Tag Archives: Great Britain

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking; 384 pages; $27.95).

           girl This book is not just about a painting; it’s not just about a wife left behind during wartime; it’s not just about a young widow whose husband died unexpectedly; it’s not just about a random girl a guy meets in a bar; it’s not just about a bitter woman whose German husband was an officer occupying a foreign country; and it’s not just about a beloved sister whose family never spoke of her again.  The title of Jojo Moyes’ incredibly affecting and thought-provoking third novel The Girl You Left Behind (her second was the 2012 breakout word-of-mouth bestseller Me Before You) has multiple meanings throughout her absorbing narrative.   One thing, though, is certain: her powerful female characters will linger long after you close the book.

Employing a dual narrative format, Moyes moves from World War I-era occupied France to 2006 London.  In 1916, Sophie struggles to feed her family; she watches as her family and her village collapse.  Her husband fights for France, while Sophie skirmishes just as he does but on another battlefield, one immensely more complicated.  After German forces take control of her family’s hotel, Sophie and her husband’s painting, The Girl You Left Behind, draw the eye of the Kommandant.  When the enemy takes her spouse prisoner, Sophie will use every means at her disposal to free him.  In 2006, Liv labors to stay in the home her late husband, an architect, built.  Bills pile up, and work is difficult to find.  She cherishes a piece of artwork her husband gave to her as a wedding present during their honeymoon to Barcelona.  Entitled The Girl You Left Behind, the painting symbolizes their happy life together.  When Liv learns the painting was perhaps a spoil of war, she is determined to fight to keep her most prized possession.

Both Sophie and Liv are strong women who threaten to leap off Moyes’ pages, and thank goodness for that.  I loved these ladies; moyesthrough her narrators, Moyes explores such universal themes as conflict, faithfulness, survival, loss, restitution, property rights, and love.   I identified with both women equally, even though Moyes writes them very differently, varying perspective and tense as she tells their stories.

Equally impressive and bold are Moyes’ minor female characters: Mo, lovingly quirky, gives Liv a dose of tough love; Louanne Baker, brash and ballsy American reporter covering the American liberation of Nazi concentration camps, who comes alive in her journals; and Liliane, perhaps the bravest in the whole book, who risks her life for her village and for her country.

If you enjoy reading novels set during wartime (like Sarah’s Key) or stories in which artwork features prominently in the story (such as Pictures of an Exhibition or The Art Forger), I highly recommend The Girl You Left Behind.  Moyes’ tale will resonate with anyone who has ever fought for the person or thing she loves most in the world.  I never thought Moyes would ever be able to top Me Before You, but, amazingly, she does!  Some advice—don’t let this be the book you left behind.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes is the She Reads October Book Club Selection.  To read more reviews of the book, enter exciting giveaways, connect with other readers, and discuss the story, please visit She Reads.







Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, women's fiction, women's lit

The King’s Deception by Steve Berry Blog Tour

The King’s Deception by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books; 432 pages; $27).

Steve Berry

Steve Berry

Cotton Malone returns in Steve Berry’s newest novel The King’s Deception and the stakes have never been higher.  I am a huge Malone fan, and I must say that Berry’s eighth installment in the Malone series is his best and his most controversial yet.  The King’s Deception made my heart pound, my pulse race, and my eyes go wide.  I predict all Malone fans will have similar reactions.

The King’s Deception is actually a flashback.  Malone relives an experience he had two years previously in a conversation with his ex-wife, Pam.

Not only does Berry focus on Malone, his main character, but he also provides us perspectives from a wide-range of narrators, adeptly and easily juggling a large cast.  The insight we gain from these multiple viewpoints enhances the tale and makes us aware of many things that Malone himself is heedless of.

It all begins when Malone and his son Gary travel to Europe.  Recent revelations have stunned the father-son duo and they need quality time together to talk.  In other words, their luggage is not the only baggage they carry with them on their trip.

Malone has also agreed to do a favor for his former boss at the Justice Department, Stephanie Nelle.  Accompanying Malone and Gary is Ian, a fugitive teen from England.

