The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Single mother and English teacher Clare Cassidy’s days are filled with teaching classrooms full of high school students in The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths.      Luckily for her, she is able to devote one class a year to her specialty, the literary works of Gothic writer R.M. Holland, focusing on his most famous story, The Stranger.  Clare is considered an expert on Holland and as a teacher at Talgarth High, she has access to the private quarters of Holland, who lived in part of the school during his lifetime.

Clare’s world is rocked when a close colleague is murdered and the death becomes more bizarre when a note found next to the body quotes a line from The Stranger.  She is shocked when the police reveal that they suspect someone close to her.  Could it be a fellow teacher?  Maybe someone else who has a fixation on Holland?  Prompted by the police to recall an event with the deceased teacher the summer before, Clare turns to an old diary in the hopes it will spark a remembrance that may prove helpful.  Events  begin to get even stranger when  she begins to find writings next to her own that are in a different handwriting.

Hallo Clare. You don’t know me.

Soon thereafter another body is found, this time in Holland’s old residence in a small concealed room.  The teacher’s body is found with the same note as the previous victim, an ominous sentence from The Stranger.   Is Clare in danger or is she hiding something more sinister?  The discovery of the bodies begins to mimic the plot from Holland’s masterpiece and everyone wonders who will be next?  Will life imitate art?

The Stranger Diaries is a fabulous thriller and suspense novel with a hint of the supernatural added.  The  setting of Talgarth High has just enough of the eerie “haunted house” quality to make the school almost have a life of its own.  If you are a fan of the mystery and suspense genre I highly recommend the latest by Elly Griffiths!

American Duchess by Karen Harper

American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt provides a rich inspiration for this fictionalized novel of her life beginning in the 1890s.  In American Duchess, Consuelo, a member of the privileged Vanderbilt family, is engaged and married, against her will, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.  Overruled by her dominating and controlling mother Alva, she is merely a pawn in Alva’s desire for an even higher social status as well as the Duke’s need to preserve his family’s estate and financial well-being.

We first meet Consuelo on her wedding day to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895.  She is in tears as she is about to marry not the man she loves, but the man her mother has chosen for her.  With her sense of duty to her family’s legacy, she carries on and enters the church to marry the Duke.  It is only after her marriage that we learn that she was actually in love with a man who her parents did not approve of as a suitable match for their daughter.  Alva has her sights set on matching her daughter with British royalty and does everything in her power to play matchmaker.  Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke’s family, is in need of money to maintain the estate and who better to supply the money than the Vanderbilt family with a bride for the Duke?

After the wedding, Consuelo, now the Duchess of Marlborough, attempts to find her place, helping the less fortunate in the surrounding areas and learning more about her new role as head of the household.  Throughout her time at Blenheim Palace, a close ally emerges in her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill, and the two share a close friendship.  As time passes, the relationship between she and the Duke grows more and more strained to a breaking point.  Consuelo finds the strength to eventually follow her heart and make difficult, but necessary decisions.

This novel is a fictionalized account of a fascinating, yet little known historical figure whose life did not start the way she had envisioned.  Throughout her life she  gathered the strength and courage to live her life on her own terms.  Many believe that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is the first American born Duchess but it turns out that over 100 years ago, England welcomed an American Duchess, Consuelo Vanderbilt.  This novel gives the reader a good sense of the challenges she faced in her new country.

Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson

I have inadvertently been reading a lot of historical fiction about World War II. How is this inadvertent you ask? I put a bunch of audiobooks on hold through OverDrive and as it so happened, five came ready at the same time. The last two that I’ve listened to have all been about World War II with the main women both playing the violin and one of the main men named Max. During the second book, I had to pay very close attention, so I wouldn’t mix up the books. Hidden Among the Stars was the second World War II fiction I listened to this week. It may be time for a lighthearted read…

Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson slips from the past to the future in this gripping tale of hidden treasure, a castle, and ordinary people fighting to resist evil any way possible.  This piece of inspirational fiction unites 1938 Vienna, Austria with 2018 United States.

