Review of “Notes of Love and War” by Betty Bolté

Bolté, Betty. Notes of Love and War. [United States]: Mystic Owl Publishing, 2020.

ISBN-13: 978-1733973649 | $4.99 USD | 382 pages | Historical Fiction 

Blurb

Audrey Harper needs more than home and hearth to satisfy her self-worth despite being raised with the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Working as a music critic for the city newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Second World War, she’s enjoyed both financial freedom and personal satisfaction in a job well done. When she uncovers evidence of German spies working to sabotage a secret bomber plane being manufactured in her beloved city, she must choose between her sense of duty to protect her city and the urgings of her boss, her family, and her fiancé to turn over her evidence to the authorities. But when her choices lead her and her sister into danger, she is forced to risk life and limb to save her sister and bring the spies to justice.

Set against the backdrop of the flourishing musical community during the 1940s in Baltimore, Notes of Love and War weaves together the pleasure of musical performance with the dangers of espionage and spying.

Review

4.5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

After reviewing Betty Bolté’s previous 2020 release, I was intrigued to read more from her. And Notes of Love and War is another solid book, showing her dedication to historical research, this time delving into a subject much closer to her heart: Maryland where she grew up, set during World War II. 

I was a bit confused at first, due it feeling rather leisurely paced, without the intrigue promised by the blurb. But it allows the reader to become acquainted with Audrey and her world as things change around her thanks to her brother, and later her father, going off to war, and developing a friendship that turns romantic. 

And in that sense, it fits the title, since letters connecting parted family and friends plays a key role in the development of the story. I enjoyed observing the changes in her relationship with Charlie largely through letters, and in their rare in-person meetings. 

And when things took a turn toward the more suspenseful, I felt close to Audrey and her sister and could truly fear for their lives. 

This is a delightful, original historical novel, and one that made me feel like I came away having learned something new about one of the most popular time periods. I recommend this if you love historical fiction, especially set during World War II. 

Author Bio

When I sit down to write, the goal for my historical stories is to bring the lives of people in the past to life for my readers. I write both historical and contemporary stories featuring strong, loving women and brave, compassionate men. No matter whether the stories are set in the past or the present, I love to include a touch of the paranormal. In addition to romantic fiction, I’ve written several nonfiction books, and earned a Master of Arts in English in 2008. I’m a member of Romance Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society, the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and the Authors Guild. Find out more about me at www.bettybolte.com.

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Review of “Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook” by Celia Rees

Rees, Celia. Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook. New York: William Morrow, 2020. 

ISBN-13: 978-0062938022 | $16.99 USD | 512 pages | Historical Fiction

Blurb

A striking historical novel about an ordinary young British woman sent to uncover a network of spies and war criminals in post-war Germany that will appeal to fans of The Huntress and Transcription.

World War II has just ended, and Britain has established the Control Commission for Germany, which oversees their zone of occupation. The Control Commission hires British civilians to work in Germany, rebuild the shattered nation and prosecute war crimes. Somewhat aimless, bored with her job as a provincial schoolteacher, and unwilling to live with her overbearing mother any longer, thirtysomething Edith Graham applies for a job with the Commission—but she is also recruited by her cousin, Leo, who is in the Secret Service. To them, Edith is perfect spy material…single, ordinary-looking, with a college degree in German. Cousin Leo went to Oxford with one of their most hunted war criminals, Count Kurt von Stavenow, who Edith remembers all too well from before the war. He wants her to find him.

Intrigued by the challenge, Edith heads to Germany armed with a convincing cover story: she’s an unassuming Education Officer sent to help resurrect German schools. To send information back to her Secret Service handlers in London, Edith has crafted the perfect alter ego, cookbook author Stella Snelling, who writes a popular magazine cookery column. She embeds crucial intelligence within the recipes she collects. But occupied Germany is awash with other spies, collaborators, and opportunists, and as she’s pulled into their world, Edith soon discovers that no one is what they seem to be. The closer she gets to uncovering von Stavenow’s whereabouts–and the network of German civilians who still support him–the greater the danger. 

With a unique, compelling premise, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is a beautifully crafted and gripping novel about daring, betrayal, and female friendship.

Review

4 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is an engrossing historical novel set in post-World War II, with an impeccable sense of the time period, including, as the title implies, some wonderful recipes that represent both Edith’s proficiency at cooking and the code woven into them. 

The story also delves into post-World War II Germany, something that tended to get glossed over in history classes I took, so I enjoyed getting insight into the complex political climate of that time and place in history. 

While the story takes a little bit to get into, however, once I did, I enjoyed the ride, and especially the two determined women, Edith and Dori, at the center of the narrative. 