If you expect a smooth ride, then you’ve never read one of Berry’s Cotton Malone novels.  Nothing is ever as Malone expects it to be.  A simple favor leads to a showdown that evolves into an international incident.  At the heart of which is the terrorist convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103, who the Scottish government has agreed to release for humanitarian purposes: the bomber is dying of cancer.  Malone finds himself in the middle of a politically-charged environment, an area in which he usually shines and this is no exception.

It’s a formula that continues to work for Berry, who modeled his protagonist partly on himself when he first created his personality for The Templar Legacy.  Berry says he and Malone share a lot of attributes: “The love of rare books.  He doesn’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t either.  He doesn’t drink alcohol.  He has finicky eating habits, so do I.   I, of course, don’t jump out of planes and shoot guns at bad guys, so I live that through him.”  Berry is just as talented at creating his antagonists, such as CIA operative Blake Antrim, who shares a rather unexpected connection with Gary.

If the above were not enough, Berry goes one step further, introducing a mind-boggling but intriguing historical mystery involving Queen Elizabeth I.  The King’s Deception claims that Elizabeth was really a man in disguise.  And not just any man, but the son of King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son.  The real Elizabeth, according to Berry’s fascinating tale, died as a child and an imposter was put in her place.  The truth was kept a secret, especially from the king.

Bunk, you say?  Well, the story is tantalizing but not wholly implausible.  Berry thinks the myth is “both possible and fascinating.”  “The most wonderful fiction,” he explains, “always has a ring of truth to it.  Here, everything centers around the Bisley Boy legend.  Three years ago, Elizabeth [his wife] and I were north of London doing some publicity work for my British publisher when our guide told me about a local legend.   In the village of Bisley, for many centuries on a [certain] day, the locals would dress a young boy in female Elizabethan costume and parade him through the streets.  How odd.  I then discovered that Bram Stoker [author of Dracula], in the early part of the 20thcentury, also heard the tale and wrote about it in a book called Famous Imposters, which I read.   I then kings deceptionbegan to read about Elizabeth I and learned of many odd things associated with her.”  A story idea was thus born.

If this conspiracy theory were true, the implications would be vast.  Berry plays devil’s advocate here: “What does it matter if this thing happened in history?   How is that still relevant today? So what if Queen Elizabeth I was an imposter?”  “Actually it would matter a great deal,” Berry elucidates.  “Great Britain itself would dramatically change, and not without violence.  This possible ‘so what’ was such a threat that my British publisher asked me to tone things down a bit so we don’t provide folks with any ideas.”  Conspiracy theory or not, Berry offers readers something to ponder and even investigate for themselves.

With fast-paced action, fully realized and complex characters, and a brilliant mystery at its heart, The King’s Deception is an explosive and pulsing historical thrill ride—one I wanted to get on all over again.








Filed under blog tour, book review, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, history, mystery, Summer Reading, thriller

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books; 544 pages; $27.99).

life after life

            The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 BC-475 BC) famously said that you cannot step into the same river twice.  Well, he didn’t know Ursula Beresford Todd, the main character in Kate Atkinson’s bonny, daring, and sublime novel Life After Life.  Time is not circular in Atkinson’s tale; rather, Ursula’s life is like an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail.  Atkinson continually recreates the character of Ursula; she is like a phoenix that is reborn over and over again.

“Become such as you are, having learned what that is,” Atkinson writes in Life After Life.  On a bitterly cold day in February of 1910, a baby is born in Britain.  The umbilical cord is wrapped around her little neck, and she does not survive.  And then, on a bitterly cold day in February of 1910, a baby is born in Britain.  The umbilical cord is wrapped around her little neck, but the doctor uses scissors (“snip, snip”), and the child lives.  Her name is Ursula (“little bear”), and she just may hold the fate of mankind in her tiny hands.

The years pass, and Ursula grows older.  Here, Atkinson ably illustrates the fragility of life in the early Twentieth Century when reaching adulthood was not guaranteed.  One by one, Ursula is felled by drowning, a fall, and the Spanish flu of 1918.  With words such as “darkness fell”, Atkinson takes Ursula’s young life.  It feels miraculous when Ursula finally enters her 20s and 30s, only to encounter a whole new set of difficulties.  Ursula perishes over and over—murdered by a violent, abusive husband; killed in the London Blitz; dead by suicide as the Russian army enters Berlin.

