of these remarkable women. There’s Andrée Borrel, a scrappy and streetwise Parisian who blew up power lines with the Gestapo hot on her heels; Odette Sansom, an unhappily married suburban mother who saw the SOE as her ticket out of domestic life and into a meaningful adventure; and Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent member of French colonial high society and the SOE’s unflap­pable “queen.” Together, they destroyed train lines, ambushed Nazis, plotted prison breaks, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war.

Rigorously researched and written with razor-sharp wit, D-Day Girls is an inspiring story for our own moment of resistance: a reminder of what courage—and the energy of politically animated women—can accomplish when the stakes seem incalculably high.

My Recommendation:

D-DAY GIRLS, by Sarah Rose, represents the finest in narrative nonfiction. It’s as if Rose assigns the reader a mission, parachutes her from an airplane into Occupied France, gives her a bicycle, and fires a gun. It’s a marathon with an ever changing finish line, where runners are constantly getting yanked from the race, some never to return.

And it’s all true.

(I know it’s true. I’ve been researching the SOE and its agents for two years. I hope to tell you more about that soon.)

At turns sympathetic, relatable, inspiring, horrifying, and disastrous, the characters (real people!) and their decisions in wartime France contribute to the book’s compulsive readability. When you finish, you’ll head straight to the internet seeking more information about these people of tremendous courage, fire, and, at times, recklessness and treachery. Devoured in three nights, D-DAY GIRLS made me laugh, gasp, cry, and rage at the evil those diabolical Nazis unleashed on the world.

The question I can’t stop pondering: Could I have risked and suffered what these people risked and suffered in the name of stopping evil? Could I run into a burning building to rescue even just one innocent, or thwart plans for greater fires, knowing it was likely I would not make it out alive?

I still can’t answer that.

Thank God for those who did and still do.

If you are fan of books like UNBROKEN or DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, I highly recommend D-DAY GIRLS.

 

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Book Recommendation & Giveaway: MEET ME IN MONACO

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“Each scent holds a mystery, its own story. That was the first lesson Papa taught me. ‘To be a parfumeur is to be a detective.‘” Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, MEET ME IN MONACO

Publisher Synopsis:

Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s whirlwind romance and unforgettable wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco, New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb take the reader on an evocative sun-drenched journey along the Côte d’Azur in this page-turning novel of passion, fate and second chances…

Movie stars and paparazzi flock to Cannes for the glamorous film festival, but Grace Kelly, the biggest star of all, wants only to escape from the flash-bulbs. When struggling perfumer Sophie Duval shelters Miss Kelly in her boutique to fend off a persistent British press photographer, James Henderson, a bond is forged between the two women and sets in motion a chain of events that stretches across thirty years of friendship, love, and tragedy.

James Henderson cannot forget his brief encounter with Sophie Duval. Despite his guilt at being away from his daughter, he takes an assignment to cover the wedding of the century, sailing with Grace Kelly’s wedding party on the SS Constitution from New York. In Monaco, as wedding fever soars and passions and tempers escalate, James and Sophie—like Princess Grace—must ultimately decide what they are prepared to give up for love.

My Recommendation:

Like their wonderful collaboration LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have again crafted a spellbinding historical romance. Set largely on the lush Cote d’Azur, MEET ME IN MONACO is a tale of first, missed, and second chances–of relatable women and men trying to make good lives for themselves in spite of difficult circumstances. It is a fairy tale set in post-war Europe, with an enchanting, fascinating fairy godmother: Grace Kelly.

This novel about parfumeur, Sophie Duval, has a clever arrangement, with Part One:  Head Notes (first impressions), Part Two: Heart Notes (falling in love), and Part Three: Base Notes (denouvement). Like a flower unfurling, a closed off Sophie begins to open herself to life and love. The quiet, gentle creation process she uses in crafting the perfect scent for the royal bride-to-be perfectly balances the paparazzi-laden frenzy preceding the wedding of Prince Ranier III to American Hollywood star, Grace Kelly.

It’s the kind of book the reader will devour in a few sittings. It’s a novel where a woman navigates her own business empire while a man wrestles with guilt over leaving his child. It’s a story that will send one scouring the internet archives for photographs, and the ending is unexpected yet satisfying.

MEET ME IN MONACO will not be released until July, but I have been given permission to give away my Advanced Reader’s Edition. To enter the giveaway, simply comment about the Royal Wedding that has most fascinated you, and either share the giveaway on social media or tag a friend in the comments (here, or on Facebook/Instagram) by Thursday, April 4th at 11:00 AM ETBonne chance! 