Some aspects require a bit of suspension of disbelief, like how she goes from her ordinary life to being a spy without much training. And I  wanted a bit more with the alter ego aspect, and I didn’t feel that was delved into enough. 

This was a pretty good book, and one I would recommend to fans of World War II related historical fiction. 

Author Bio

Celia Rees (born 1949) is an English author of children’s literature, including some horror and fantasy books.

She was born in 1949 in Solihull, West Midlands but now lives in Leamington Spa with her husband and teenage daughter. Rees attended University of Warwick and earned a degree in History of Politics. After university, she taught English in Coventry secondary schools for seventeen years, during which time she began to write.

During her time in teaching she asked several of her pupils why they wouldn’t read the books they were given and what they wanted to read about. The pupils said that they wanted books with action, horror, danger, magic and pirates.

All of these are main themes in Rees’ books.

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Review of “Red Sky Over Hawaii” by Sara Ackerman

Ackerman, Sara. Red Sky Over Hawaii. Toronto, Ontario; Mira, 2020.

ISBN-13: 978-077809673 | $17.99 USD | 338 pages | Historical Fiction

Blurb

Inspired by real places and events of WWII, Red Sky Over Hawaii immerses the reader in a time of American history full of suspicion and peril in this lush and poignant tale about the indisputable power of doing the right thing against all odds.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changes everything for Lana Hitchcock. Arriving home on the Big Island too late to reconcile with her estranged father, she is left alone to untangle the clues of his legacy, which lead to a secret property tucked away in the remote rain forest of Kilauea volcano. When the government starts taking away her neighbors as suspected sympathizers, Lana shelters two young German girls, a Japanese fisherman and his son. As tensions escalate, they are forced into hiding—only to discover the hideaway house is not what they expected.

When a detainment camp is established nearby, Lana struggles to keep the secrets of those in her care. Trust could have dangerous consequences. As their lives weave together, Lana begins to understand the true meaning of family and how the bonds of love carry us through the worst times.

Review

5 stars 

Red Sky Over Hawaii is another winner from Sara Ackerman. I love how she manages to sweep the reader away into history and simultaneously  give them an entertaining read and engross them in a bit of history at the same time.

While I had been taught in school that martial law led to internment not being as widespread in Hawaii during World War II, I was aware it did happen, because of monuments like Honouliuli,, and admire Ackerman for attempting to recreate the fear and uncertainty the people were going through at the time. And having learned previously about German and Italian American internment in the US during World War II, I was amazed to learn that there were also some of them among those interned. 

I really felt for Lana and how she found herself losing her father just  after being reunited, presenting a theme of war leading to family separation,  which was echoed in other characters, as well as continuing to resonate with many real life stories from the time. 

Full of Ackerman’s signature transportive writing, this book is fabulous and is a must-read for lovers of historical fiction. 

Author Bio

Sara writes books about love and life, and all of their messy and beautiful imperfections. She believes that the light is just as important as the dark, and that the world is in need of uplifting and heartwarming stories. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine (read more). She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories. 

A few of her favorite things, in no particular order – hiking, homemade PIZZA, a good thunderstorm, stargazing, BOOKS, craft beer, her wonderful BOYFRIEND, surfing, mountain streams, friends, and ANIMALS.  In fact, animals inhabit all of her novels in some way, shape or form – dogs, donkeys, sea turtles, a featherless chicken, endangered Hawaiian crows, horses, and even a lion. When she’s not writing or teaching, you’ll find her in the mountains or in the ocean, which is where most of her inspiration happens.

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Review of “The Queen’s Secret” by Karen Harper

Harper, Karen. The Queen’s Secret. New York: William Morrow, 2020. 

ISBN-13: 978-0062885487 | $16.99 USD | 320 pages | Historical Fiction 

Blurb

If you love Jennifer Robson or The Crown you will love New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper’s novel about Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

1939. As the wife of the King George VI and the mother of the future queen, Elizabeth—“the queen mother”—shows a warm, smiling face to the world. But it’s no surprise that Hitler himself calls her the “Most Dangerous Woman in Europe.” For behind that soft voice and kindly demeanor is a will of steel.

Two years earlier, George was thrust onto the throne when his brother Edward abdicated, determined to marry his divorced, American mistress Mrs. Simpson. Vowing to do whatever it takes to make her husband’s reign a success, Elizabeth endears herself to the British people, and prevents the former king and his brazen bride from ever again setting foot in Buckingham Palace.

