‘Ripped Away’ is historical fantasy as two kids travel back to London at the time of Jack the Ripper

Ripped Away by Shirley Reva Vernick

“Ripped Away” by Shirley Reva Vernick is a middle grade novel, almost a novella, really, at a bit over 100 pages, featuring first person narrator Abe Pearlman. In his very relatable, charming narrative he describes his lonely existence. He’s not in any school clubs nor does he play sports. And when he nods at Mitzi, a classmate he finds interesting, she can’t be bothered to respond with even a nod. As he walks through town on his way home from school, he sees a sign he had never noticed before, “Fortunes and Futures,” in the third story of a building. He decides to investigate.

Continue reading

‘The Last Dance of the Debutante’ by Julia Kelly is a frothy tale of parties and upper-class British snobbery but it’s touching and inspiring

The Last Dance of the Debutante
by Julia Kelly

“The Last Dance of the Debutante,” Julia Kelly’s historical fiction about the last group of British debutantes who got presented at Court to the Queen in 1958 is, as might be said about many of the debutantes, a frothy delight. Getting to sneak vicariously into debutante parties and reading about the effort and expense that went into a debutante’s season in 1950s England is fascinating, and Kelly provides us with the inside story. It was a time when, at least for upper class women, their goal as debutantes was to meet other debutantes and expand their social circle, all in the pursuit of one overarching aim: to find a husband who would increase their social value. So the daughters of the extremely well-connected and wealthy might demand a suitor with a title or prospective title, and the daughter of an impoverished but noble family might simply need a suitor who could provide the funds to keep the family estates going. Each debutante had slightly different goals, but almost all were in pursuit of a husband.

Continue reading

‘Boy Underground’ by Catherine Ryan Hyde is a coming of age story of a gay teen in the 1940s

Boy Underground by Catherine Ryan Hyde

“Boy Underground” is the title of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s newest novel, and the title has a double meaning. On one hand, the title refers to Nick, who is main character Steven Katz’ best friend, and who is also Steven’s romantic crush. Because of an unbelievable betrayal by Nick’s father, he must hide and ends up living underground in a root cellar on Steven’s family’s huge farm. On the other hand, the title could also refer to Steven, and the fact he is gay; something he is hiding from his family and pretty much everyone else. During this time homosexuality was considered a perversion and a crime. Steven’s feelings, his identity, his persona—all are hidden “underground.”

Continue reading

‘The Last Rose of Shanghai’ by Weina Dai Randel is a gripping novel about turbulent life in wartime China

The Last Rose of Shanghai
by Weina Dai Randel

“The Last Rose of Shanghai” by Weina Dai Randel paints a vivid portrait of life in Shanghai during WWII, during the Japanese occupation both before and after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It’s an in-depth study of not only the Jewish refugee situation, but also how wealthy Chinese families lived and the rules that they lived by. The story is told from the viewpoints of Aiyi Shao, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Shanghai family; Ernest Reismann, a German refugee who arrived in Shanghai with nothing but a camera and his younger sister; and also from Aiyi Shao’s point of view in 1980 as she is trying to convince a documentarian to research and film a documentary about Ernest’s life during the war.

Continue reading

‘The Winter Guest’ by Pam Jenoff is historical fiction about Poland, life in a small village during WWII, and sacrifice

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff writes historical fiction, sometimes based on real events, usually about WWII and the Holocaust. Her books provide a glimpse into how people survived in often horrific situations and reflect both the best and the worst instincts of humans. In “The Winter Guest,” Jenoff writes about Poland during the war, centering her story on a family in a small town near Kraków, eighteen-year-old twin sisters caring for their younger three siblings after the death of their father and the hospitalization of their mother for cancer. Much of the story is about their struggle to survive during this time of depredation, but Jenoff also imagines what life was like in small-town Poland.

Continue reading

‘The Ballad of Laurel Springs’ by Janet Beard is historical fiction about the songs that might just define us

The Ballad of Laurel Springs by Janet Beard

“The Ballad of Laurel Springs” by Janet Beard is historical fiction that begins in the present and gives us context for the ballads that are repeated through each woman’s tale — for this is a story that runs for over century, told about and by women all related by blood or circumstance. Each woman shares her story, some taking place in a year, some over many years, in first person narrative. At times, it almost feels like they are speaking directly to us. Pearl’s first sentence to us is, “I don’t believe in witches…Seems to me folks just like to blame their troubles on someone. If your cow stops giving milk, it’s probably sick, and if your horse up and dies, it’s probably gotten old. It’s not a witch’s fault—just bad luck.” That attitude changes horrifically later in her story.