1938. Austria. Hitler’s troops are sweeping into Vienna, much to the chagrin of Max Dornbach. With political views that differ from his parents, Max has no desire to shun his Jewish friends. Max offers to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions, so they won’t fall into the hands of the Nazis. Max works closely with the father of Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman he has grown to love. Smuggling those goods to his family’s summer estate near Hallstatt, Max quickly finds himself needing the help of Annika Knopf. Annika’s father is the current caretaker of the summer estate, meaning that Annika and Max have grown up together. Annika has loved Max for as long as she can remember and has thusly decided to help him however she can. Her loyalty and love for Max is stretched when Max brings Luzia with him on one of his trips to the summer estate. Agreeing to hide Luzia in the castle, Annika doesn’t realize the full extent of what is on the line until the Nazis come to Hallstatt and destroy the castle. Luzia and the treasure have disappeared, throwing everyone’s lives into turmoil.

Flash forward eighty years. Callie Randall may not be living the life she thought she’d have at this point, but she’s mostly happy with what she has. Callie is running a small local bookstore with her sister where she is known as Storygirl with amazing striped socks. Callie also runs a blog where she writes stories about different authors. While working on her current article, Callie stumbles upon a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that introduces her to the bewildering world of Annika’s story. Digging into Annika’s life, Callie finds that this story may be connected to the life of a close dear friend of hers. In order to find the truth, Callie must venture outside of the safe place she has built for herself. She soon finds herself on an adventure with a chance for new love and long-awaited for answers.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Travel Talk – April

When I was little, my family would go on a road trip every August. We would pack the car with snacks and coolers and suitcases filled with swimsuits and flip flops and head out to explore these United States. My Father loved history and natural beauty, so our summer vacations centered on the National Parks and historic sites. (To this day I’ve never been to a Walt Disney park, but have been to many, many Civil War and Revolutionary War sites and National and state parks!) Even now, when summer rolls around and it gets hot and sticky, it reminds me of  driving along endless highways watching America roll past from the backseat of my Dad’s Pontiac, following our route on road maps (this was looooong before GPS!) and the excitement of seeing new landscapes. It gave me the travel bug early on (and a love of history apparently) My parents may not have realized it, but these summer vacations became a legacy that continues to shape and influence me.

And yes, of course the Library has books to help you with your road trip plans! From the basics on where to stay and what to see, to books that spark your imagination. Not sure where to go? Try tailoring your trip to your interests. How fun would it be to spend the summer visiting Major League (or Minor League) baseball parks? Or looking for the best homemade pie or barbecue or craft beer in Iowa (or other defined area)? Maybe you’re not into history like my Dad, but you love trains or gems and rocks or flea markets. Believe me, there’s a road trip for just about any interest waiting for you.

If you prefer your road trips from the comfort of your living room, we have plenty of armchair road trip travel books too. Here’s a selection to get you started:

America for Beginners by Leah Franqui – a widow from India travels across America in search of her son.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac – the classic “road trip in search of oneself” book that my parents certainly wouldn’t have approved of!

The Wangs vs the World by Jade Change – having lost all their wealth, a Chinese immigrant family drives from California to New York and along the way reevaluate the American dream.

Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson – coming to grips with loss and grief on a road trip with a friend.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson. Bryson sets about rediscovering his native country after living in England for many years.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Now that’s a road trip – Lewis and Clark’s epic exploration of the west.

What about you? Do you love road trips? Do you have any planned for the near future? Any favorite anecdotes from a road trip?

 

That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

If you could read a book and get a glimpse into another society, would you? By reading fiction books, I will often find a topic that intrigues me that will then push me to read a nonfiction book about the same topic. It’s an enjoyable cycle! Historical fiction is one of the biggest genres that leads me to nonfiction books. I love fact-checking the fiction book to see how closely the author wrote to what happened in real life. Historical fiction that focuses on remarkable women is one of my favorites. Stephanie Barron’s latest works falls under this category.

That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron chronicles the life of one of history’s most remarkable, controversial, and influential women: Winston Churchill’s scandalous American mother, Jennie Jerome. Jennie was born in Brooklyn to a prosperous American financier father and a mother with high social ambitions for both herself and her daughters. Eventually ending up in Europe with her mother and siblings after a scandal rocked her parents, Jennie realizes that she is responsible for securing her own destiny. Jennie is wealthy, privileged, and raised by her father to be fiercely independent. The moment she landed in Victorian England, Jennie and her family took the area by storm.