Elizabeth holds many powerful cards, she’s also hiding damaging secrets about her past and her provenance that could prove to be her undoing.

In this riveting novel of royal secrets and intrigue, Karen Harper lifts the veil on one of the world’s most fascinating families, and how its “secret weapon” of a matriarch maneuvered her way through one of the most dangerous chapters of the century.

Review

3 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Since the original release of The Crown, I’ve been glad to see more recent Royal historical fiction, with The Queen’s Secret being one of the most anticipated, as the Queen Mother was always one of the modern royals that intrigued me.

However, I found myself a bit confused by the titular “secret,” and even more so once I got into the book, was perplexed at the implausibility of it due to the public lives these people led, and the backlash the source Harper lifted it from got on its release. While I acknowledge her concern of bias in an official biography, with her only comment on it being that the author “did move in the same social circles as the royals.” (P.S. section in the back of the book, 5) Given the more recent gossip surrounding the current royals and the difficulty in figuring out who to believe on that front outside of official sources, I would have hoped she would acknowledge bias and unreliability of this source as well. 

However, just taking it as fiction, it’s pretty good, although, given what we know about what happens, these revelations don’t feel that earth shattering with lasting implications, even though there is a moment when she reveals her secret to her husband. I was actually more interested in the aspects that felt reminiscent of the historical record, but more fleshed out to explore her thoughts and emotions. Being aware of how domineering of a father George V was to his children, it was interesting to have an idea of Elizabeth’s insights into how it impacted each of his sons, contrasting that with Queen Mary’s indulgence of the wayward, philandering Prince George and later the selfish Duke of Windsor. 

I did like this, but I am questioning the point of some of the choices made. I understand the point of poetic license, but when that’s not even the most impactful part of the book, then I feel like it’s not entirely necessary. It is very readable and engaging, and does for the most part capture the Queen well, so I think if you like Royal  historical fiction and don’t mind a bit of inaccuracy for the sake of plot, then you should pick this up. 

Author Bio

A New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Karen Harper is a former college English instructor (The Ohio State University) and high school literature and writing teacher. A lifelong Ohioan, Karen and her husband Don divide their time between the midwest and the southeast, both locations she has used in her books. Besides her American settings, Karen loves the British Isles, where her Scottish and English roots run deep, and where she has set many of her historical Tudor-era mysteries and her historical novels about real and dynamic British women. Karen’s books have been published in many foreign languages and she won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for 2005. Karen has given numerous talks to readers and writers across the county. Her most recent books include THE SOUTH SHORES TRILOGY (CHASING SHADOWS, DROWNING TIDES and FALLING DARKNESS.) Her latest historical is THE ROYAL NANNY. Please visit her website at www.KarenHarperAuthor and her fb page at www.facebook.com/KarenHarperAuthor

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Review of “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert, Elizabeth. City of Girls. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $28.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1594634734 | 470 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

City of Girls was another BookTuber recommendation, this time from Jashana C., and the premise intrigued me. I was also curious that Elizabeth Gilbert, who I knew mostly due to the buzz surrounding her initial memoir, Eat, Pray, Love (which I have not read, but know the gist of, based on her bio), had turned to writing novels.

And I have mixed feelings on this one. The heroine, Vivian, is great, and in spite of any narrative faults, I find her voice engaging. I also admire how she lives up to the tagline of the book: “you don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.” Quite a few reviewers spent a lot of time moralizing about the sexuality Vivian and other characters express in the book, and while I understand it’s their perspective, that is a great example of that saying in action, and not being ashamed of her true self.

However, the book did feel incredibly disjointed. There’s the glittering world of New York in the 1940s, as the characters are putting on the titular theatre show, and all the glamour and fun of that. However, while the latter part of the book was meant to provide a dramatic shift, it instead was dour and boring, time passing quickly and not much really feeling gained.

I also feel like it didn’t present the balance between being epistolary and a narrative all that well, although it could be that the previous book I just read did it so well. The latter half in particular just kind of skated by events without really delving into them, whereas more time was spent in the beginning establishing things. I understand the need to catch the reader (both in the story’s canon and the actual readers of the book) up to the events as they stand at the opening prior to flashing back, but it just didn’t engage me.

This was kind of just ok for me plot and structure wise, but I do think Gilbert created a sympathetic and likable protagonist in Vivian that makes the story worth reading. If you like historical fiction, especially focusing on the glamour of New York.

