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This is a very topical book in this, the centenary year of the First World War. A Star for Mrs Blake by April Smith is the story of five American mothers who lost sons during the First World War. They meet on the first Gold Star Mothers pilgrimage, funded by the American Government, which takes mother to see their sons’ graves in France. The star in the title comes from the fact that families put a star in their window if their soldier child is serving abroad and a gold star shows that this person died.

As you’d expect, this is a very moving story. There can be nothing worse for any mother than to lose a child. Grief becomes a uniting force amongst the very different women who are thrown together in Party A where we have Mrs Blake, a maid, a Jewish farmer’s wife and a rich socialite. They represent different classes, religions and cultural backgrounds. Cora Blake remains our main point of interest and she makes for an interesting and sympathetic heroine, but other characters become absorbing too.

The author clearly did a lot of research for this book and that comes through in both the major themes and the little details. However, Smith’s obsession with detail concerning her characters slows the story down at times and takes our main focus away from the point of this pilgrimage and the death, scandal and secret that we’re tempted with in the book’s blurb. We go off at tangents that we don’t need to and become a little mired down in the minutiae of backgrounds now and again. Greater focus on the main thrust of the story would give it more momentum and make its impact even more powerful.

That said, it’s a good story and generally well written. It has a truly beautiful cover, as you can see, although the inclusion of ‘A Novel’ is rather pointless. We know what it is! It’s available as hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook. Authors need to be providing their work in whatever format readers demand and it’s good to see that Smith’s publishers, Knopf, are doing this. However, the ebook price is unrealistically high, being more than for the paperback. Not a good marketing move, in my opinion.

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Melina’s back. You may remember I reviewed the first book in this culinary cozy mystery series, A Crusty Murder, here recently. Now it’s time to look at the second book.

Blurb

When Franklin Seever, the father of Melina’s best friend BettyJo, is poisoned from eating Melina’s fresh baked croutons at a dinner party, a police investigation once again targets Melina.

But Melina has learned her lesson after finding her landlady lying in a pool of blood, and with a crusty piece of bread protruding from her mouth, just a few months ago. If there is one thing Melina is aware of, it’s that you never really know people until you break bread with them.

BettyJo’s dad, a wealthy banker, already disliked Melina before the crouton calamity. What’s he going to think of her now that his life is hanging in the balance? Out of the bread pan and into the fire for Melina as she tries to keep BettyJo from freaking out about her dad, and engages in keeping her safe from a weirdo stalker.

And wouldn’t you know it? Just when Melina’s life couldn’t get more twisted than a loaf of braided bread, the sexy Scotsman, Aidan Sinclair, once again arrives on her doorstep with a smile on his face and an offer that could change Melina’s life forever.

Review

This is another very entertaining novella that makes you hungry as you enjoy the mystery. It’s a well-constructed whodunnit, with very real tension and suspense. But there’s also comedy, hints of romance, friendship, loyalty, patience, impatience and, well, real life. The characters are people you could meet on the street, they’re so very human and convincing. The mystery itself is tightly written and plausible, so all in all, this is an easy-read, easy-enjoy story. J M Griffin has a sharp eye for detail and a sure way of grabbing the reader’s attention.

A perfectly baked piece of fiction – attractive looking, crispily written and ultimately very satisfying and more-ish!

About the author:

J.M. Griffin/Dana Stone grew up in rural Maine. She relocated to Rhode Island and lives in the north western part of the state with her husband and two cats. J.M.’s first published novel For Love of Livvy, began a series of humorous mysteries featuring Lavinia “Vinnie” Esposito. J.M. has also written a romance under the pseudonym Dana Stone.

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A cover reveal for you today.

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Skye Lotus will be launching her new book, Aim, on 5th May.

It’s a book for young adults featuring Greek gods, but not as you’ve seen them before. The god of war, for example, lives in a war plane. I’ll tell you more about the book when it’s published, but for now, all you need to know is that it’s a lively adventure featuring a very modern young lady slash goddess, Zara, who needs some answers to her questions. The Greek deities have no idea what’s about to hit them…

This cover is by Maja Majetic. It’s perfect, in my opinion. The style and colours are modern and energetic, like the story. The pose of our heroine shows confidence and spirit, and yes, that’s a wolf by her side. We have to wonder what that’s all about. Already we’re intrigued to find out what this story is all about. This is beautiful artwork. You can find out more about Maja here.

Come back here on 5th May and I’ll give you a few more hints…. Meanwhile, please spread the word about this forthcoming novel by a young, talented author. I featured Skye on this website back in 2012, and she’s gone from strength to strength to strength since then! Aim is a book you’re going to love reading.

 

veniceVenice in the Moonlight by Elizabeth McKenna is a fast-moving, atmospheric romance. Set in eighteenth century Italy, we meet Marietta Gatti who is having rather a tough time of things. Her husband, Dario, is an obnoxious, unfaithful bully and as for his mother, well, she’s beyond awful. When Dario dies prematurely, Marietta is thrown out by mum-in-law and returns from Verona to her parents in Italy but finds that her father has been murdered and someone unpleasant is after her. But fortunately there’s Nico so she’s not totally alone.