Jennie runs into Lord Randolph Churchill at a party and decides she wants to marry him when she is just nineteen years old. The shocker? They have only known each other for three days when Jennie decides to marry him. Once they are married, she is instantly swept into a crazy whirlwind of British politics and the social climbers that surround Bertie, Prince of Wales. Jennie is now the new Lady Randolph Churchill, a brash American woman who thinks for herself and is careless of English society rules. She becomes a London sensation, traveling without her husband to Marlborough House and gathering admirers and critics along the way. Since Jennie knows about politics and is also a gifted piano player, she uses her talents to begin shaping her husband’s rise in Parliament. Jennie is also widely known as the mother of Winston Churchill. She uses her talents to help navigate Winston’s journey into manhood. He had a difficult childhood, but Jennie made sure to be at his side.

As the Churchill family becomes more influential, scandal and tragedy begin to strike them. Jennie has had lovers besides her husband, but none mean as much to her as Count Charles Kinsky. Kinsky is a man who loves horses like she does  and passionately loves Jennie the way her husband can’t. Once Bertie, Prince of Wales, catches wind of their affair, Jennie is forced to rethink their love as she quickly realizes just how much her every move is judged in public. She must decide how to balance duty and desire, a choice which has consequences that ripple across the Atlantic. Jennie’s decision takes her to a new level of scandal as her children’s lives and all of those around her are greatly affected. This novel is a loving portrait of a woman who helped shape the Churchill era. Jennie’s legacy may be of a difficult and scandalous woman, but the balancing act she works out between obligation, desire, duty, love, and freedom is a testament to the soul of a woman who through sheer force of will was able to alter the course of history.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao is the story of two young girls who are trying to find their place in a world that values men higher than women. Poornima and Savitha are the eldest girls in their respective families in India. Chance leads the girls together where they strike up a once-in-a-lifetime friendship. Poornima’s mother died when she was young, leaving her to fill the mother role to all of her younger siblings long before she was actually ready to fulfill it. Working hard to help her father provide for the family, Poornima quickly realizes that even though her family isn’t dirt poor, they’re still scraping by. To help supplement their income, Poornima’s father hires Savitha to work one of their sari looms, thus allowing Poornima’s family to bring in more money while also giving Savitha money for hers. Poornima and Savitha begin to turn to each other for comfort. Savitha’s family is more impoverished than Poornima’s, but Savitha quickly shows Poornima how to find joy and beauty in the little day to day parts of life. Savitha’s infectious personality finally allows Poornima to imagine the possibility of a fulfilling life beyond the arranged marriage her father is so desperately looking for her to fill.

Just when Poornima and Savitha have reached a comfortable rhythm, a devastating act of cruelty and violence occurs that destroys their newfound joy. As a result, Savitha is ruined and driven away from their small village. Poornima is wrecked and decides to do everything in her power to find Savitha, so they can live a happy life together. Poornima’s journey takes her away from everything that she is accustomed to and everything that she holds dear. Poornima finds herself searching India’s dark underworld for any sign of Savitha. Willing to do anything to find her, Poornima goes on a journey across India and even ends up traveling to the United States.

This novel alternates between both Poornima and Savitha’s perspectives. They have never lost hope that they will eventually find each other, even when circumstances turn dangerous. Rao tackles many urgent issues facing women across the world: immigration, feminism, human trafficking, and domestic abuse, just to name a few. These issues provide a solid foundation for Rao to explore how friendship and the will to survive can help women work towards a better, more hopeful future.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Freefall by Jessica Barry

I’m an anxious flyer. The whole process terrifies me. To keep myself calm, I usually avoid fiction that has anything to do with planes or crashes. Jessica Barry’s novel, Freefall, was a notable exception as from the very beginning, readers know that the main character survived! A novel involving a plane crash with a positive outcome? Yes please!

