The Lost Order by Steve Berry (Thriller)
The Lost Order is the latest in the Cotton Malone adventure series, and what an adventure it is. Incorporating the Civil War-era secret society known as Knights of the Golden Circle and the present-day halls and back rooms of the Smithsonian Institution, this is a book full of political intrigue, ruthless treasure hunters, and steadfast individuals devoted to protecting a legacy most of us know nothing about.
Fact: In mid-nineteenth century United States, a clandestine organization of southerners known as The Knights of the Golden Circle wanted to annex territory in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean for the purpose of forming a southern empire, creating a “golden circle” of slave-holding states with its hub in Havana, Cuba. They amassed a fortune in gold and silver to finance the venture, but when the Civil War interfered, they buried their fortune in remote locations in the hopes that their plans might be resurrected someday. They left clues in the woods for those who knew how to recognize them and vested Individuals known as sentinels with the responsibility of protecting the hidden caches from treasure hunters. Confederate records, including those of the Knights, disappeared during the Civil War, and the full extent of the secret society’s reach and fortune is unknown.
Fiction: Two present-day factions of the Knights are close to finding a major vault of Confederate gold hidden in the Southwest. One faction plans to use it for nefarious purposes, the other wants to preserve it for posterity. Cotton Malone, former Justice Department agent, is called back into service because his ancestor was a Confederate spy who may be the final link to locating the vault before the Knights do. He and a former president of the United States are the last hopes for stopping a major disruption to Congress and for bringing cold-blooded killers to justice.
This book is enjoyable on many levels – as a thriller with the code-breaking aspects of The DaVinci Code, as a fascinating account of a dangerous secret society in American history, and as an insider’s romp through the back rooms, tunnels, and hidden places in the Smithsonian Institution.
Author Steve Berry is a history buff and preservationist, as well as a seasoned writer, and he also serves on the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board. This heavily researched work is packed with authentic information that illuminates as well as entertains, leaving the reader with the satisfying sense of having learned something while enjoying the action that never stops. Whether it’s the workings of Congress, the existence of hidden caches of gold and silver buried across the U.S., or the fascinating history of the Smithsonian itself, Berry keeps it interesting and relevant while providing a complicated plot with plenty of dangerous players and harrowing situations.
Grandma gives The Lost Order five stars.
Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The Lost Order will be released on April 4, 2017, and is available for pre-order.
The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff (Historical Fiction)
The Orphan’s Tale is a story of survival during World War II from the point of view of two women: one a German trapeze artist hiding from the Nazis because she is Jewish, the other a Dutch teenager who has rescued a Jewish baby from a boxcar full of babies bound for a concentration camp. Each has found refuge in a traveling German circus whose owner is quietly doing his best to save whomever he can.
Both women narrate the story in first person, alternating chapters, and we get to know them well. Each has painful secrets she keeps from the other for reasons of self-preservation, and at times they clash more than they get along. But their survival depends on the teenager, Noa, becoming a passable aerialist to justify her presence in the circus and to give Astrid, the professional, a partner for her act. Forced into cooperation, they eventually become fast friends, tying their survival and their futures together, although the road to friendship is a bumpy one.
The author has done a good job of conveying a sense of circus life as it applies to the story, including the difficulties of life on the road complicated by the shortages of war, the dangers of traveling through occupied France, and the financial decline of the circus itself. Her characters are believable, flawed individuals who make mistakes, hold grudges, and distrust others, yet long to connect for they know they cannot go it alone, either through this war or through life. Nothing about this book was predictable, and the ending was a complete surprise, yet plausible. Jenoff kept my interest throughout, the teaser in her prologue driving me to read late into the night to find out what that was all about.
Grandma gives The Orphan’s Tale five stars.
Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The Orphan’s Tale will be released on February 21, 2017, and is available for pre-order.
A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)
During World War II, the luxury oceanliner Queen Mary was commandeered for transporting troops, and in 1946 it became the vessel carrying European war brides across the ocean to their American G. I. husbands in the U.S. Among those brides are Annaliese Kurtz and Simone Robinson. One is a German ballerina traveling under an assumed identity and one is the daughter and sister of French Résistance fighters. Each seeks to leave the horrors of the war years behind and start a new life.
