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!

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Author Kristin Hannah has a knack for creating vast sweeping sagas spanning multiple generations in a family’s story.  In The Great Alone, Hannah crafts the story of teenager Leni Allbright who is growing up the the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s.  Leni’s  father, Ernt,  has just returned from the Vietnam War and is struggling with his life back in the United States.  Her mother, Cora, attempts to cope as best as humanly possible, but struggles with trying to navigate a new life with her husband and growing daughter.  Soon after Ernt returns from the war, he is informed that one of his soldier friends, who was killed in Vietnam, has left him a large swath of land in Alaska.  Without much forethought, Ernt announces to his wife and daughter that they are packing their van and heading from Washington state to Alaska.

After arriving in Alaska, the trio quickly realize that living in the wild will not be as easy as they initially thought and they are woefully unprepared.  They befriend a group of folks, some Alaska natives and some with the same dreams as they did upon their arrival, to live on their own terms.  It soon becomes clear that the scars of war are still affecting Ernt and his mental health continues to deteriorate as the dark and cold winter approaches.  Before too long Leni and Cora become isolated, both mentally and physically, by Ernt.  When a small dispute arises with the neighbors and escalates, Leni has to choose sides, with possibly treacherous results.

Although the story is set in the 1970s, many of the issues facing the Allbright family align with events that are current in today’s world.  The Great Alone isn’t always an easy read and the characters face choices that are part necessary and part catastrophic.  In the end, a novel that is well worth the investment.

 

Spring!

Spring! I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to put away the boots and coats and get outside and into the garden! It’s been a winter of epic porportions so let’s move on immediately! Of course, spring in Iowa is famously fickle and might be a bit slow to really settle in. That’s the perfect time to curl up with one of these new books about gardening and flowers. Each is packed with practical information but are gorgeous enough to act as coffee table books. Enjoy!

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Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening by Matt Mattus. Prepare to encounter new varieties of common plant species, learn their history and benefits, and, most of all, identify fascinating new edibles to grow in your own gardens. This book offers a wealth of new and exciting opportunities, alongside beautiful photography, lore, insight, and humor that can only come from someone who has grown each vegetable himself and truly loves gardening.

Tulips by Jane Eastoe. Tulips have more than 3,000 variations and their diverse textures mean that they can work anywhere, from vases to garden plots, from romantic bouquets to wedding boutonnieres. From the raspberry swirl of Zurel and the petticoat-like frills of Weber’s Parrot, to the crystal rim of the Mascotte and the flaming petals of the Fabio tulip, you’ll discover a stunning range of specimens to grow, including historical and contemporary varieties.

The Pottery Gardener by Arthur Parkinson.The Emma Bridgewater factory is a thriving visitor attraction and a mecca for lovers of its iconic pottery; but tucked within is a walled garden bursting with nectar-rich, jazzy-toned flowers and hen houses of rare-breed chickens. With seasonal tips on container planting, plant profiles and helpful guides to keeping fowl and flower-arranging, The Pottery Gardener is sure to delight gardeners, hen fanciers and Emma Bridgewater fans alike.

Seasonal Flower Arranging by Ariella Chezar. This lavishly photographed book from renowned floral designer Ariella Chezar provides step-by-step instructions for 39 seasonal floral arrangements and projects that celebrate the splendor of flowers, the bounty of the changing seasons, and the wild beauty of nature in your home. There are arrangements for seasonal holidays, special occasions, or just everyday life featuring tulips, roses, peonies, dahlias, and other flowers that are easily found at farmers’ markets, local shops, or grown in your own backyard.

Dahlias by Naomi Slade. Blooming late summer to the first frost of autumn, this native of Mexico provides explosions of color in home gardens. The author unearths the dahlia from its Aztec origins and imparts practical, hands-on knowledge for growing and overwintering these tropical plants in wintry climes.

Peonies by Jane Eastoe celebrates the delicate palette, sumptuous beauty and sweet perfume of one of the world’s favorite flowers. This lavishly illustrated guide shows how easy it is to grow these bountiful blooms and fill your home with spectacular cut flowers. From the strikingly beautiful Claire de Lune to the frilly, petticoat-like Bowl of Cream, you’ll discover a splendid collection of classics, as well as the best modern varieties.

The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

Starting a new relationship means that you are not just in a relationship with your new partner, but that you have to build relationships with their family and friends. Sometimes those relationships are positive, while others start rocky and only get worse. In Sandie Jones’ new novel, The Other WomanJones examines the relationships that exist between a woman and the intense bond she shares with the man she loves.

