Book Recommendation: I WAS ANASTASIA


“If I tell you what happened that night…I will have to unwind my memory–all the twisted coils–and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and the curse I bestow upon you. A confession for which you may never forgive me. Are you ready for that? Can you hold this truth in your hand and not crush it like the rest of them? Because I do not think you can. I do not think you are brave enough.” Ariel Lawhon, I WAS ANASTASIA

Publisher Synopsis:

In an enthralling new feat of historical suspense, Ariel Lawhon unravels the extraordinary twists and turns in Anna Anderson’s 50-year battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov. Is she the Russian Grand Duchess, a beloved daughter and revered icon, or is she an imposter, the thief of another woman’s legacy?

Countless others have rendered their verdict. Now it is your turn.

Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.

Germany, February 17, 1920
: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.

As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory yet: the nature of identity itself.

The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

My Recommendation:

In my childhood, my late grandmother showed me a book with Anastasia’s face on the cover, and told me about the woman who claimed to be her. I remember looking through the center section of the book at the haunting, beautiful, black-and-white photographs of the family, and being horrified at the thought of their brutal murders. Still, decades later, every time I see the name Anastasia, I think of the girl, the family, and the horror. When I learned one of my favorite writers of historical suspense was taking on the story, I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed.

Ariel Lawhon’s I WAS ANASTASIA is a masterpiece. The style is experimental–a non-linear narrative, where each section falls back in time, a bit at a time. From the US in the 1960s, to Berlin in the 1930s, to New York in the 1920s, to Russia: 1918, 1917. One month earlier, two weeks earlier, one day earlier. Though time runs at reset flashbacks, I never felt lost; Lawhon’s storytelling is grounded and assured.

The changing time periods, the drama surrounding Anna’s true identity, and the story of the Romanovs as they are subjected to ever-increasing pressure make for gripping reading, and the climax is at equal turns fascinating, shocking, and devastating.

Direct, unflinching, and telescopic, I WAS ANASTASIA balances a compelling plot and a complex study of identity. It is unlike any work of fiction I have ever read, and I will be thinking about it for years to come. I give it my highest recommendation.

Have you read it or any of Lawhon’s work? Are you fascinated with the Romanovs?


Book Recommendation: LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS


“Those of us who are lucky enough to find a letter on the doormat devour the words inside with the appetite of a starving man. Those of us whose doormats remain empty must somehow find the courage to step over them and go out into a world we no longer recognise.” Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS 

Publisher Synopsis:

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Recommendation:

If you have had an ache of longing since you finished reading THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY, or since the conclusion of DOWNTON ABBEY, this novel is just the tonic.

LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS: A NOVEL OF WORLD WAR I, is an epistolary novel. Told in letters, telegrams, and newspaper dispatches, the marvelous, tragic, romantic, and fascinating story of Evie and Tom is one for the ages. Readers will not be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out the fates of their beloved characters, all while trying to savor the delightful exchanges.

At turns ebullient and heartbreaking, and often in quick succession, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS is a true gem in historical fiction. Gaynor and Webb wrote the book in their own kind of letter exchange, giving it a special air of authenticity.

This was the first novel I read in 2018, and I’m afraid the bar has been set very high for whatever follows. If you are searching for a book to fall in love with, I cannot recommend LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS enough.

Best Books of 2017


Here is my much agonized over list of the best novels of 2017. (Notice, some of these are not historical; I’m broadening my horizons.) Some of the books were not published in 2017, 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. If I Could Tell You, by Elizabeth Wilhide
  2. The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld
  3. The Baker’s Secret, by Stephen P. Kiernan
  4. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  5. Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

What were your favorites of 2017?


Book Recommendation: Beartown


“She always thinks it was the forest that taught the people of Beartown to keep their mouths shut, because when you hunt and fish you need a way to stay quiet so as not to scare the animals, and if you teach people that lesson since birth, it’s going to color the way they communicate. So Ana has always been torn between the urge to scream as loud as she could, or not at all.” Fredrik Backman, BEARTOWN 

Publisher Synopsis:

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

My Recommendation:

In truth, it took me several attempts to get through BEARTOWN. I kept thinking it was the book, but I realized on the third try–after countless trusted recommendations that I read it immediately–the problem existed in me.