In present time, Brette Caslake is a young woman struggling with the effects of having “the Sight,” an inherited ability to see and communicate with the ghosts of people caught between this world and the next. It’s a gift she prefers to downplay and ignore but cannot always control. When prevailed upon by an old friend to help his young daughter cope with the recent death of her mother, Brette visits the Queen Mary, now docked in Los Angeles as a floating hotel and tourist attraction. The oceanliner has a history of ghost sightings, and the child felt her mother’s presence there. But when Brette visits, the presence she feels is that of another who connects with her and wants her to solve the decades-old death of a war bride while traveling on the Queen Mary in 1946.
This fascinating tale is told from the points of view of four entities: Brette, Annaliese, Simone, and the unnamed presence on the ship that communicates with Brette. The result is a story that kept me reading when I should have been doing other things, like sleeping. The fate of each character became important to me, including that of the unknown on the ship. The very intense stories of Annaliese and Simone during World War II were vividly portrayed, providing a level of depth and understanding that made the conclusion completely believable. Brette’s fears and concerns and how they are resolved send a strong message about our need to do something meaningful with what life gives us rather than striving to control that which we cannot.
As happens with the best of historical fiction, Susan Meissner’s rich portrayal of disparate characters living in very different environments and times was an education as well as entertainment, leaving me with the satisfying sense of having spent my time wisely, even if I lost sleep.
Grandma gives A Bridge Across the Ocean five stars.
Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This book will be released by Penguin Group (USA) in March, 2017, and is available for pre-order.
Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas
At a time when World War II-era novels abound, this one is unusual in that it is set in Nazi Germany and follows the lives of a young German couple —Max and Erika – who fall in love, marry, and are then separated by war and its aftermath. Max is a religious man who hates Hitler and his regime, while Erika is a Nazi supporter, having grown up as an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. They attend medical school together and after graduation, Max joins the army as a medic for the purpose of helping the soldiers, not furthering the Nazi cause. He is stationed in the city of Breslau, running a field hospital set up in a former monastery, when the Soviet army takes control of the city and sends him to a labor camp in Siberia.
Erika, meanwhile, is six months pregnant and is traveling with her father-in-law to the home of Max’s parents where she plans to live and give birth to their baby. She has no idea what has become of Max, but assumes he will be coming home soon, since the war is ending. Neither of them realizes that they will not see each other for four more years.
The title refers to the fact that letters sent home by Soviet prisoners were not allowed to contain more than fifteen words, thereby limiting their ability to tell their loved ones about their living conditions. As readers, however, we are privy to all of the deprivation, horrors, and mistreatment that Max and his fellow prisoners must endure at the hands of the Soviets. In alternate chapters, we observe Erika as she makes a life for herself and her daughter in occupied Germany while Max is gone.
After following their individual lives during four years of separation, it was clear that their reunion as a couple would not be an easy one, and I was particularly interested in how that reunion would ultimately play out. How long would it take them to get used to one another again? Was it even possible? Max isn’t the person he once was and no longer feels a bond with “home.” Erika has her misgivings and her secrets, and their daughter is less than welcoming to her father. Does he ever connect with his daughter, recapture a loving relationship with his wife, and at least come close to feeling as though he might fit in again? Unfortunately, the book stops abruptly upon his return home and leaves all of those questions unanswered.
Overall, this book is well written and well researched. While the story is fiction, the book is inspired by actual events in the lives of the author and her family (see our guest post from author Monika Jephcott Thomas). I just wish I knew more about Max’s fate, as I had become invested in his welfare (Erika’s not so much).
Grandma gives Fifteen Words four stars.
Bella Reads and Reviews Books was given a free copy of the book by the author in return for an honest review and participation in the blog tour accompanying its release.
It’s the eighth of May, 1945, and Word War Two has come to an end. The doorbell rings. Two American army officers carrying riding crops step up to the door and one of them speaks, his manner and his tone both extremely commanding, ‘Within the next few hours, you must clear out your flat.’ Just like that. There is absolutely no opportunity for discussion or question. I am heavily pregnant and expecting the birth of my first child within a matter of days. I hurriedly gather up all of our possessions, and pack them into boxes, which we then stack at the front of the house. Now, I am literally sitting on the street with my in-laws.
This is an extract from my mother’s diary. I was born in Germany in 1945 a few days after this entry was written. My father was a POW in Siberia, so I didn’t meet him until I was four. The first years of my life were spent in occupied Germany. We lived in Mengede, Dortmund, in the North-West of the country. Allied troops wandering around the streets of my hometown were a familiar sight. The bitterness and resentment they had for the German people was palpable. The ransacking of homes and the rape of German women was rife. Germany in the months after the end of the war was a dangerous place. But it was all I knew. To me it was normality.