Continue reading

‘Bluebird’ by Sharon Cameron is a stunning work of fiction based on real events that are shocking

Bluebird by Sharon Cameron

Sharon Cameron demonstrated her ability to write engrossing historical fiction based on real events in her masterful book, “The Light in Hidden Places.” In some ways, “Bluebird,” based on real, shocking events, is the antithesis of that story. As a contrast to the first story that focuses on heroes that appeared in unlikely places during WWII, “Bluebird” unveils true villains who masqueraded as heroes. The main character, Eva, is a veritable hero, but we meet many of the truly evil beings whose bigotry, arrogance, and racial prejudice stoked the fires of hate during that time.

Continue reading

‘Pony’ by R. J. Palacio is a superb new novel about devotion

Pony by R.J. Palacio

While the plot of “Pony” by R. J. Palacio reminded me a bit of another middle grade book about a pony, “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart, the stories are quite different apart from being historical fiction with both boys having a horse that they love dearly. Each story is beautiful in its own right, and “Pony” is one that will not be quickly forgotten. In “Pony,” Palacio forces us to think about love, loss, and the connections that bind us to each other.

Continue reading

‘Defending Britta Stein’ by Ronald H. Balson: thrilling courtroom drama and history about how the Danish saved the Jews in WWII

Defending Britta Stein by Ronald H. Balson

In “Defending Britta Stein” by Ronald H. Balson, attorney Catherine Lockhart and her husband, private investigator Liam Taggert, are the actors whose actions bring about justice in an unlikely manner. Through these two characters, both well known to Balson fans, we are privy to the history of a family of Danish Jews during WWII. As is standard in Balson’s novels, there is a story-within-a-story, and Lockhart and Taggert are the vehicles through which the Holocaust story is told. The storytelling is gripping, and this courtroom drama showcases the unity and bravery of the Danish people in saving most of their population of Jews during WWII when the Germans decided to implement their final solution on the Jews of Denmark.

Continue reading

‘Island Queen’ by Vanessa Riley is historical fiction based on the life of a rags-to-riches story that was really slave-to-riches

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Those who start life with nothing and eventually become wealthy have nothing on Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, who started with less than nothing but became an extremely rich, powerful woman in her own right. How does one start with less than nothing, you might wonder? In “Island Queen,” by Vanessa Riley, we meet Dolly, as she was known, who was born a slave. Her father, the Irish plantation owner, taught her numbers and the value of money. She was determined to earn enough money to free herself, her mother, and her sister. Dolly ended up accomplishing that and much, much more.

Continue reading

‘Blind Tiger’ by Sandra Brown is an action-packed historical fiction with a fascinating female main character

Blind Tiger by Sandra Brown

Exploring the bleak times during Prohibition becomes a thrill-ride in Sandra Brown’s “Blind Tiger.” The story is set right after the “Great War,” and is filled with nonstop action as we meet Laurel Plummer, who ends up in small-town Foley, Texas, after her husband abandons her in his father’s one-room shack. Laurel is left with her sickly, premature newborn, Pearl, in a drafty cabin with no running water or electricity. Laurel, as we come to find out, is a tough character and not one to let a desperate situation keep her down.

Continue reading

‘Sisters of the Resistance’ WWII fiction by Christine Wells is fascinating and engrossing from the first page

Sisters of the Resistance by Christine Wells

“Sisters of the Resistance” is an apt title for this historical fiction that’s partly based on real events and real people and in which women are the main characters. What is unusual about how Christine Wells, the author, chooses to share the events is that the story is told in two different timelines, which is not so unusual, but they are only three years apart. We meet Yvette, the main character, in 1947, as she returns to Paris after the war to testify in the trial of a movie star accused of collaboration with the Nazis and treason. She has not been to Paris nor communicated with her mother and sister since she was smuggled out of France in the final days of the war. Then the action changes to 1944, in the final days of the war.

Continue reading