Friday Book Whimsy: Mistress of the Ritz

If I had a bucket list (which I decidedly don’t), one of the things on the list would be to spend a week at the Paris Ritz Hotel. The trickiest part of achieving that goal would be that I would want to visit the Ritz during the period of time that Claude Auzello was the director of the famous hotel, and his wife Blanche was its mistress.

Mixing fiction with interesting fact is the bedrock of a good historical novel. Melanie Benjamin’s novel Mistress of the Ritz focuses on the period of time during World War II, specifically when the Nazis had taken over Paris, and subsequently made the Ritz Hotel their headquarters.

Claude Auzello fell immediately in love with Blanche, an independent American who now lived in Paris. She soon loved him back, and they married shortly after they first met. Much to his surprise, Blanche wasn’t interested in allowing Claude to have a mistress in the way French men do, at least according to Claude. Still, the two made a good and loving partnership as Claude worked his way up to director of the renowned hotel, stomping grounds of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Coco Chanel during World War II.

Mistress of the Ritz tells the love story of Claude and Blanche Auzello, but also the love story of Blanche and Claude with the Ritz Hotel. As the world was going crazy around them, the Ritz provided a solid foundation.

With Claude unaware, Blanche becomes associated with the French resistance movement, and eventually is discovered. But Claude has secrets of his own. No secret, however, is greater than the fact that Blanche came from a Jewish family in New York City and had changed her name to protect herself.

I loved this book, both for the history and for the romance. I give Mistress of the Ritz a big thumbs up.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Spies of Shilling Lane

World War II is raging, and England is in chaos as the Germans bomb London and its surroundings almost nightly in what is called the Blitz. It’s hard to imagine living in a world where you don’t know if you’re going to make it through the night.

But all that Mrs. Braithwaite, the protagonist of The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan worries about is that she has lost her standing in the community because her husband has filed for divorce. Never mind that it was he who had the affair. She is being shunned.

So she sets off to London to surprise her daughter Betty, with whom she has never been close, to find comfort. Imagine her surprise when she learns that her daughter has been missing for a few days. Mrs. Braithwaite is immediately suspicious, and sets out to find her daughter. She convinces Mr. Norris, Betty’s timid landlord to help. The two quickly figure out that Betty isn’t just a secretary, but instead, is a spy working for the British government. It isn’t long before Mrs. Braithwaite and her new friend are in the thick of it.

The novel is a feel-good look at the role women played in World War II, and the difficult relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s hard to dislike Mrs. Braithwaite’s spunk, and her unwillingness to quit until she knows her daughter is safe. 

War is, of course, a serious topic, but Mrs. Braithwaite and her newfound friend provided readers a look at how strength and kindness we don’t even know we have can have a major impact.

The Spies of Shilling Street might be the first in a series? At least the ending led me to think so.

Here is a link to the book. 


Friday Book Whimsy: Dear Mrs. Bird

From the time I was a young girl, I loved reading advice columns. I savored Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers as though my life depended on it. I couldn’t get enough. I’m not sure why people like me think a woman I don’t even know would be of any help to someone like me, but they were great successes. Dear Mrs. Bird, by A.J. Pearce, featured a World War II advice columnist.

Emmeline Lake wasn’t too excited when she applied for a job at a London newspaper during World War II for what she thought would be a assistant reporter position, but turned out to be the assistant to the advice columnist. The worst thing was that the advice columnist — Mrs. Bird — would only answer questions that held no Unpleasantness, Her definition of Unpleasantness was broad: anything involving sex, boyfriends, girlfriends, general ladies’ problems, religion, etc.. Those she did answer, she responded with unkindness and lack of empathy.

Before long, it got to be too much for Emmeline, and she began secretly answering the desperate readers’ questions and signing Mrs. Bird’s name. Before long, a few began appearing in the magazine, and Emmeline got busted.

I was excited to read the book because I felt the premise sounded interesting. Unfortunately, the characters were anything BUT interesting. I thought the book read like a poorly-written teenaged novel, and though I finished the novel, I couldn’t have cared less by the end.

The most annoying part of the book was the author’s habit of using capital letters to express any number of emotions. I’m serious when I say that there were probably three or four instances of this habit on nearly every page. After the first 10 pages, the capital-letters-for-emphasis became ANNOYING.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this book even for a teenager.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Baker’s Daughter

Reba Adams is a journalist working for an El Paso magazine. She has been asked to write a feel-good Christmas piece featuring German immigrant Elsie Schmidt who runs a German bakery using the recipes she learned from her German parents. Thinking it will be a slam-dunk, Reba is surprised to find that she is entranced by the story of this immigrant who lived in Germany during World War II. She is so entranced, in fact, that she comes back again and again to the bakery where she is fed bodily and spiritually by the story of this strong woman.

Elsie’s story includes being engaged to a Nazi officer, while at the same time, rescuing a young Jewish boy who nearly brings disaster to Elsie and her family.