The Other Woman is a twisty thriller that centers around how far someone is willing to go to get what they want. After a bad breakup, Emily has finally met the man of her dreams. Adam is perfect and everything she has ever wanted in a man. Emily thinks that her life couldn’t be any more perfect until she meets Adam’s mom, Pammie. Right from the start, Emily notices the odd and slightly off relationship that Pammie and Adam share. Thinking that Pammie is just overprotective of her son, Emily tries to work things out. Quickly things spiral out of control. Pammie is overbearing, overprotective, and, worst of all, extremely critical of everything Emily wears, says, or does around her. Nothing Emily does could ever be right. No one else notices Pammie’s bizarre behavior though. Mentioning this to Adam only serves to anger him and tarnish his mother’s perfect reputation in his eyes. Emily decides to stay the course.

Adam and Emily’s relationship progresses and flourishes as they begin to make plans to spend the rest of their lives together. Emily and Pammie’s relationship? Still rocky. With each new milestone Emily and Adam reach, Pammie seems to lose control even more. When Emily finally secures a forever relationship with Adam, she quickly learns that Pammie will do anything to keep her and Adam apart. Pammie wants Emily gone forever. Emily wants Adam forever. Those wants are not compatible. These two formidable women face off against each other in a battle of wills that will leave their relationships and lives in tatters.


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Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello!

How is your reading going this month? Have you found something great to read? If you’re still looking, you might want to consider a movie instead. Here are a few ideas.

Ben-Hur starring Charleston Huston set in ancient Rome at the birth of Christianity.

Schindler’s List with Liam Neeson tells the inspiring and heartbreaking story of what one person can do against unfathomable evil.

The Da Vinci Code starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. Enjoy a lovely if fantastical scavenger hunt through some beautiful churches and archives.

The Handmaid’s Tale with Elisabeth Moss. A chilling look at a future ruled by a religion-based autocracy.

9/11 starring Charlie Sheen and The Looming Tower with Jeff Daniels, both of which examine the consequences of religious fanaticism and the attack on the United States.

Travel Talk – March

Hello Travel Fans!

This month we’re going to talk about movies, specifically the movies that feed your wanderlust. That’s a pretty broad category I think – it could be a movie set in a beautiful place that made you want to visit, or one about a journey that inspired you on your own trip. A movie can be great long after a favorite trip as well, reminding you of sights and walks from your own visit.

To help you get in the mood for travel, we’re going to be showing one of my favorite movies, “Enchanted April” at Fairmount (3000 Fairmount Street) on Tuesday, March 19 at 2pm. Four English ladies escape dreary late-winter England and rent a house in sunny Italy for the month of April. The women, who didn’t know each other before, come from all walks of life and travel to Italy for different reasons – to escape, to hide, to find themselves. There is a bit of intrigue, a little mystery, friendships that grow and blossom but most of all, there’s the gorgeous Italian countryside. A perfect antidote when you’re tired of winter whether you’re coming from England or Iowa!

Other favorites to consider would include Midnight in Paris which is well worth watching both before and after a trip to the City of Light. My Mother and I loved the PBS television series All Creatures Great and Small and included several magical days in the Yorkshire Dales (where the series is set) when we traveled to England. Any Downton Abbey fans out there? A trip to Highclere Castle is probably high on your travel list. Dazzled by the over-the-top wealth shown in Crazy Rich Asians? You might be dreaming of a trip to Singapore. In other words, inspiration is all around us.

Michelle has found inspiration in movies too:

Years ago, I fell in love with Paris partly due to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless from 1960.  Starring Marshalltown, Iowa native Jean Seberg, this French New Wave crime drama mostly takes place in Paris.  One of the most iconic scenes takes place when Seberg sells New York Herald Tribune newspapers while strolling down the Champs Elysees. 

My other favorite travel film is surprisingly, Doctor Zhivago from 1965.  I fell in love with the movie years ago with its wintry scenes, emotional music, inspiring onion-domed buildings and the all over ambiance of Russia.  This movie, has in part, has inspired me to add Russia to my list of destinations to visit someday.

Now it’s your turn – what movie has sparked your travels?

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

A non-fiction work that reads like a fast paced fiction novel, Bad Blood  by John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal, is the story of Theranos, a start-up company in Silicon Valley run by a charismatic young entrepreneur whose fraud, arrogance and lies make for a stunning story.