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Review of “Kisses and Other Scandalous Pastimes: A Winter Historical Short Story Anthology from The Romance Cafe” by Thyra Dane, T.L. Clark, Lara Temple, Riana Everly, Rachel Ann Smith, Alexie Bolton, Catherine Stein, Chele McCabe, S.L. Hollister, and Miranda Jameson

Dane, Thyra, et. al. Kissing and Other Scandalous Pastimes: A Winter Historical Short Story Anthology from The Romance Cafe. [Place of publication not identified]: Romance Cafe Books, 2019.

eBook | $2.99 USD |ASIN: B07ZJNP681 | Historical Romance

4 stars

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All opinions are my own.

Kissing and Other Scandalous Pastimes is The Romance Cafe’s first foray into historical romance, with all their previous anthologies being contemporary. As such, I had a bit more awareness, even if it was on a superficial level , about what at least a couple of the authors were writing about.

As a whole, I enjoyed the diversity of the collection, as while there are a few Regency stories, there are not only a couple unique takes on that subgenre, but a few subgenres that I either haven’t read, like medieval Viking romance, or periods that tend to be relegated to the realm of mainstream historical fiction, like World War II.

One of my favorites is, unsurprisingly, Catherine Stein’s magic-infused contribution, Mishaps and Mistletoe. It perfectly captured all the elements it was going for, from holiday cheer (the structuring is just delightful in setting that tone!) to the tension of whether longtime friends will admit their love, and also perfectly displaying Andrew’s heroics as he defends Mabel from harm.

An Unsuitable Match by Miranda Jameson is another standout, taking place after the end of World War II and dealing with the conflict of Indian independence and the partition of India and Pakistan. Both Felicity and Jai are such wonderful characters that I rooted for, in spite of the obstacles from both of their parents keeping them apart, tackling racism and class/caste division.

Riana Everly’s Sweets for My Sweet is also memorable for tackling similar issues, thing time with a Jewish MC. I rooted for Daniel and Estie to have their HEA, in spite of the pressures put on her to adhere to her family’s expectations to marry within their own traditions. And it’s all too rare to find holiday romances that don’t center around Christmas, much less Chanukah, so I enjoyed reading about those observances.

As an introduction to Viking romance, Thyra Dane’s The Challenge is excellent, particularly for its hero, Eivind. I love that the story shows him atoning for a past mistake against Borghild, and in spite of some of the elements of the blurb that troubled me, he’s actually incredibly sweet and not troubled by toxic masculinity, which has become a stereotype for many similar books in the subgenre. And he has a perfect match in Borghild, a strong woman whose inner beauty radiates outward.

If Only In My Dreams by S.L. Hollister is wonderful, in that it shows that World War II, in spite of all the tragic connotations, can be romantic. I admired Lydia’s commitment to being a nurse while Jeremy served in the military, and

A Haverton Christmas by TL Clark is perhaps the best paced of the bunch, working with a bit of mistaken identity, as the still-single Lady Caroline failed to find a husband. It was delightful to observe from her perspective her meeting a mysterious, yet seemingly unsuitable man and falling for him, and then progressing to the reveal of who he really is.

Lord Wrexham’s Winter Scandal is fun, if a little predictable, and not one that will stick with me a ton, in comparison to some of the others. I did enjoy seeing two reunited lovers come back together, and was stunned at the reasoning behind Thea’ guardian’s rejection of Lucas.

Married by Chele McCabe has a lovely concept, but while it’s great to have the characters in the real life Biltmore estate and the historical elements of Birdie and Jason’s respective positions in the story, I did find the story went on a bit long with the whole process of getting married.

One of the weak spots, in my opinion, is A Test of Love by Rachel Ann Smith. I am intrigued by her other work, and noted a tie-in almost immediately to the blurbs for one of her other novellas. However, the story felt predictable, because it features a hard-to-please alphahole duke, who has a massive list of requirements for duchess, then decides (with no real reasoning) that the unsuitble woman he loves is worth it after all. I wish it had been longer for her to give him a test of love, because, as usual, these noblemen seem to do the bare minimum to make things up to the women they previously considered beneath them, and still get the girl anyway.

I unfortunately DNFed one of the stories, Deceit and Desire by Alexie Bolton. The premise was intriguing, but it failed to keep me fully invested. I don’t think this is a mark against the story per se, it just didn’t work for me.

Like the more recent Romacne Cafe collection, it has its highs and lows, and it’s possible some may be different based on personal preference. Either way, this is perhaps one of the most unique historical anthologies I’ve read, with some true gems included. If you’re a fan of historical romance, there is likely going to be something that suits your tastes in this collection. And as always with Romance Cafe anthologies, you’re also supporting breast cancer research.

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Review of “All the Ways We Said Goodbye” by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White

Williams, Beatriz, et. al. All the Ways We Said Goodbye. New York: William Morrow, 2020.

