Monday, November 9, 2020

An Open Book (Nov. 2020): Just a Few Quick Recommendations

I have recently read some novels that I would like to heartily recommend, but I don’t seem to have the time to write a decent review for each of them right now. Let’s chalk that up to the birth of a 17th grandchild in late October, a big family birthday party for a one-year-old granddaughter not long afterward, a big family get-together at Papa and Grammy’s house on Halloween followed by Trick-or-Treating—13 little cousins all together!—in our neighborhood afterwards, and well...the ELECTION and its aftermath.  (Note to self: don’t overuse the adjective “big”... although that’s getting harder and harder to do when describing events attended by our ever-growing family.)

So...I think for the An Open Book link-up this month, I'll just post a some lovely pictures of the covers of these books, and hopefully they will speak the 1,000 words that I don't have the time or energy to write at this time.  (But I'll try to at least write a few words.)

First up, The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli, a well-researched historical novel set in Germany during WWII (if you know me at all, are you surprised?).

This story goes back and forth in time, from Milan in 1492 to Germany in the 1940's.  A young German art conservator  named Edith Becker has been commandeered by high-ranking Nazis to catalog priceless works of art that they've stolen from all over Europe, but at the same time, she is smuggling information about these stolen treasures to the Resistance.  If you are at all familiar with the Monuments Men (did you see the movie?  It was wonderful!), you will eat this book up--because Edith ends up meeting them and helping them in their efforts to save these priceless works and get them back to their rightful owners (often Jews who have been sent to the camps and had their homes ransacked).  One of the paintings that Edith is particularly fond of is Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine.  When the novel goes back in time to the 15th century, we get to meet the young girl who was the model for this painting and we learn some fascinating history about Italy in Da Vinci's day.  

This is a well-written book—informative and thoroughly engrossing.  The characters are real and likable.  As a Catholic, I enjoyed the descriptions of the great masterpieces that many brave people worked tirelessly to find and save.  So many of these works depicted sacred religious images such as the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, or were paintings and sculptures that had graced the altars of spectacular Catholic churches.  If you are a sucker for good fiction, beautiful art, and history in general  (WWII history in particular!), I guarantee you'll love this book.  Five stars.

Second up: another WWII-era historical fiction winner, The Secret Messenger, by Mandy Robotham.  

I think the reason I gravitate towards WWII-era fiction is that it tells the most unbelievable stories about seemingly average individuals who exhibited heroic courage, risking their lives and against all odds finding ways to thwart the enemy.  And these stories are based on actual people and true events, which makes them even more moving and inspiring.

This one is set in Venice, which apparently was spared much of the devastation of the Allied bombings, but whose citizens nonetheless suffered greatly under Mussolini's Fascist oppression and then the Nazi occupation.  Young Venetian Stella Jilani is given a job as a typist at the Reich headquarters, because of her knowledge of the German language.  While working right under the nose of the most powerful Nazi in the city, she finds ways to sneak information gleaned at the office out to the Resistance.  She is one of the women known at the time as "Staffettas," secret messengers who played an integral part in the war effort.  Stella also writes for an underground Resistance newspaper--a crime that would be punishable by death if she gets caught.  

The Secret messenger goes back and forth in time, from WWII Venice to 21st century London, where Stella's granddaughter Luisa stumbles upon a trove of vintage treasures in her late mother’s attic—including an antique typewriter with a slightly damaged E key and a never-before-seen box of old photos and letters. (Who doesn’t love an attic filled with family history?!)    These clues to her grandmother’s mysterious past inspire Luisa to go on a journey to uncover her family’s secrets.    .  

This book has it all!  There's a satisfying love story.  There are twists and turns and edge-of-your-seat moments of near-discovery that could end in imprisonment or death for those who dare to resist the occupiers.  And that typewriter, with a tell-tale dropped E key, is the very thing that might spell disaster for Stella, because if the Nazis find its owner, they find the culprit who has been writing the forbidden stories that are giving the Venetians hope but filling their enemies with rage.  This is a riveting tale, one based on extraordinary women such as Stella who really did play a huge part in the Allied victory.  Highly recommend.  Five stars.

Up third, a suspense-filled whodunit by popular murder mystery writer Lisa Scottoline, titled Don't Go.  

I know what you must be thinking: what, not historical fiction?  Not WWII-themed?   Crazy, right?  This novel is set partly in a war zone, but in the recent Middle East conflict.   (See, sometimes I actually do go outside my normal comfort zone and try new things!)

Mike Scanlon, an orthopedic surgeon, is called to serve as an Army doctor in Afghanistan, leaving his wife Chloe and their infant daughter behind stateside. While deployed, Mike receives the devastating news that Chloe has died in what appears to be an unfortunate household accident. When he comes home to bury her, however, he discovers that she had some dark secrets.  While he’s been away, she has had an affair.  And it becomes more and more apparent, as he does his own investigative work, that her death might not have been accidental after all.

I found this book compulsively readable, and it kept me guessing until the end.  On the back cover, it is described as “gripping, thrilling, and profoundly emotional,” and I would agree with those adjectives.  The murder mystery is not my favorite book genre, but I would still give Don’t Go four stars. It would be an ideal choice to take along on a long flight or a beach vacation.

I've just started an historical novel called The Girl Who Came Home, by Hazel Gaynor, about a group of Irish people traveling to America on the Titanic, and it looks like it's going to be a winner.  (I've always been drawn to stories about the Titanic, whether non-fiction or fiction based on real life.)  But I'll have to tell you about that one next month!  If you're looking for more suggestions to put on your "must read" list, head on over to the November link-up to see what Carolyn et. al. are reading.


  1. I love historical fiction set in and around WWII, and Don't Go also sounds really interesting! Thanks for the recommendations! And congrats on the 17th grandchild-what a blessing!

    1. Thanks, we are truly blessed with grandchildren!

      I think there are a lot of us WWII fiction fans out there. Luckily, there is never a shortage of novels set in that era. Just when I think there is not much new to learn about that time, another well-researched story is published. I am continually amazed by the many people who acted so courageously in the midst of all that suffering. (I think Americans in 2020 might need their inspiration to endure current and coming hardships!)

  2. Great recommendations! I will have to check them out. Thanks!

  3. That's more than a few words! Great reviews. These all look so good. Thanks for linking up.

    1. Ha ha--very true. I set out to write a few and wrote many more than I had planned! But that's me in a nutshell, wordy; I have been told by several readers that Finding Grace is too long. (Personally, I love long books--but they're not for everyone, I know!)

      Thanks for this link-up. Reading is giving me a lot of comfort during these crazy times, and book talk is a real pleasure. :)

  4. Yikes, this originally went out with lots of typos (the bane of my existence!). Sorry about that!

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  7. Ohh I've put these all on my to read list.