The author’s plot device, killing a character and then bringing her back to life, initially felt cheap and gimmicky.  Atkinson quickly won me over, though, and in record time.  Reading Life After Life, I experienced such a wide-range of emotions that I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth.  Each time Ursula died, I grieved for her.  Then, I turned the page to find Ursula very much alive.

It is as if Atkinson has her very own reset button and simply sets things right again.  Atkinson sometimes returns to Ursula’s birth, but not always.  Other times, Atkinson resets the tale to some pivotal moment in Ursula’s past, a specific point in her life, a day that seems no different from any other, yet a day when some kind of momentous choice was made that charted the course of Ursula’s life.

I began to wonder: just what does Atkinson have in mind for Ursula?  Because clearly, why continually resurrect a character if she does not have some kind of higher purpose?  “Practice makes perfect” is an idiom Ursula’s mother repeats throughout the novel.  Ursula champions the phrase: “We can never get it right, but we must try.”  The more Ursula lives her lives, the more she learns from them.  Atkinson uses Ursula as a palimpsest.  Her life is like a piece of parchment whose text is wiped away, but traces still remain.

Ursula experiences déjà vu as she remembers her past lives.  It’s like reincarnation, except that Ursula comes back after death as the same person.  As Atkinson kills and revives Ursula, notions of predestination versus free will come into play.  In Life After Life, choices matter.  Atkinson’s aim is to have Ursula retain some of the knowledge she acquired from her past lives, information that will not only change Ursula’s fate but possibly the futures of those around her and even the fate of the world.

“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula muses as World War II destroys everything around her, “if just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in…a Quaker household.”

Her friend Ralph counters, Hitler “might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers.  You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him.  Could you do that?  Could you kill a baby?  With a gun?  Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands?  In cold blood.”

“If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought.  Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.”  Teddy, Ursula’s beloved baby brother, was an RAF pilot who got shot down by the Germans.

Teddy once asked Ursula, “What if you had the chance to do it again and again, until you finally got it right?  Would you do it?”  And so Ursula’s purpose becomes crystal clear, as does the reason behind Atkinson’s renaissance of her protagonist.

Calling Life After Life a “highbrow Groundhog Day,” as some critics have called it, is grossly oversimplifying a beautiful and rare story.  Atkinson’s tale is not funny nor is it farcical, and Ursula does not relive the same day over and over again.  In Life After Life, Atkinson takes drama to a whole new level.  As Ursula says in the novel, “To have a character that changed and developed as it went along so that you had no idea how it was going to end up, how you were going to end up.”  She may as well be talking about herself and about anyone who reads this noteworthy tale.

Part mystery and part historical fiction, Life After Life will completely immerse you because it is such an intriguing story and because it is so darn well-written.  At turns dark, witty, sharp, clever, and poignant, Life After Life produces an unforgettable, unlikely heroine who proves just what a difference one life can make.  Life After Life left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again.

If Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was THE book of 2012, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson will be THE book of 2013.





Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery

Spotlight On Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the newest novel from Kate Atkinson–Life After Life.

life after life


About the Book:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions. –from Goodreads



About the Author:

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and has been a critically acclaimed international bestselling author ever since.

She is the author of a collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, and of the critically acclaimed novels Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Case Histories, and One Good Turn.

Case Histories introduced her readers to Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, and won the Saltire Book of the Year Award and the Prix Westminster. 

When Will There Be Good News? was voted Richard & Judy Book Best Read of the Year. After Case Histories and One Good Turn, it was her third novel to feature the former private detective Jackson Brodie, who makes a welcome return in Started Early, Took My Dog.–from Goodreads

I read this book yesterday and I was utterly enthralled.  I don’t believe I’ve ever literally wrung my hands or gnashed my teeth because of a book, but I did both those things while reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  The story left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again!

Look for my review soon.  In the meantime, get your hands on a copy!


Filed under books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery

Hilary Mantel Wins 2012 Man Booker Prize

Hilary Mantel wins 2012 Man Booker Prize

The following information is taken from the official Man Booker Prize website:

16 October 2012

The whittling has finished. The judges of this year’s Man Booker Prize started with a daunting 145 novels and have winnowed, sifted, culled, and in some cases hurled, until there was only one left: Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the Bodies.