The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, is a wonderful account of what it was like to be a typical German family and business owner during the time of the Nazis. Being a baker’s daughter myself, I loved the stories of how the family offered the baked goods for the German people who often didn’t have enough to feed their families.

The main problem with the story, at least in this reader’s opinion, was the sideline story of Reba’s boyfriend who is a border agent in El Paso. I liked his character and his story at the beginning, as it seemed to show both sides of the issue. But it troubled me that the author tried to compare the immigrant issue to the Holocaust, and I found that distracting and offputting.

Still, the story was enjoyable and any book that ends with recipes captures my attention.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Dangerous Crossing

A murder mystery on a cruise ship just as the world is about to embark on another war appealed to me. After all, if Hercule Poirot could solve a murder mystery on the Orient Express, why couldn’t the same thing happen on a cruise ship?

It’s 1939, and Lily Shepherd is eager to leave her home and her difficult life in England for Australia, where she is promised a job as a domestic worker as part of a relocation program.

She boards a cruise ship where, despite the fact that she is a second-class passenger, there is still promise of romance and music and cocktails. It isn’t long before Lily and her two roommates meet a wealthy and mysterious couple with a rather twisted relationship. They don’t even seem to like one another, but they certainly know how to have fun. Lily becomes friends with some of the livelier passengers, and becomes smitten with one man that she hopes has similar feelings.

In a clever twist, the author — Rachel Rhys — opens up A Dangerous Crossing with a prologue in which the boat is already docked in Australia and a woman being led off of the boat in handcuffs, having been accused of a murder. The remainder of the book challenges readers to figure out who is murdered and who is the murderer.

Rachel Rhys is a pen name for a British author who has written a number of suspense novels, but this is her first attempt at an historical novel. I found the book quite readable, though the characters were a bit flat. The ending rather took me by surprise, though I had partially figured out what was going on.

If you don’t mind a bit of slogging along, and if you can suspend belief long enough to buy the notion that a second class cruise passenger could intermingle with first class passengers in 1939, you might enjoy the story. It is a relatively light read with lots of glamorous clothes and lifestyle descriptions.

Here is a link to the book.



Friday Book Whimsy: The Women in the Castle

I have read countless novels about World War II. I have read about the war from the Jewish perspective. I have read about the war from the French perspective and the British and the American perspectives. Books I have read have dealt with the war from the eyes of women, and soldiers, and children. But I, at least, have never read a novel that shows World War II from the eyes of regular Germans.

How could they have let this happen, we all wonder. I would never have stood for it, we all insist.

The Women in the Castle, a novel by Jessica Shattuck, presents World War II from the eyes of folks on the front line – the German citizens.  It is the story of three women – widows of resistence fighters who attempted – and  failed – to assassinate Hitler in 1944. One of the widows, Marianne von Lingenfels, returns to the castle that was the home of her husband’s family for generations with the other two widows and their children, fulfilling a promise she made to take care of these people should their plan fail. It, of course, failed, and the men were all put to death.

The women paid their price as well. One fell into the unfortunate hands of the Soviet army. Another had been placed in a camp with other German refugees, awaiting release by the Allies.  Now they are trying to put their lives back together.

Each of the women has her own story, and it isn’t always what the reader expects. But Shattuck paints a very clear picture of Europe – particularly Germany – following World War I, and presents background that makes the reader understand that things are not just black and white, as we all had hoped. She does this without even coming close to being a Nazi apologist.

I couldn’t put this novel down. The writing is exceptional and the story was fascinating. The characters were well developed and interesting, if not always likeable. The book would be perfect for a reading group or book club.

I highly recommend this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Once you start reading books that take place during World War I and World War II, it’s hard to get away from it. Amazon and Goodreads both start feeding you recommendations based on what you’ve been reading and there are somewhere in the neighborhood of a million books that take place during the world wars. Most are terribly sad. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a glimpse of blue sky in the dark sadness of death and hatred that war brings.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is a debut novel by writer Jennifer Ryan. Though certainly not a deep and meaningful literary look at WWII as, say Sophie’s Choice, I truly enjoyed the story and the characters.

When it becomes clear that England must become involved in World War II, the small English village of Chilbury isn’t immune. One at a time, the men of the village are called to serve their country, leaving the women to carry on. Though the vicar advises that the town disband its choir because there are no male singers, the women elect instead to continue, making the controversial choice to have a women’s-only choir. Egad! But the women’s choir not only provides an outlet for singing, but more important, it provides a support group for the women of this village.

The story is told primarily through letters, which give readers a look at five particular women and how they are impacted by the war. Among the five women, particularly meaningful to me was a timid young widow whose only child is called to serve. As the weeks and months go by, she becomes stronger and more independent. She eventually becomes a driving force in keeping the town together.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a gentle reminder that war not only affects those fighting the battles, but also those left behind.

I loved the book and give it a strong recommendation.

Here is a link to the book.