For the last decade–as long as my oldest son has played the sport he found on his own–I have been haunted by ice hockey. From the danger and violence of the game, to bullying coaches, clusters of horrible parents, and a near-fatal injury my son suffered in November from a skate blade to the throat, I am traumatized. While in the ambulance, I thought, “At least we’re finished with hockey,” just as my son asked the EMT (applying just enough pressure to slow the bleeding, while allowing my son to breathe) when he could play hockey again. My son’s current coach calls the sport a “healthy addiction.” I don’t know if I agree.

And then there’s #HOCKEYSTRONG, a satire I wrote about youth sports parent insanity.  My own take on the dark side of youth sports nearly gives me an anxiety attack to read. With a series of strange similarities, BEARTOWN is equally horrifying. BEARTOWN could take place five years in the future for my fictional team of “bears,” parent types overlap, and the bizarre mentality of the “race to nowhere” pervades, but what Backman captures far more poignantly is the group psychology of teams on the micro and macro levels, and the simultaneous loving and loathing of the sport.

“There’s hardly anything that can make Peter feel as bad as hockey can. And, absurdly, there’s hardly anything that can make him feel better.” ( p 93)

Distilled, this is the essence of the sport, but it can apply to any sport–to any “healthy addition”–that involves teams, families, and communities. The deep breakdown occurs when the lines between sport and living are blurred, when the sport becomes identity, when “for the good of the team or club” trumps reason, common sense, and eventually what is good and moral.

For these reasons, my mind could not accept BEARTOWN on the first two attempts, but I am grateful to my trusted friends for urging me forward. It turned out to be the best book I read this year.

You need not be a hockey fan (or even a sports fan) to enjoy BEARTOWN. It is a deeply woven, complex, family drama. The book is brutal, but redemption emerges from rock bottom, justice finds a way, the good of the “team” of the greater community triumphs.

“What can the sport give us? We devote our whole lives to it, and what can we hope to get, at best? A few moments…a few victories, a few seconds when we feel bigger than we really are, a few isolated opportunities to imagine that we’re…immortal. And it’s a lie. It really isn’t important…The only thing the sport gives us are moments. But what the hell is life…apart from moments?” p 109

Though the book takes place in Sweden, it could easily be anywhere in the US. The families, the troubles they face, and the situations of darkness and light are all of ours. If you are looking for a rich, challenging, and satisfying read, I cannot recommend BEARTOWN enough.

Even for traumatized hockey parents.




Book Recommendation: THE CHILD FINDER


“All she knew was that evil…was alchemy built on top of opportunity. Some went searching for it. Others just waited. Either way, it was bound to happen.” Rene Denfeld, THE CHILD FINDER

Publisher Synopsis:

“Where are you, Madison Culver? Flying with the angels, a silver speck on a wing? Are you dreaming, buried under snow? Or—is it possible—you are still alive?”

Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight-years-old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.

Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl, too.

As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?

Told in the alternating voices of Naomi and a deeply imaginative child, The Child Finder is a breathtaking, exquisitely rendered literary page-turner about redemption, the line between reality and memories and dreams, and the human capacity to survive.

My Recommendation:

Engrossing, beautifully written, devastating, and redemptive, THE CHILD FINDER is the story of a private investigator, Naomi, searching the woods and fields, mountains and city scapes for missing children as deeply as she is her own past. Told from her point of view and that of a missing child, their stories and histories are meticulously woven and culminate in a breath-taking climax.

Horrifying subjects are handled deftly, with an absence of graphic details, allowing the reader to persist with the search. Characters are full, round, and complex–even the antagonists.

Fans of literary suspense will not be able to put down THE CHILD FINDER. Though this is not historical fiction, I had to share my review here. It is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: The Baker’s Secret


“In a time of humiliation, the only dignified answer is cunning.” Stephen P. Kiernan, THE BAKER’S SECRET

From the critically acclaimed author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity comes a dazzling novel of World War II—a shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism and the resilience of the human spirit, set in a small village in Normandy on the eve of D-Day.


My Recommendation:

Emmanuelle is bitter. The traumas she suffers and witnesses age her beyond her twenty-two years. The war is consuming everything and everyone she loves, and she has lost all hope that the Allies will help. And yet…

Her youth and her intelligence call her to action. One small act of defiance (adding a bit of ground straw to her flour rations as town baker) allows her to increase her yield from twelve to fourteen loaves–enough bread to satisfy the demands of the Nazi occupiers, with two left over to secretly distribute to the townspeople.

Yet it is not enough.

Each deception exposes a new desire. Each desire inspires a new idea on how to undermine the Nazis to obtain it. Each little triumph keeps the spark of hope glowing in the people of the town. Even for those Emma dislikes or who dislike her, they are bound together in their shared wish to see the destruction of the oppressors.