Hers is a story unique in Man Booker history. She becomes only the third author, after Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee, to win the prize twice, which puts her in the empyrean. But she is also the first to win with a sequel (Wolf Hall won in 2009) and the first to win with such a brief interlude between books. Her resuscitation of Thomas Crowell – and with him the historical novel – is one of the great achievements of modern literature. There is the last volume of her trilogy still to come so her Man Booker tale may yet have a further chapter.

The writing will have to wait a bit though. She may have won before but the torrent of media interest will still knock her back as if she’s been hit by a wave. In 2009 she confessed to feeling as though she were “flying through the air”, well, she’s soaring again. When she lands she won’t have time to think and she will talk into microphones until her throat is sore. It comes with the territory: everyone wants a bit of the Man Booker winner.

It has been a long and uniquely intense journey not just for her but for everyone associated with the prize. For the judges it has meant nine months of work, worry and pleasure. Their choices have been scrutinised and criticised and their thoughts and penchants imagined. They will have read the shortlisted books at least three times. They will await the public’s verdict on their choice with sang froid mixed with curiosity. They needn’t be worried, Bring Up the Bodies has had near universal praise from critics and reading public alike.

The shortlisted authors meanwhile have felt the hot brightness of the media spotlight on them since July when the long-list was first announced. They can breathe out now. For Hilary Mantel all those middle-of-the-night moments when she had to tell herself not to think of what it would be like to win again, not to jinx herself, can stop.

Indeed, spare a thought for the shortlisted authors; they will have had a day unlike any other they have known. How do you take your mind off the fact that in a matter of hours you might be the winner of arguably the world’s most high-profile literary prize? Of course it is an honour and validation to be shortlisted but they will have known that at 11.30 this morning the judges closed the door of a room somewhere in London – possibly near to where they themselves were standing/shopping/chomping their nails – and settled down to decide their future. They will have wondered what that group literary holy men and women, like the conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel choosing a new Pope, were talking about and wondered whether the puff of white smoke that finally emerged was for them. They may be writers but they’re only human.

The nerves will have continued all through the prize dinner, even a phalanx of loved ones, publisher and agent can’t keep them away. They chatted amicably, a drink – but perhaps just the one – to steady the beating heart. I doubt they tasted their food. Who would have wanted to be them as Sir Peter Stothard took to the rostrum and opened his mouth to enunciate the first syllable of the winner’s name? She may qualify as an old hand but Hilary Mantel confessed that her nerves this time round were infinitely worse than in 2009.

This is not the end of the process, however. For Hilary Mantel it is the moment of coronation before she confronts the wider horizons that have suddenly opened up before her. For the other shortlisted authors who came so agonisingly close they have the knowledge that every publisher in the land will bite their hand off for the chance to publish their next book and that, whatever they write, they will have a wide and eager audience. Their names are now known to readers who may have had no idea of them only a few months ago.

Perhaps the real object of envy is not the winner – she thoroughly deserves her triumph – but the readers who have yet to open Bring Up the Bodies. They have just won a prize too.


I hereby confess I have not read Bring Up the Bodies or even Wolf Hall.  I started Wolf Hall last night.

Are you a Mantel fan?  If so, what do you like about her storytelling?


Filed under books, fiction

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House; 336 pages; $25).


            We tend to take too many things and people for granted in our lives.  Please do not think I am preaching; I, too, am guilty.  Often, our iPhones, iPads, kindles, and other such devices preoccupy our daily routines.  The ping of an incoming message lures us to our screens like nothing else matters; our response to such stimuli is almost Pavlovian.  We tend to tune out anything else that is going on around us.  We forget those most important to us, and for that we are remiss.

We are not promised tomorrow.  In these uncertain times of war and terrorism, we sometimes forget that each day is a miracle.  Just take the events on July 20, 2012, when James Holmes killed twelve people and injured more than fifty others during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.  During this brutal and senseless tragedy, people aided the wounded and pulled them to safety, even when their own lives were in danger.  People banded together.  In the days since the killings, we have heard many stories of bravery and hope despite the ugliness of the act.  Funny how it seems we only become one in the face of a tragedy.

