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The Stolen Lady:  A Novel of World War II and the Mona Lisa by Laura Morelli, 2021, Historical Fiction

What does Lisa Gheradini, her maid Bellini, Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre archivist Ann Guichard have in common? The Mona Lisa.  Laura Morelli addresses their parallel stories between 1479 and 1945.   Bellini, Lisa Gherardini’s maid becomes our eyes for the portrait sitting Lisa’s husband commissions but never pays for.  Leonardo is another storyteller about the painting and the conflicts he faced in the medieval art world. Anne Guichard takes us with her as she assists the unbelievable transfer and hiding of the Louvre’s valuable art, including the Mona Lisa.  Each thread of this story weaves one of history, mystery, and intrigue to tell the story of what happens when art and war meet.

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meisner, 2018, Historical Fiction

In 1918 when the Spanish Flu will claim more than twelve thousand in Philadelphia and World War I stole lives at its own pace, the Bright family moves into this city.  They moved to join a family member’s funeral home business, an interesting way to learn about the Spanish Flu.  The four women of this family, mother Pauline and daughters Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa; narrate.  When the Spanish Flu attacks the Bright family, bring a baby into their fresh grief, address love relationships with desperation and hope, we are led into a story more about relationship and new beginnings than a pandemic.

Educated by Tara Westover, 2018, Memoir

In this heart-wrenching, inspirational, often unbelievable story, Tara overcomes her fanatic and borderline deranged parents to show strength and unquenchable spirit. She went from repressed and cloistered homeschooling to acceptance to Cambridge!  Her command of language is phenomenal, making this read a step above a lot of good fiction.  Haunting, maddening, and remarkable; this book will stay with me for a long time.

Saving Mrs. Roosevelt by Candace Sue Patterson, 2021, Historical Fiction

Shirley Davenport feels stuck in her family’s Maine lobster business, she joins SPARS, a newly created female component for the Coast Guard supporting the war effort.  She quickly catches the eye of Captain Weber, in more ways than one.  Recruited as a spy to collect information in her home town, she faces disgrace over the fabricated story of dishonorable discharge. However, it places her where she gathers intel on an American Nazi group and their nefarious plans. Unexpected plot twists, intrigue, life-threatening predicaments and a romantic twist makes this an enjoyable read.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, 2011, Nonfiction

This is the true story of how one woman and her two sisters mobilized other women into a dressmaking business under the watchful and oppressive rule of the Taliban.  Not only did she help save her family from starving, she helped other women.  Told from a journalist’s trained eye for detail from her own very personal interviews, this takes the news off of the TV and straight to your heart.

The Betrayal of Anne Frank, A Cold Case Investigation by Rosemary Sulivan, 2022, Nonfiction

Thanks to Anne’s diary, we know how they lived in hiding.  What no one knew for sure is who gave them up to the Nazi’s.  That’s the unanswered question that a retired FBI agent and an unrelenting team of investigators undertook.  A team of 50 data scientists, forensic detectives, and other researchers reviewed thousands of documents, interviewed descendants, created a computer algorithm to show connections and studied possibilities and pushed for answers for two years. While they offer an explanation at the end, it is not a proven fact and has caused a stir in the Dutch community.  However, what you learn about the inner workings of the Nazi’s, the desperate times, new details in the review of the Franks’ story is well worth the read.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, 2021, Historical Fiction

Elsa Martinelli and her two children packed up a truck with everything they had, left Texas  and joined the thousands of others looking for a better life in California.  The Texas Dust Bowl had stripped their land, robbed their dreams, sucked out any hope they ever had.  But what they found in California wasn’t any better.  With exquisite storytelling that is gripping, maddening, inspiring, and convicting, Kristin Hannah makes you see and feel the ravages of terrible time in our nation.   What are you willing to give to help your children survive?  For Elsa, anything less than everything wasn’t enough.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meisner, 2019, Historical Fiction

Young German-American teenager Elise Sontag believes the war is far away until her father is placed in an internment camp miles away from the family.  When the family joins him in a Texas camp, Elise meets Japanese-American Mariko.  But when her family is scheduled for repatriation to Germany it is her worst nightmare.  Separation from Mariko is a defining loss. A surprising arrangement takes her back to the U.S. after the war where she continues to look for the missing piece of her identity.  It is a story of family, loss, and displacement that finally blooms with self-discovery.     