Freefall by Jessica Barry is a psychological thriller following the lives of Maggie Carpenter and her daughter Allison. Maggie lives in Owl Creek, Maine. At home one day, Maggie isn’t surprised to see a police officer at her front door, given that he’s the husband of one of her best friends. What he has to say, however, shocks her to her core. Allison is dead. She died in a private plane crash in the mountains in Colorado. People keep telling Maggie that Allison’s death was a terrible accident, but she finds that hard to believe. Allison has always been a survivor. Looking for answers, Maggie digs deep into Allison’s life and the situation that led to her death. Maggie lost touch with her daughter over two years ago, but she hopes that Allison’s life hasn’t changed that much since then. Her research pulls up startling revelations that Maggie isn’t prepared to know, but what she finds gives her more hope that Allison is alive. Maggie must do everything she can to find Allison, even if that means looking through every detail of her daughter’s life.

While Maggie learns more about Allison, Allison herself is struggling to survive. She has survived the plane crash and is wounded. Hiking through the mountains, Allison is running from her past. As she fights her way to freedom and struggles to survive in the wilderness, Allison has to come to terms with the mess her life has become. She has lost her perfect fiancé and the luxurious way of life to which she has become accustomed.  As she trudges through the forest looking through any signs of civilization, Allison frequently flashes back to previous moments in her life. Engaged to wealthy pharmaceutical CEO Ben Gardner, Allison thought she had it all. How did she end up with so many dark secrets? How did she end up willing to leave it all behind? How will she survive? What if the people after her get to her mother? Allison must make it back to her mother in time. Hoping against all hope that Maggie is safe, Allison fights to get to Maine no matter the consequences.

This book is told from both Maggie and Allison’s perspectives giving readers a glimpse into how far a mother and daughter are willing to go when the other is in danger. Even though they are separated by distance and their relationship is strained, both Maggie and Allison feel a tug connecting them as each works to protect and keep the other from coming to any harm.

Also I forgot to mention that Maggie is a retired librarian! How cool is that?? Read this book and let me know what you think of it in the comments below.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Online Reading Challenge – Wrap Up

Challengers! How did your reading go this month? Did you find a gem? Or was the month a clunker for you?

I read A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. It is quite good, a can’t-put-down, I’m-still-thinking-about-it that follows a lesser-known part of World War II. It’s also pretty grim and includes some gruesome scenes. It’s not a light read, but it is well worth the effort.

It’s 1943. Mussolini has been defeated and Italy has broken with Germany and made peace with the Allies. Thousands of Jewish refugees struggle over the Alps, away from Eastern Europe toward what they believe will be a safe place to wait out the war. Instead, they discover that the war is still very much present in Italy with the Nazis’ arrival, the Resistance battling them, Jews forced to flee or go into hiding again and ordinary citizens simply trying to survive. The Nazi rule is harsh and unrelenting – anytime a German soldier is killed by a Resistance fighter, 20 (or more) citizens are killed in retaliation. Sweeps are enacted regularly searching for hidden Jews or Resistance fighters; any that are found are killed or deported (to death camps) as are those that hid or aided them. Food and fuel are scarce. And then the Allies begin bombing the tiny villages and towns in an effort to break the weakening German Army.

A Thread of Grace follows a variety of people living in this Italian valley including a priest, a Resistance leader, an Italian Jewish family, a German doctor, Eastern European Jews who have fled to Italy, an Italian soldier and several Catholic nuns. Each has suffered great losses and struggle to continue against impossible odds. There is despair and sorrow and anger, but there is also fellowship and kindness. The Italians, whether Jewish, Catholic or atheist, open their homes to the Jewish refugees without hesitation, often risking their own lives, hiding, feeding and clothing them with no expectation of repayment.

You get a real sense of what the war meant in this Italian valley – the desperation, the randomness, the cruelty. The kindness of strangers is breathtaking – Italian soldiers helping the refugees over the mountains by carrying their luggage or a tired child, nuns hiding orphan refugee children among their other charges, helping a sick German doctor, a deserter, even though he has caused thousands of deaths, and confusing and distracting soldiers at checkpoints to smuggle someone past.  Although this is fiction, Russell spent several years researching this part of the Italian campaign. It has often been overlooked once the Allied invasion began and attention shifted to Normandy and France. In fact, the war continued in Italy, with a devastating toll, until May 1945.

I did have some trouble keeping the large cast of characters, hailing from various families and nationalities, straight but there is a list of the major players at the beginning of the book. This book is often difficult to read, but it is well worth the effort, an eye-opening look at both the worst and the best of humans.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month?