Then he was coming home. My papa, the man I had heard about and had seen in photos but had never met, was coming home. Mum seemed to be very busy getting things ready, with banners for his welcome and decorating the house with flowers. The local press were informed that this war hero was coming back, and then the morning arrived. We all went together to Mengede Station – Oma and Opa, Tante Änne, my Mum and myself. We were not allowed to go on to the platform so we stayed at the entrance where we were expecting him to emerge. I stood beside my Mum, waiting for him to appear, holding the little bunch of flowers I was going to give him. And suddenly, there he was! This man in his army uniform, looking very pale and thin, walking towards us. He stopped in front of us and nobody quite seemed to know what to do. So my Mum whispered to me “Give him the flowers and say hello.” I did, and I expected him to scoop me up in his arms and hug me, kiss me and tell me how much he loved me and how he had missed me… but he didn’t. Instead, he took a round brown Bakelite container out of his rucksack and gave it to me, saying “This is for you.” I opened it and it was full of sweets, such as I had never had before and I was sure my Mum would not allow me to have. However, it made me forget that he had not done all the things I had expected him to do, including not hugging my Mum or his parents.
We all walked back to my grandparents’ house and I held hands with them while Dad and Mum walked together, arm in arm. Once we were inside, after he had been shown around and we all had some ‘Kaffee und Kuchen,’ my grandparents suggested I went out to play with my friends so I took the brown container with me. However, as soon as I was out of sight of our house, I opened the container and stuffed myself with sweets. Then I went to meet my friends and, because I felt guilty for having eaten so many, I handed the sweets round to everyone, obediently doing what I had been taught – to share – keeping the empty box to play with later and to take home as evidence of my generosity. When I got home for supper, my Papa asked me where the sweets were. I held the empty box and opened the lid, showing him proudly that I had none left because I had shared them with my friends. I thought he would praise me but, instead, he became very angry with me for giving them away.
Of course, there was no way I could possibly understand then how many sacrifices he had made in order to give me that present, for how long he had deprived himself of even the horrible food they had to eat in the labour camp, how many people he had bribed to give this ‘treasure’ to me.
This first meeting between me and my father inspired a central moment in the last chapter of my novel Fifteen Words. How two young lovers, such as my mother and father were during World War Two, can be ripped apart by war, separated for such long and debilitating times, and then how they begin to repair the inevitable rifts that have formed between them, is the subject of the novel – one which, despite the bleak backdrop of war, is a story about hope, love and faith in all its forms.
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, northwest Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty-year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner, Jeff, she established the Academy of Play & child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty percent of children who have emotional, behavioral, social, and mental health problems, by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.
Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realized; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain fifteen words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
Available on Amazon.
For Grandma’s review of Fifteen Words, go here.
The Sacred Flame by Nanette Littlestone (Historical Fiction)
This well-written love story takes place in ancient Rome during the days of Vestal Virgins. Livia has given thirty years in service to the goddess Vesta, living only with her fellow Vestals, and her commitment is almost up. Now she’s looking forward to marrying her childhood friend, Kaeso, with whom she sees herself having a chance at happiness, even though she doesn’t love him as anything more than a friend.
But the Fates intervene, and suddenly Livia’s life becomes complicated in ways that not only threaten her ability to leave the Vestals, but also put her life in danger. She incurs the wrath of a fellow Vestal, as well as that of a woman of social prominence, and defies Roman society when she falls in love with a married man. Throughout, we watch her struggle with duty, passion, commitment, fidelity, love, friendship, and the terrible weight of responsibility and expectations thrust upon her by others against her will.
We see the action through the eyes of several different characters, in addition to Livia herself, a technique that limits how deeply we can get to know her as a person. We’re often observing her from the outside, which builds tension as we become privy to the motives and plans of others, but also keeps her at a distance. Still it is a rich story with interesting characters in a fascinating time and place. The writing style fits the period, and it’s clear that the author has researched the subject well and writes with confidence. The ending took me completely by surprise, adding to the pleasure of reading this ambitious novel. Anyone who enjoys stories set in ancient Rome will be completely satisfied with The Sacred Flame.
Grandma gives The Sacred Flame five stars.
Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.