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PAST REVIEWS

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Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan, Historical Fiction, 2021

This is the little known story of the sinking of the steam ship Pulaski on its fourth journey 180 years ago. The Pulaski loaded 186 passengers for the two-night trip to Baltimore.  Often called the Titanic of the south, 128 adults and children lost their lives either in the explosion or from taking one of the 4 not so seaworthy life boats or not surviving the 5 day float without food or water before they found land. Only 58 survived.  The story itself draws you in, but Patti Callahan does more.  She builds a believable contemporary story around the historical one that helps readers take an even deeper look a “surviving survival.” She handles her alternating contemporary and historical seamlessly and with helpful storytelling movement. Her writing is rich and textured but not overdone. This book shares an inspiring story to remind us that we are not pawns of fate but the sum of the choices we make no matter what tragedy comes to change whatever we expected.

 
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In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Non-fiction, 2000

 

Most know the story of Moby Dick the giant sperm whale and  the mad revenge of Ishmael against the mammal.  Few know the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an attack by a whale who could have been Moby Dick’s relative.  Nathaniel Philbrick writes a page-turning, hair-raising retelling of this story that is brilliant.  He not only tells the story brilliantly, he laces it with historical and scientific fact so seamlessly, you never skim past it. Spoiler alert:  the 20 men who left the sinking ship in 3 whale boats must make repulsive choices to stay alive for 90 days and only a few survive.

 
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Jennifer Chiaverini has always written stories with history.  Now she delves deeper to tell even more history with her story.  Based on the true story of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, born a slave who built her dress-making business so that she could buy her freedom.  Her work was so good, she became the preferred seamstress for the elite of Washington D. C. When the Civil War split the country, Elizabeth or Lizzie as she was known, stayed and became the personal seamstress and trusted friend to Mrs. Lincoln.  While it reads like a biography, it is an engaging read, especially when it tells the heartbreaking story of what happens when a publisher convinces Lizzie to tell her story.   

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini, Historical Fiction, 2013

 

Margery Benson knows more about beetles than the children she teaches in London in the 1950’s.   She had almost forgotten her dream to find the gold-winged beetle her father had told her about until a humiliating classroom experience helped her re-imagine her life with an expedition to New Caledonia to find the elusive golden beetle. What follows is a story about an unexpected friendship between the staid and reserved Miss Benson and the blond-haired beauty Enid Pretty she hired as her assistant.This was the most enjoyable read I’ve had in a long time.   Rachel Joyce knows how to take you on a journey and fill it with heartache, humor, and hope. If you need a page-turner that will keep you guessing  about what these ladies will do next, this your next read.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, Fiction, 2020

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Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, Fiction, 2019

Two couples and their faith journeys intermingle to bring each person to new understandings in the middle of what life throws at them.  They meet in Greenwich when the two men are called to co-pastor the Third Presbyterian Church. It’s not the unusual storyline that drew me. It was Cara’s writing and her fierce, cliché-free writing about faith journeys.  The book caught my eye when Jenna Bush Hager called it a favorite.  Don’t expect the storylines to finish like well-tied bows.  Expect to learn something about authentic faith and the processes that grow them.

 
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The Great Alone by Kristah Hannah, Fiction, 2018

A family of three decide to start over in a remote part of Alaska where nothing they learned in any part of rustic America defined success.  But running away only hides dysfunction for a a while.  When the PTSD Vietnam vet continues to explode with anger and his wife continues to excuse and rationalize his abuse, daughter, Lenny, is caught in the love-hate triangle of dysfunction become more dangerous than anything Alaska could offer. The story Hannah tells is a page-turner of danger, desperation, first-love, lost hope and reclaimed dream.  This book drained me in a way that good writing and exceptional storytelling does.  It will always remind me that aloneness is a bane or a blessing, depending on what you don’t want to face.

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Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks, Short Story Fiction, 2017

While we know Tom Hanks as an Oscar winning actor, he adds intelligent writer to his biography.  Tom uses his love for typewriters (he collects them) as the common thread.  But the typewriter is only a walk-on character because the stars of each story are the people. Tom takes simple people and builds a complex and layered story with unexpected beauty.  There is a reporter on assignment, a young boy who gets an airplane ride, a divorcee in a new neighborhood, a time traveler, and much more. I listened to the audio version whichTom narrates..  But I also plan to read them one day because I want to appreciate the skill by which these were written.

 
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The Light of Days by Judy Batalion, The Untold Story of Women Resistance, Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, Historical Nonfiction, 2021

We tell the story of Jewish resistance in Germany.  This is a story of a group of young women, some still in their upper teens, who joined undercover resistance work in Poland.  They were messengers and explosive deliverers is a story of courage, perseverance, and paying the ultimate price for what you believe.  Meticulously researched using primary interviews of family members as well as documents and diaries, this book will haunt you. It isn’t an easy read and not all the stories have happy endings.  It highlights again that there are no easy ways to fight evil especially when it is politically organized. It reminds us that small acts of courage prepare you for more and nothing is small when it starts in the heart.