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The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, 2017, Historical Fiction

World War II is over for most, but not for Charlie St. Clair. She is pregnant and unmarried and her parents take her to Europe to take care of her “problem.”  When Charlie escapes her parents, pawns her grandmother’s pearls for money, she begins  a search for Rose, her cousin she loved like a sister.  She had disappeared during the war. Tracking her last information about her in London, she meets war-wasted Eve, part of a spy network that famed Lili, code-name Alice, ran. That's when she uncovered how Rose was a part of it.  Told between two timeliness, 1915 and 1947, the story becomes more than about finding Rose with real-life Lili as the glue for the fictional story Quinn tells.  It is a satisfying story of loss, betrayal, lies and redemption.

 

Cloud Cuckoo Land by by Anthony Doerr, 2021, Fiction

The author of All the Light We Cannot See takes a major departure from realistic fiction to tell a story that is hopeful fantasy and time travel.  The book begins in Constantinople with orphaned Anna and a story about Aethon who wans to turn into a bird and fly to a utopian paradise. The manuscript is lost and found as it braids the threads that hold this story together.  As the bird flies, so do we across time, continents and space.  "Cloud Cuckoo Land is a beautiful and redemptive novel about stewardship—of the book, of the earth, of the human heart.”  It was so different and beautiful and confusing, I may have to read it again.

Girl at War by Sara Novic, 2015, Historical Fiction

This is a story that brings the devastation of war too close.  Remember Serbia and ethnic cleansing and the life-altering migration of a people who lost their homeland?  Ana, as a ten-year-old carefree girl, takes us there.  Everything changes for her when she stands with her parents on the edge of a gaping whole in the earth, hears gunfire, falls with her parents into the hole, and stays unmoving in what she suddenly understands is a grave.  Displacement, emotional distance, anger, and nightmares dog her like she is the prey until she returns to her birthplace and finds where home had been waiting.  The story is harsh, unraveling, and all too close to current events. 

Chasing Shadows by Lynn Austin, 2021, Historical Fiction

Lynn Austin is one of my go-to authors in Christian Historical Fiction.  This World War II story takes us to Netherlands and Nazi occupation. Lena, her adult daughter Ans, and Jewish Miriam are three women who made their contributions to fighting evil while embracing and sometimes chasing the “shadow of the Almighty.” The choices they make and the reasons they make them become stories of survival, inspiration, and faith. 

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, 2020, Fiction

Franny Stone is haunted by her childhood and chased by her wounds and she is passionate about saving the Arctic terns.  This one passion causes her to go, alone, to Greenland, persuade a fishing boat captain to take her aboard and follow the bird that makes the longest migration of any other bird so she can see for herself whether the species still thrives in the changing arctic climate.  I was swept away by the beauty of the writing.  However, the story is sad on multiple levels.  Franny’s migrations may have brought her more self-acceptance but I’m not sure it opened her heart to healing. 

The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson, 2021, Fiction

Eve has left her career with feelings of underachievement and anonymity.  Sally has left her husband and a relationship where two individuals never grew together.  Anastasia is a stubborn, independent woman who lives in narrowboat during a pressing health crisis.  These three women come together unexpectedly when Anastasia recruits Eve and Sally to take her boat through the canals of England for repainting while she has life-saving surgery.  In crisp English humor and frankness, the story twists and turns as much as the boat and celebrates that life has purpose at any age and friendship makes everything better.  It is a great summer read! 

The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd, 2017, Historical Fiction

I picked up this recommendation from our trip to Savannah where I learned how Savannah plantations were looking for a new money crop and discovered indigo.  After many failed attempts, Eliza Lucas overcomes being female in the male-dominated world of 1739 to manage her father’s plantation in his absence.  Her dream was to learn how to make indigo a second money crop to offset the failing prospects of cotton.  Based on her letters and diary, this is a story of fortitude, innovation, persistence, forbidden friendships, betrayal, and a love she never expected to find.  Interesting historical note:  when Eliza died, George Washington served as one of the pall bearers!

The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abe', 2021, Historical Fiction

John Jacob Astor, divorced, military, and heir to Astor money, marries the beautiful, but 39 year younger Madeleine Force, and ignores the social disapproval it brings. Madeleine returns from her extended honeymoon to Egypt, overwhelmed by love and pregnant.  Life opens with delicious possibility until the two decide to take passage on the fated Titanic. Madeleine must dig deep to find a strength no one expected she had.  As the disaster played out, we take the journey with Madeleine, from the annoying interruption in the middle of the night to the separation at the life boat to the heart-stopping realization that her world would never be the same.  I liked the book for the Astor story I did not know, the :  attention to Titanic detail, the resilience of a young woman, and a love story for the ages.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Nonfiction

This is a fascinating but disturbing story of how the cancer cells of an unknown African-American woman in the 1950’s became a multi-million dollar industry without the knowledge or permission from Henrietta nor her family.  It is a  braided story of science, family dysfunction, corporate bullying, and legacy.  When the cells taken from Henrietta unexpectedly regenerated, they laid the foundation for the life-saving polio vaccine and early cancer treatments.  Skloot was an unrelenting journalist who tracked the story all the way to Henrietta’s insensitive treatment, the importance of privacy laws, and the unexpected emotional attachment she forged with a family who finally received the closure they needed. 