I ask you: If we are not safe in a movie theatre, where are we safe? The bleak answer I came up with was nowhere.  It was a profound and scary realization.

However, during the shootings, I was lucky enough to be in the midst of reading a novel that managed to restore my faith in man.  Although The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is fiction, it can teach us a lot about life.  Harold’s inspirational journey changes his life and those closest to him.  Harold is no superhero; rather, he is an ordinary man who does an extraordinary thing.  We can all learn a lot from him.

Harold Fry is 65 and retired six months ago. He spends most of his time sitting in his chair.  Estranged from his son, Harold has spent a lifetime not questioning and instead being meek and mild.  In other words, Harold is the proper Englishman; he does not believe in rocking the boat.  He and his wife, Maureen, sleep in separate rooms.  Over the years their relationship has deteriorated.  For years, “they had been in a place where language had no significance.  She only had to look at him and she was wrenched to the past.  Small words were exchanged and they were safe.  They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.”

Then, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old co-worker from twenty years ago.  “It’s—cancer,” Harold tells Maureen.  “Queenie,” he explains, “is writing to say goodbye.”

The news overcomes him.  Harold writes her a note, but it just seems so darn inadequate.  After a life of inaction, Harold is desperate to do something.  What begins as a quick jaunt to mail Queenie’s letter spirals into an unlikely journey of 87 days and 627 miles from Harold’s home in Kingsbridge to Queenie’s hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Harold’s mindset is simple, really.  He believes that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie “must live.”  Harold calls the hospice and begs one of the nuns to give Queenie a message: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way.  All she has to do is wait.  Because I am going to save her, you see.  I will keep walking and she must keep living.”

You may laugh at Harold at first.  I know I did.  He sets off with just the clothes on his back and he even wears a tie.  No fancy walking shoes for Harold.  He just wears his trusted old yacht shoes.  He has no water bottles or Powerade, no nutrition bars, and no cell phone.  He does not even have that much money!  I did not expect Harold to get very far, honestly, with no supplies and little money.  I kept waiting for someone to murder him actually.

But, over time, I came to believe in Harold, too.  His journey is difficult, though, as all quests must be.  Maureen fails to understand why exactly Harold is undertaking this pilgrimage.  She thinks her husband had an affair with Queenie.

Joyce throws many obstacles in Harold’s path.  Sometimes it seems as if he will never complete his expedition.  His body fails him; his spirit plummets.  Harold endures awful English weather and snickers from those who see an old man walking on the side of the road.

When he tells the people he meets along the way his story, many help him on his quest.  Some provide plasters and tape for his feet; some give him food.  Others give him a bed to sleep on.  A few just listen.  Many encourage him to keep going.  Harold tells them about Queenie, and they, in turn, tell Harold their own stories—uplifting anecdotes of sick loved ones or even accounts of their own struggles in life.  Harold internalizes their chronicles; they actually become a part of him.  Funnily enough, Harold, in a nod to Forrest Gump and Jesus, attracts disciples.  His groupies only end up distracting Harold, though, from his goal.  But only temporarily.

The roadblocks Harold must navigate his way through mirror the obstacles we all must overcome in life.  Like Harold, we must persevere, even when our goals seem impossible.  Harold tells us, “I admit it is an awfully long way to Berwick.  I admit I am wearing the wrong clothes.  And I also admit I have not the training, or the physique, for my walk.”  Harold never gives up, though: “Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t.  Even when I don’t want to keep going, I still do it.”  He may falter, he may fall down, but he gets back up again.

Harold keeps his eye on the prize: getting to Queenie.  For Harold, his journey is transformative.  Harold is “beginning again.”  He learns “it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness.”  The world, he realizes, is “made up of people putting one foot in front of the other.”  One of the most profound of Harold’s revelations is this: “everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”  The Harold at the end of this story is not the same Harold we met in the beginning.

Joyce produces a life-affirming story.  The novel is a tribute to her dad, who died of cancer.  This book has Joyce’s “heart in it,” and it shows.