Carreyrou leads the reader through the rise and fall of Theranos, a Silicon Valley medical company started by Elizabeth Holmes when she was a student at Stanford.  According to her claims, Theranos had developed a blood testing device that was simpler, more cost-effective and could test a person for hundreds of diseases with a single drop of blood.  Holmes promised to revolutionize the entire medical industry with the invention.  In addition to the above claims, Theranos had amassed a large number of wealthy investors and was initially valued at nearly $9 billion, with Holmes being named by Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made billionaire, with a net worth of $4.5 billion.  Theranos and Holmes were everywhere – magazine covers, television stories and other high-profile places.  Simultaneously, a handful of their 800 employees were beginning to realize that the claims being made about the testing device were simply not true – it did not work.

Carreyrou’s book, which grew from an earlier Wall Street Journal story, details how the company defrauded  and lied to employees, corporations and investors.  His article, in part, set Theranos on a downward trajectory with the deception exposed.  Presently, the United States attorney’s office in California has filed charges against Elizabeth Holmes and another executive.  They have pleaded not guilty.

Initially, I was not sure if I would enjoy this book coming from a non-medical background, but I quickly became engrossed in the story and the massive deception that occurred within the company.  A highly recommended read!

 

 

 

 

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Cross Her Heart is another hit for author Sarah Pinborough (after another great novel, Behind Her Eyes).  Written in alternate chapters by different characters, Cross Her Heart  is a fabulous addition to the psychological suspense genre.  Taking place in present day Britain, single mother Lisa is overly cautious and very protective of her teenage daughter, Ava.  Ava is annoyed at her mother’s clingy nature, which only increases when she is in the company of her friends, whose parents are much more trusting of their own children.

Lisa’s life consists of work and her home life with Ava.  Her nights out are few and far between and they are usually with a close co-worker, Marilyn, and her husband, Richard.  But, unbeknownst to anyone who knows her,  Lisa’s life is starting to unravel when glimmers from her past begin to emerge.  She  wakes up every day with panic that her past will come back to haunt her carefully constructed life.  But Lisa isn’t the only one with secrets.  Ava has also been keeping secrets from her mother and is involved with someone older who says they care for her, or do they?

While attending a town festival, Ava rescues a toddler from a near tragedy and the fanfare that develops around Lisa and her daughter has catastrophic results for the two of them.  Someone recognizes Lisa and the life she has built for herself and her daughter is in jeopardy.  Both Lisa and Ava are at danger and Lisa leans on her trusty friend Marilyn for support.  With asking Marilyn for help, also means that Lisa has to be completely honest with her which could put everyone at risk.

The twists and turns in Cross Her Heart are fast and jaw dropping.  If you love this genre, Sarah Pinborough is a great author to check out.

 

 

 

Before We Were Strangers by Brenda Novak

In college, I read primarily romance novels, but now that I work in a library surrounded by an infinite number of books, I find that I’m straying away from those old comforts. In an effort to reintroduce myself to romance novels, I have been reading a lot of ‘romantic suspense’ by Sandra Brown and other authors. I recently found Before We Were Strangers by Brenda Novak and decided to give this romantic suspense author a try.

Before We Were Strangers by Brenda Novak tells the story of how far one woman is willing to go to dig up her family’s dark secrets. Sloane McBride’s mother disappeared when she was five. Something happened to her mother the night she left, but no one wants to talk about it. Sloane was in the house the night her mom left and heard some things that she believes could have to do with her mother’s disappearance. Sloane heard her parents arguing and the things they were talking about made her skin crawl. In the midst of their arguing, a thump reverberated throughout the house. After that noise, the house went completely quiet. The next morning, Sloane discovered that her mother was gone. According to her father, her mother left and was never coming back.

Her father insisted that her mother just up and left, a situation that doesn’t sit well with Sloane given what she overheard that night and the fact that her mother was very loving and devoted to her two children. After their mother left, Sloane and her brother are raised by their strict and domineering father in their small Texas hometown. Desperate to escape, Sloane moves out of the town as soon as she turns eighteen and eventually ends up working as a model in New York. Despite all the distance between Texas and New York, Sloane is still haunted by what could have happened to her mother.

Thinking herself strong enough to stand up to her father and brother now that she has been away for ten years, Sloane decides to head back to Texas to finally find out the truth of what happened to her mother. Returning to this small town means that Sloane has to deal with her jilted ex-boyfriend, an angry best friend, a disappointed brother, and a father who will do anything to keep her from finding the truth. The more Sloane digs into her mother’s disappearance, the more dark family secrets she uncovers. As she learns more about what happened, Sloane is left to wonder how much of a coverup went into hiding what happened to her mother and just how each person she is investigating fits into this mysterious puzzle.


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