The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis  2018, Historical Fiction

Fiona Davis uses the buildings of New York as the main characters in her historical stories.  This book features the Grand Central Station that housed an art school in the upper floor of the 1920’s.  We meet art teacher Clara Darden, based on the real Helen Dryden who made her art name becoming the featured illustrator for Vogue Magazine.  Fiercely independent, Clara fights the male domination of the New York art world with uneven success. Fast forward into the 60’s when Grand Central is in danger of being torn down and we meet Virginia Clay (fictional character) who finds a hidden painting and tries to verify its authenticity using a former teacher of the art school.  What unfolds is a thwarted art theft, the saving of Grand Central Station and the coming together of a lost artist and an unplanned heroine. 

Sensible Shoes:  A Story about the Spiritual Journey by Sharon Garlough Brown, Christian Living Fiction, 2012, Book 1, Series

This Christianity Today 2019 Fiction Book of the Year shares the spiritual growth journey of four women who attend a spiritual formation retreat and find friendship in their pursuit of spiritual healing and growth. Hannah, Meg, Mara, and Charissa each have stories.  As they share them, the reader is introduced to spiritual formation practices, the importance of self-honesty, and how an intimate relationship with God is not to be feared or assumed.  Brown writes credible stories based on her career as a spiritual director and retreat leader. She and her husband currently direct the Abiding Way Ministries.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry  Fiction,  2001

This is my first Wendell Berry novel and I was not disappointed.  Simple story; long-lasting truths. Jayber Crow, orphaned, must make his own way in rural Kentucky during the 1940’s.  In an understated way, this book is a commentary on change and the mitigating nourishment of community.  Leaving seminary with more questions than answers, Jayber becomes a barber, church janitor, and grave digger in Port Williams Kentucky.  Each becomes his window into the heart of community. While his quiet reflection on change, community, ethics, and God doesn’t offer answers, he will always give you something to think about.

 
 
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Past Reviews
 
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Dangerous Women by Hope Adams, Historical Fiction, 2021
Between 1787 and 1868, the British government transported an estimated 25,000 female convicts to Australia. The idea was two-fold:  unburden the penal institutions and help settle British holdings in Australia.  This book tells the mostly true and sometimes fictionalized account of one voyage of 200 women.  Hope Adams weaves her story of confinement, broken dreams, new hope, and sisterhood with a back-and-forth time division between then and now.  When one of the women is murdered, the story becomes a mystery to solve.  A page turner at the end, this book will anger you, surprise you, and give you every reason to hope for new beginnings no matter how many splintered pieces life gives.

Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict, Historical Fiction, 2018
Benedict works her magic with historical details and engaging storytelling.  She tells the fictional story of an immigrant Irish woman who is placed in the Carnegie house as the lady’s maid to Mrs. Carnegie by an unusual mix up. The story helps the reader understand the dire circumstances many Irish families faces as well as the great divide between wealth and poverty in America.  It also reveals the relationships and business pursuits of the Carnegie’s and their legacy and life in 19th century America.  
 

Salt to the Seas by Ruta Sepetys, Historical Fiction, 2017

Ruta Sepetys plunges you into the unthinkable and little-known story about the sinking of a German evacuation ship. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a luxury cruise ship conscripted for removing 10,000 military and refugees from Poland. Four main people become the storytellers as they wind their way to become part of the evacuation and each other’s lives. Perhaps you will be left with the same question I had, why have we not heard about this sinking where 9,000 lives were lost?

Sparks Like Stars by Hashima Sepetys, Historical Fiction, 2021

 

Sitara’s life in Afghanistan was idyllic and privileged because her father was key advisor to president Daoud.  Everything changed when a communist coup assassinated the president, his family and every other anti-communist leader and their families. A palace guard found scared Sitara hiding in the palace and risked his life to take her to an American diplomat. Everything afterwards is a story of new identity, life-threatening challenges, and unresolved grief.  It is a gripping story of loss and lostness all the way to release and recovery.

The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin, Historical Fiction, 2021

In January of 1888 a too sudden and devastating blizzard turned a normal day into a life-and-death challenge that stole life from over 200 homesteaders in the Dakota territory, most of them children.  Successful historical fiction writer, Melanie Benjamin, invented characters based on true stories to tell a heartbreaking story of survival and loss. Readers are drawn in to the hopes and struggles of two very young school teachers who make life and death choices for their classes, choices that no one prepared them for. The choices made one a heroine and one an outcast. The story reminds us that life turns on choices and sometimes they are choices we have to live with for the rest of our lives.

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