Book Recommendation: LEARNING TO SEE

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“I lean over to open a drawer and retrieve a file. California, 1936. Black-and-white photographs spill out across my worktable. Faces of men, women, and children. All as dry, dingy, and cracked as the land in the background. I glance at the other folder tabs. New Mexico, 1935. Texas, 1938. Arkansas, 1938. Arizona, 1940. I’ve visited many states, taken thousands of photographs. They gave a face to the masses struggling to make ends meet. They started conversations. Few would argue that my work wasn’t important and useful. And while I don’t regret my choices, I’m saddened that I’ve hurt people dear to me. Can I find peace with the sacrifices I made?” ~Elise Cooper, LEARNING TO SEE

Publisher Synopsis:

In 1918, a fearless twenty-two-year old arrives in bohemian San Francisco from the Northeast, determined to make her own way as an independent woman. Renaming herself Dorothea Lange she is soon the celebrated owner of the city’s most prestigious and stylish portrait studio and wife of the talented but volatile painter, Maynard Dixon.

By the early 1930s, as America’s economy collapses, her marriage founders and Dorothea must find ways to support her two young sons single-handedly. Determined to expose the horrific conditions of the nation’s poor, she takes to the road with her camera, creating images that inspire, reform, and define the era. And when the United States enters World War II, Dorothea chooses to confront another injustice—the incarceration of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans.

At a time when women were supposed to keep the home fires burning, Dorothea Lange, creator of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, dares to be different. But her choices came at a steep price…

My Recommendation:

Elise Hooper is a writer whose talents at clarity and empathy bring out the humanity of her historical subjects. Like her debut novel, THE OTHER ALCOTT, Hooper’s LEARNING TO SEE is an intimate portrait of one of history’s great, shadowed, female artists, photographer Dorothea Lange.

Most readers will be able to draw to mind the iconic Depression-era image of the poor, exhausted mother–gaze toward an uncertain future–flanked by dirty children. LEARNING TO SEE tells the journey of the woman who captured that image and hundreds like it. We see a girl of courage and spunk become a life-hardened woman of integrity and fire. The images Lange captures through her lens inform her growth, her choices, and the American public.

Hooper deftly balances the fascinating historical fabric of the novel with the personal life of its complicated protagonist. What results is a vivid and deep story that will send the reader to the internet seeking more.

Fans of Dawn Tripp’s GEORGIA and Depression to WWII-era historical fiction will be enthralled by Elise Hooper’s LEARNING TO SEE. I give it my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: THE BLUE

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“A brilliant blue butterfly, stuck with a pin, stares back at us, wings frozen mid-flight…’Remember, blue is the rarest color on earth. This is one of the few living creatures the color exists on…’ The light from the nearby window reflects off the delicate blue of the creature’s wings…The butterfly is faceless, sightless. It does not seem possible that it ever lived. At that moment I do not feel that I’ve agreed to a spying-for-money scheme but something finer, something extraordinary. The quest for blue.” Nancy Bilyeau, THE BLUE

Publisher Synopsis:

In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities; fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.

For Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, porcelain holds far less allure; she wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London. If only she could reach Venice.

When Genevieve meets the charming Sir Gabriel Courtenay, he offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse; if she learns the secrets of porcelain, he will send her to Venice. But in particular, she must learn the secrets of the color blue…

The ensuing events take Genevieve deep into England’s emerging industrial heartlands, where not only does she learn about porcelain, but also about the art of industrial espionage.

With the heart and spirit of her Huguenot ancestors, Genevieve faces her challenges head on, but how much is she willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of the color blue?

My Recommendation:

Is there any reading more enjoyable than historical mystery that blends fact and fiction, and sends one straight to the internet seeking images to illuminate the already colorful prose between its pages? There is not, and THE BLUE, by Nancy Bilyeau, is just that kind of read.

Set in eighteenth century Europe, THE BLUE tells a fascinating and informative tale of hedonism, power, and how corrupt we mortals can become for our shiny objects and idols. The characters are spirited and flawed–there’s not a perfectly good egg in the bunch–but that makes them all the more relatable and memorable. The protagonist Genevieve is a gem whose missteps endear her to the reader, and the antagonist is captivating and complicated. Even the cover of the book needs mentioning: it’s exquisite. My preciousssss… 

Nancy Bilyeau writes books the reader may buy on release without knowing a thing about but may be certain will be worth the time and investment. THE BLUE is no exception. I was in a severe reading drought but THE BLUE ended it. I give it my highest recommendation.

Have you read any of Nancy Bilyeau’s other novels? Which is your favorite? 