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

In the chaotic aftermath of World War II three very different lives intersect as they all seek one goal – to find and bring a cold-blooded killer to justice in The Huntress by Kate Quinn.

Ian, a newspaperman who went into battle alongside the soldiers he reported on, can no longer find it in him to write. He now hunts down former Nazi’s that have slipped away, bringing them to trial to answer for their crimes. Nina, raised in Siberia to be tough and unforgiving, fought in the war as a bomber pilot for the Soviet Union. When her father is disavowed by the Soviet government, Nina is considered guilty by association and, despite the fact that she has served loyally she must flee, past the front lines into German-held territory where she barely survives. And Jordan, safely tucked away in America slowly realizes that the war has come to her, years after it officially ends.

This is one of those can’t-put-down books not just for the twists and turns and tension (which there is plenty of) but to find out more about the characters and their lives. Nina is especially interesting – her (very harsh) childhood in Siberia, her training to be a pilot and her exploits in the Soviet Army as a bomber pilot (the Soviet Union was the only country to use women in combat roles in World War II) as part of the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment nicknamed the “Night Witches” by the Germans. The blending of Nina’s fictional story and the true exploits of the Night Witches is fascinating and introduced me to a little-known part of the war.

Ian is also an interesting character. He is obviously suffering from PTSD brought on by some of the horrors of war he has witnessed when following soldiers into battle armed only with a notebook. He now channels his guilt and energy into tracking down former Nazi’s that have escaped notice in the chaos at the end of the war. Many of them fled to other countries, changing their names and trying to hide among ordinary people. Many countries, including the United States, turned a blind eye and a war-weary world chose to move on. Ian has not forgotten though and goes after these minor Nazi’s with dogged determination.

Jordan may seem the least touched by the war but in the end it is she that brushes up against it’s brutality most intimately. Her suspicions of her new stepmother only grow as time passes and she is thrust into a race to save the people she loves. It is “The Huntress” herself that ties these people together and when their stories finally intersect, the result is explosive.

A tense, absorbing read. Highly recommended.

 

 

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

I’ll admit it. I love a Royal wedding. The music, the ancient church, the flowers, everyone wearing hats and dressed in their best, the pomp and circumstance (and no one does ceremony like the English). And, of course, the wedding dress. Whether ruffled (Diana), festooned with lace (Kate) or modern and simple (Meghan) they are all astonishingly beautiful.

While the designer gets all the accolades and attention, it is the women behind the scenes – seamstress’ and embroiders – that turn dreams into dresses. Their work – their craftsmanship and artistry – has always fascinated me. The Gown by Jennifer Robson brings life and personality to some of these anonymous women and gives you a glimpse into their working lives and what is actually required to create such beautiful gowns.

London, 1947. World War II is over and won but life is still a struggle. Rationing is very strict (rationing lasted much longer in England than in the US after the war), damage from the Blitz still scars London and the losses and horrors from the war are raw and fresh. Into this austere atmosphere a wedding is announced – a royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and her dashing soldier, Philip Mountbatten. While there were complaints about the extravagance (the Princess carefully saved her clothing ration cards in order to pay for the dress), the celebration turned out to be just what the war-weary country needed.

Quinn shows us the careful and intricate work that goes into making the gown (designed and created by Norman Hartnell and his fashion house) by introducing two of the (fictional) embroiders, Ann, a plain English girl who lost her entire family in the war and Miriam, a sophisticated French woman escaping a difficult past. As the two most talented women in the workshop, Ann and Miriam work tirelessly to create and embellish the exquisite details for the gown. The novel flashes forward to the present several times as the granddaughter of one of the women unravels her Nan’s secret, leading her to modern day London.

The friendship that blooms between the women as they support each other is one of the highlights of the book. Quinn expertly evokes the atmosphere of a London feeling downtrodden but unbowed and still optimistic and joyful at the wedding of two young people. Quinn based the story on actual events and was able to talk to one of the women who worked on the Princess’ gown and that authenticity shows. This is historical fiction at its finest.

If you’re a fan of the Netflix series The Crown (and you should be, it’s excellent!), you’ll see the gown in the first episode of season one. The producers of the show spent $37,000 to make an exact duplicate!