THE BAKER’S SECRET beautifully demonstrates the power of small acts done with great care, and the ripples that expand outward from those acts. In spite of how hardened Emma has become, she is a protagonist with whom the reader forges a strong alliance. Her sorrows are ours. Her pain is ours. Her joy, ours.

Kiernan is a writer of enormous talent, and this novel is a triumph. The reader knows D-Day is coming, and can hardly wait for Emma to find out. In spite of knowing the catalyst for the climax, there are still many surprises; so much is revealed when June 6th, 1944 finally arrives.

I read the novel in a weekend, and I already know THE BAKER’S SECRET will my make my “Best of” list of 2017. I give it my highest recommendation.





I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald


“She wore a silver belt with stars cut out of it, so that the stars were there and not quite there–and watching them Sam knew that he had not quite found her yet. He wished for a moment that he were not so entirely successful nor Mary so desirable–wished that they were both a little broken and would want to cling together. All the evening he felt a little sad watching the intangible stars as they moved here and there about the big rooms.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Day Off from Love”

Publisher Synopsis:

A collection including the last complete unpublished short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the iconic American writer of The Great Gatsby who is more widely read today than ever.

I’d Die For You is a collection of the last remaining unpublished and uncollected short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel. Fitzgerald did not design the stories in I’d Die For You as a collection. Most were submitted individually to major magazines during the 1930s and accepted for publication during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, but were never printed. Some were written as movie scenarios and sent to studios or producers, but not filmed. Others are stories that could not be sold because their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected of Fitzgerald. They date from the earliest days of Fitzgerald’s career to the last. They come from various sources, from libraries to private collections, including those of Fitzgerald’s family.

Written in his characteristically beautiful, sharp, and surprising language, exploring themes both familiar and fresh, these stories provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career. I’d Die For You is a revealing, intimate look at Fitzgerald’s creative process that shows him to be a writer working at the fore of modern literature—in all its developing complexities.

My Recommendation:

For many reasons, it borders on the absurd that I am reviewing a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. I offer this recommendation with the full disclosure that not only am I an enormous Fitzgerald aficionado, but I am completely biased and sympathetic toward anything ‘Fitzgerald.’ Bearing this in mind…

From the editorial introductions, to a delightful collection of never before published photographs, to the rich and varied stories themselves,  I’D DIE FOR YOU AND OTHER LOST STORIES is a rare treat, and one that should be savored. Editor Anne Margaret Daniel’s arrangement and contextual description of each of Fitzgerald’s writings not only provide fresh insights into one of America’s finest writers, but also demonstrate deep understanding of and empathy for her subject.

Lovers of Fitzgerald’s work will find echoes of Gatsby in stories like “Thumbs Up:”

“The two younger men started back toward shore in the dinghy and the hands that waved to them from the yacht as they gradually lost sight of it in the growing dark were like a symbol that the cruelty of a distant time was receding with every stroke of the oars into a dimmer and dimmer past.” (p. 186)

Flashes of his genius in describing the nature of his characters in “Nightmare:”

“[H]e felt dissatisfied with the physical attitude she had assumed–somehow standing in the doorway like that betrayed the fact that her mood was centrifugal rather than centripetal–she was drawn toward the June afternoon, the down-rolling, out-rolling land, adventurous as an ocean without horizons. Something stabbed at his heart for his own mood was opposite–for him she made this place the stable center of the world.” (p. 20)

And Zelda. Zelda everywhere:

“The girl hung around under the pink sky waiting for something to happen. She was not a particularly vague person but she was vague tonight: the special dusk was new, practically new, after years under far skies; it had strange little lines in the trees, strange little insects, unfamiliar night cries of strange small beasts beginning.” (p. 41, “What to Do About It”)

I confess that–like everything Fitzgerald–on these pages hangs a looming sadness. Even in the slivers of hope, knowing the whole Fitzgerald story casts a shadow. One will marvel, however, that even as Fitzgerald faced the darkness of professional rejection, personal crisis, and familial devastation, he was able to produce such an abundance and variety of material, and often infused with such hope.

I’D DIE FOR YOU AND OTHER LOST STORIES is one of the most genuine books I’ve read all year. Unfiltered Fitzgerald is a treat, and Daniel’s expertise and admiration warm the pages of the stories. The way Daniel chooses to end the collection leaves last notes of satisfaction, contentment, and yearning. Fans of short fiction and those interested in delving more deeply into Fitzgerald’s body of work will be smitten with this collection.