 

Best Books of 2018

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Here is my much agonized over list of the best historical novels of 2018. Some of the books were not published in 2018, but that is when I read them. My criteria for making the list:

*I read it obsessively.

*I can’t stop thinking about it.

*I can’t stop recommending it.

Whittling down my choices is always a challenge. I only feature the best of the best on the blog, so these are the best of the best of the best. Also, as always, I do an enormous amount of research reading, so I did not get to as many books for pleasure as I would have liked.

Without further ado, and in no particular order (my full reviews are linked to each title):

  1. I WAS ANASTASIA, by Ariel Lawhon
  2. WHERE THE WILD CHERRIES GROW, by Laura Madeleine
  3. THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER, by Kate Morton
  4. LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
  5. FROM SAND AND ASH, by Amy Harmon

What were your favorites of 2018?

Book Recommendation: THE MOON IS DOWN

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“[H]e had been in Belgium and France twenty years before and he tried not to think what he knew–that war is treachery and hatred, the muddling of incompetent generals, the torture and killing and sickness and tiredness, until at last it is over and nothing has changed except for new weariness and new hatreds…This one will be different, he said to himself fifty times a day…” John Steinbeck, THE MOON IS DOWN

Long stretches are running between book recommendations on this site. It’s not because I haven’t been reading; on the contrary, I am devouring endless books, but it’s all research for my work in progress. The time is nearing when I’ll reveal more, but for now I can only say I stumbled across mention of THE MOON IS DOWN (which I’d never before heard of) when seeking books on the psychology of those in war.

THE MOON IS DOWN, by John Steinbeck, was written as war propaganda. He was involved in WWII intelligence organizations, and wanted to know what he could do to help. He was asked to do what he did well: to write. What emerged is this spare, fine, character study of both the conquerors and the conquered in an invaded town. Steinbeck never names it, but one can assume it’s somewhere in France, taken by the Nazis.

Over a short span of time, Steinbeck brilliantly captures the subtle transition of the conquerors’ confident mentality to one of suspicion and cruelty, while showing the cracks even small acts of resistance infuse into their foundation. These small acts inspire larger and–when the time comes for great sacrifice–the blood of the martyrs portents the victory of good over evil.

While many praised his novella, I was interested to find out Steinbeck faced severe backlash for portraying the Germans as complex men rather than “boot-clicking Hun” machines. Though he defended his work he was bruised by the criticism, and the book quietly fell to the bottom of the Steinbeck stacks, where it continues to gather dust.

But THE MOON IS DOWN certainly served to help the resistance effort in Europe. Clandestine presses from Denmark to France to Italy got ahold of it, printed and distributed it, and used the money to fund resistance efforts. It was a great psychological boon to those who read it seeking courage in the face of terror.

THE MOON IS DOWN can be read in a single sitting and packs an emotional punch. It’s clear and precise, and can be enjoyed by readers of all genres. One need not be a Steinbeck scholar or aficionado of historical fiction to appreciate it. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER

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“As he looked at her, and she looked at the house, something in the way the leaves of the maple caught the sun and illuminated the woman beneath it made his heart ache and expand and he realized that he wanted to tell her, too, that by some strange twist it was the very meaninglessness of life that made it all so beautiful and rare and wonderful. That for all its savagery–because of its savagery–war had brightened every color. That without the darkness one would never notice the stars.” Kate Morton, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER

Publisher Synopsis:

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor in rural Berkshire. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing a drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.

Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?

Told by multiple voices across time, The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss. And flowing through its pages like a river, is the voice of a woman who stands outside time, whose name has been forgotten by history, but who has watched it all unfold…

My Recommendation:

A ‘book hangover’ is a condition resulting in an inability to begin a new book because one is so absorbed by the last. THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER has given me a terrible case, and I don’t see an end in sight.

Kate Morton is the master of the multi-period mystery. Every time I pick up one of her novels, I’m eager to see if she’ll be able to weave her magic, and every time she succeeds. Morton knows her characters so intimately, the reader is safe in her capable hands to explore the mazes of time and place without getting lost. It is her deep empathy for the human condition that allows her to create such full, memorable worlds.

In THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER, each time I thought I found my favorite storyline, the next section would come and I’d think I’d again found it. Over and over this went, until the sad moment when I reached the last page. I did not want the book to end, and that is saying a lot for a nearly five-hundred page novel.

From fans of historical fiction to multi-period drama to mystery, Kate Morton’s novels are for book lovers of all genres. I caution you, however: THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER is so absorbing, you’ll get very little done once you start. Even with that word of warning and in spite of the fact that it will leave you with a book hangover, I give THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER my highest recommendation.