Hardcover | $28.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062931092 | 440 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

All the Ways We Said Goodbye was one of my most anticipated books for the early part of 2020, and while I can’t say it’s my favorite “Team W” book based on pure enjoyment, I definitely liked it. And once again, I have to praise the “Unibrain” (as they call it” of Williams, Willig, and White for coming together and crafting another intricately woven book, once again both leaving readers breathlessly turning pages and trying to figure out who wrote what (while some have likely figure it out, I’m still at a loss!)

The plotting and the way the arcs weave into one another is also great. They’ve caputred three historical eras, the two World Wars and the 1960s largely in the single location of the Paris Ritz and following interconnected characters, and unveiled the connections in such a satisfying way as each arc unfolded.

My main criticism is one purely of personal preference, and it’s that at times the story feels a little too intricate and dragged out, when something a little less complex would have worked better. I’m still trying to work out all the connections between the characters, whereas I feel like their last two novels had relationships (between the women especially) that were simultaneously more easy to follow and left room for some big reveals.

This is a wonderful collaboration from three fabulous authors, and given all the cool places they’ve taken readers so far, I can’t wait to see what they’ll choose next. I recommend this to lovers of historical fiction.

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Review of “Lady Clementine” by Marie Benedict

Benedict, Marie. Lady Clementine. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2020.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492666905 | 322 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

After having read Stephanie Barron’s book about Winston Churchill’s mother last year, I was excited to read Marie Benedict’s Lady Clementine, to get to know his wife, since I heard she played a role in supporting him throughout his career when doing some further reading on him and his family. And while, narratively, the story does feel a little uneven, jumping around at times (although I understand the necessity to cover roughly half a century) and sometimes feeling a little slow, I enjoyed this one, and feel like Benedict managed to more or less engage me with her subject.

Benedict captures Clementine’s growth as a person and the impact her growing political involvement has in her complex marriage with Churchill. I enjoyed insight into what how their respective dysfunctional families bonded them, but also admired the way she maintained her marriage to Winston, in spite of political differences.

This is another solid Marie Benedict book, highlighting a largely uncelebrated historical woman who played an important role in history. I recommend this to all lovers of historical fiction.

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Review of “The Only Woman in the Room” by Marie Benedict

Benedict, Marie. The Only Woman in the Room. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019.

Hardcover | $25.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492666868 | 254 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

Having liked Marie Benedict’s prior book, Carnegie’s Maid, and also being intrigued by Hedy Lamarr as a person who defied expectations of women at the time and invented the technology that would eventually make cell phones possible, I was excited about The Only Woman in the Room. With such an exciting life, showcasing two such distinct talents, I was sure I would love this book and getting to know Hedy a bit better.

And I found Hedy a decent heroine, who made the most of her circumstances at first, then had the bravery to escape and form a new life for herself in America in increasingly turbulent times as Hitler rose to power and World War II began.

But while Benedict convincingly evokes Hedy’s voice, I found myself losing interest at various points, because the story is a lot of day-by-day stuff, especially early on. While it does pick up eventually, only some parts of the book really engaged me, while others felt rather dull by comparison. This is yet another book I found myself reading recently that I found felt much too long due to the pace being so slow, yet the book was less than 300 pages.

However, I think Benedict did the best she could to convey a cohesive narrative, and while it’s not her best book, I still enjoyed it for introducing me to Hedy in greater detail. I recommend fans of historical fiction give it a try.

Review of “The Light Over London” by Julia Kelly

Kelly, Julia. The Light Over London. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501196416 | 293 pages | Historical Fiction

2 stars

The Light Over London was recommended by Theresa Romain in her readers’ group around the time of publication, and my interest was piqued, because I’m always looking for more World War I and II books. But once I got into the book, I found myself disappointed, as, were it not for the ending, I would call it another casulty of romance readers’ rejection of the World Wars as a time period, consigning them to historical fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I obviously love historical romance, and there are plenty of historically rich historical romance books out there, even if historical accuracy and sense of place are not universally demanded within historical romance. But it is an expectation in historical fiction, as well as adding some substance and something new to help readers feel like they’re learning, and perhaps leave some resources for them to get more accurate information at the end. While Kelly does endeavor to provide some context for the experience of a gunner girl during the war, I felt it was largely overshadowed by the ill-fated romance.

I think this would make a good book for someone who is just starting to learn about the World War II period, because, bizarre twist ending notwithstanding, it does decently depict the stakes of love during World War II. However, it lacks any real originality to make it worth reading for anyone who is more well-read in the period.