In these uncertain times, we’re lucky to have Harold, an “Everyman” archetype, whose improbable journey fills us with hope and renews our faith in the human spirit.  Harold and those he meets show there is still goodness in people, even when it seems the world is crazy.  Harold goes on a 21st century pilgrimage and he takes us with him.  You will root for this unlikely hero, and you will take a part of him with you.  I guarantee it.


Filed under book review, books, fiction

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy and The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley: A Comparison

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy (Random House; 304 pages; $23).

The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley (Simon and Schuster; 464 pages; $15).

            Over the past few years, the book world has witnessed a rising trend in which a present-day protagonist, grappling with her own problems, stumbles upon an intriguing past mystery.  Only when she solves the puzzle can she then tackle what is wrong in her own life.  Curiously, many of said novels have ties to World War II.  Recent notable books in this genre are Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2005); Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007); The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2008); and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (2009).

Two new novels are a welcome addition to this fairly recent development: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy and The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley.  Both books have a similar feel yet are very distinctive.  Both feature strong, memorable heroines and move from our own time into a past we cannot even begin to contemplate.  Yet these women must; if they do not, then they will never get on with their lives.

In Sarah McCoy’s The Baker’s Daughter, the main character is Reba Adams, a writer who lives in El Paso, Texas.  Reba dreams of going to California but has not capitalized on her vision yet: “I thought I’d start here and eventually make my way to California—L.A., Santa Barbara, San Francisco.”  She has yet to leave Texas, however.

Several things stand in Reba’s way.  She is engaged to Riki Chavez, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, but Reba is reluctant to commit.  She wears her engagement ring on a chain around her neck; she is not ready to wear it on her finger, and she may never be.  Her parents had a difficult marriage.  Vietnam affected her father so badly that he later committed suicide.  The tragedy led Reba to flee her Virginia home when she was old enough, and she has only minimal contact with her mother and sister.  She is unsure of Riki and of their relationship; most of all, Reba is unsure of herself.

Reba is like the border town in which she resides, “stuck in between” where she is and where she is headed.  She is a very flawed, even damaged, character, making her a very relatable and very real protagonist.  Like most of us, she does not have it all together.  Reba is far from perfect.

An assignment leads Reba to a German bakery where she wants to interview an elderly woman on Christmas traditions around the world.  The old woman, Elsie Meriwether, the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery, is uncooperative.  With a deadline fast approaching, Reba spends more and more time with Elsie and her daughter, Jane.  Soon, though, Reba finds she likes visiting the women.  She opens up to them.  The feeling is mutual.  Elsie opens up to Reba not about German Christmas traditions but about a Christmas in 1944, one that changed everything.

Here is where The Baker’s Daughter truly shines.  Elsie and her parents run a bakery in Garmisch, Germany, a city where Gestapo soldiers raid houses and residents fear for their lives in the worst days of World War II.  McCoy renders the bakery especially well.  I could smell, see, and taste the breads and sweet treats.  My mouth still waters thinking about them.  Goodies aside, the bakers move this part of the story.  At seventeen, Elsie is being courted by an SS officer who is closer in age to her father than to her.  She does not love him.  Rather, Elsie adores Hollywood movies and is more concerned with keeping a secret that could get her and her family killed.

McCoy has done meticulous research for The Baker’s Daughter.  The best example of her diligence is Elsie’s older sister, Hazel, a participant in the Lebensborn Program.  This was part of Germany experiment to perpetuate the Aryan race by producing blond-haired, blue-eyed German children with high morals, exceptional intelligence, and an unbreakable bond with the state.  Hazel, in effect, had babies for Germany and had to give them up.  Lebensborn was real, and McCoy accurately portrays this chapter in German history.

McCoy, little by little, never too much too soon, reveals what happens to Elsie and her family.  Elsie’s story transforms Reba in ways readers will cheer.  Thus, Elsie and her family take on the role of helper characters as they steer Reba back on the road to life.

I love The Baker’s Daughter and feel the novel is even better than Sarah’s Key.  McCoy effectively draws a comparison between anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant (read: anti-Mexican) sentiment.  She uses Riki to do this.  Rather than being heavy-handed and didactic, it works rather well.

While characters propel The Baker’s Daughter, it is the setting that drives Lucinda Riley’s The Orchid House, already a bestseller in Europe.  The true star of Riley’s novel is Wharton Park, a majestic British estate “comprising of a thousand acres of fertile farmland” that has been in the Crawford family for three hundred years.  The house, though, is not as grand as it once was.  Running the estate requires a lot of money, money the present heir, Kitt, simply does not have.

Wharton Park holds a special place in the heart of Julia Forrester, a world-renowned concert pianist.  As a child, Julia spent time there since her grandparents were long-time employees of the Crawfords and lived in a cottage on the grounds of the manor.  Her grandfather grew exotic orchids and made Wharton Park famous for the rare flowers; her grandmother, Elsie, was a lady’s maid.  Their devotion to the manor parallels that of the servants of Downton Abbey for the Granthams.  Julia’s summers at the estate were dreamlike: “The tranquility and warmth of the hothouses—sitting snugly in the corner of the kitchen garden, sheltered against the cruel winds that blew in from the North Sea during the winter—stayed in her memory all year.”

A horrible tragedy makes Julia remember Wharton Park all the more.  Her husband, Xavier, and their son, Gabriel, were killed in a car accident.  A forest fire started as a result.  Their deaths have understandably broken Julia.  She is a changed woman unable to play the music she played the night of the catastrophe.  She seeks comfort in a cottage near the sea in Norfolk.  But Wharton Park beckons to her.  It is an idyllic place where she so desperately needs solace, “a place of peace.”  Julia recalls wistfully that at Wharton Park, “nothing changed.”  “Alarms and timetables weren’t in charge, it was nature dictating the rhythm.”

That earlier, easier time appeals to Julia so much that she returns to Wharton Park for an estate sale.  While there, she runs into Kitt Crawford, the new heir.  They had briefly met as children when Julia played his late uncle’s piano but have had no contact since then.  A friendship develops with the promise of more.  Kitt is renovating the cottage her grandparents had called home.  In the midst of remodeling, he discovers an old diary of a man imprisoned in Thailand during World War II.  Kitt mistakenly assumes the diary is the property of Julia’s grandfather.  Her grandmother, though, reveals the diary belonged to the deceased Lord Crawford, Kitt’s uncle, who, together with Julia’s grandfather, was a prisoner.

Julia finally comes back to life as her grandmother tells her events before and after the war.  This is my favorite part of The Orchid House.  The lives of two young couples take shape: William and Elsie and Harry and Olivia.  Riley’s real focus, though, is on Olivia and Harry.  She marries Harry only to find him kissing another man.  Devastated, she continues on with her unhappy marriage because that is what was done back then.  The outbreak of war sends both Harry and William to Thailand, where they are later captured.  After the war, William returns to England before his master; Harry suffers more sickness and thus takes longer to recuperate.  While in Thailand, Harry falls in love with a young Thai woman named Lidia.  He plans to divorce his wife and marry Lidia.  However, after he returns to Wharton Park, he must fulfill his obligations to his wife, his family, and to the estate.  Harry writes to her.  When his letters go unanswered, he sends his trusted servant, William, to Thailand.  William’s journey changes everyone’s lives forever.

Just when I think Julia and Kitt will live in bliss, Riley throws several curveballs.  She does this to mix things up.  First, we learn that Julia and Kitt are kissing cousins, which I finally decided to go along with.  Second, Julia’s husband rises from the dead.  This is difficult to swallow.  I could not wait for Julia to leave the horrible cad.

Riley reminds me of Kate Morton, and I also see traces of Downton Abbey.  If you are a fan of either, I recommend this novel.  It is easy to understand how The Orchid House took Europe by storm.  I predict the same will happen in the United States.

The Baker’s Daughter is a character-driven novel, while The Orchid House is propelled by its setting.  In that sense, they are very different.  Each has a distinctive voice and feel.  Yet both feature heroines stuck in a certain place in life, desperate, tragic, or even both.  Neither protagonist can continue on the path she is on.  She must find a new road.  A past mystery or secret is the only thing that can propel the women forward.  A quest is what each must undergo.  Solving the riddle means another chance at happiness and at life.  Perhaps that is why these novels appeal so.  Second chances are a universal desire.


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