This is an unusual story. As well as a bevy of trials for our heroine to get through, we have the heady atmosphere of carnival time in Venice, plus devil worshipping and also a blind hero. The author is particularly good at depicting characters. We really get into their shoes and see how their minds work. Venice is beautifully portrayed and we can imagine ourselves there in this almost magical world.

The story is absorbing and it’s easy to get lost in it. Elizabeth McKenna writes with a keen eye for detail but never goes over the top with it. The story never wallows and neither do our characters. There’s energy and optimism, despite the difficult circumstances the find themselves in. This is an enjoyable historical romance/mystery that makes for a pleasant, interesting read.

You can buy it on Amazon.com here.

About the author

elizmcElizabeth McKenna works as a full-time technical writer/editor for a large software company. Though her love of books reaches back to her childhood, she had never read romance novels until one Christmas when her sister gave her the latest bestseller by Nora Roberts. She was hooked from page one (actually, she admits it was the first love scene).

She had always wanted to write fiction, so she combined her love of history, romance and a happy ending to write her debut novel, Cera’s Place. Her short story, The Gypsy Casts a Spell, is available for free on her website http://elizabethmckenna.com/. She hopes you will enjoy her latest novel, Venice in the Moonlight, as much as others have enjoyed her previous works.

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Today I’m featuring a guest post from author Nancy Pennick, as part of her virtual book tour for Stealing Time with Backcover Promotions, the third book in her Waiting for Dusk series.
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The Feel of a Good Book
 
With the invention of the Kindle and Nook, there are so many ways to read a book these days. A lot of people say they like the feel of the book in their hand. I admit I was one of them.
 
As a young girl, I remember how it felt to pick a book out at the library, carefully taking my time. I’d place the stack on the check-out counter with a feeling of accomplishment. The librarian would slowly turn the book over, open the back cover and remove the card. She’d stamp the card and then the book with the due date. Things were pretty simple back then.
 A book plays an important part in my novel, too. Without it, Katie would never be able to live her two lives. She reads right before she goes to bed, places it on her nightstand and off she goes!
 
I never really thought about time machines or other contraptions to help the characters travel through time. A set of books did the trick. They are precious to their owners, kept safely tucked away next to their beds. All they have to do is read, go to sleep and they arrive at their destination.
The funny thing about these special books is that the characters never remember what they read or what the book is about. Hopefully that doesn’t happen to you!
 About the author

nancyAfter a great career in teaching, Nancy found a second calling as a writer. Ohio is her home but she loves to travel the U.S. Her debut young adult novel, Waiting for Dusk, was a surprise to her as much as it was to her family. Watching a PBS series on National Parks, her mind wandered to another place and that is where the characters of Katie and Andrew were born. Call of the Canyon and Stealing Time continue their story. The Swedish influences found in the books came from her mother whose parents emigrated from Sweden. Nancy currently resides in Mentor, Ohio with her husband and their college-age son.

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About Stealing Time 

This is a Young Adult title published by Ice & Fire and available in Kindle, Nook and print formats. 

Drew from the past…

Kate from the present…

Two worlds collided.

As senior year comes to a close, a promise of new beginnings is on the horizon. Kate longs to head to Arizona and college until her former friend, Tyson, does the unimaginable forcing her to stay in Ohio. Her family has to pull together to keep their secrets safe. Anna wishes to return to the canyon in 1927 once more and Kate’s determined to make that a reality. Summer’s filled with wonderful memories and little warning of things to come. Kate’s world grows darker and she must be the one to conquer the demons and save the world that is most precious to her.

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Keep an eye on Backcover Promotions as this book tour company organises excellent virtual book tours.

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ladybluesLady Blues: forget-me-not is a Gus Legarde mystery, the tenth in the series. Although part of a series it works perfectly as a standalone book, although you will inevitably want to read more of these novels. This book is probably best described as a cozy mystery, although that might not do it full justice. There’s genuine tension and threat, edge of the seat stuff, and the characters have depth and interest to them, rather more than in some cozies. Yet our hero, Professor Gus Legarde, is such a comforting sort of person that we feel safe and secure in his hands, and that’s where the coziness comes.

Gus is fifty-something, a professor, and lives with his second wife, his step-daughter, his ex-wife’s brother Siegfried, a variety of dogs, and his daughter and grandchildren are in the house too at the start of this story. There’s a strong supportive family atmosphere. Another guest, Lily, arrives, a Korean woman, after Gus and Siegfried pull her out of her burning house above the shop she runs with her brother Thom. He’s badly injured in the fire. And Lily has secrets to hide. That’s one strand of the mystery, and another stems from an octogenarian Gus meets when playing the piano at a nursing home. Music helps him remember, as do drugs, although possibly only temporarily, and one of the memories that comes back is of Bella, the woman he loved, his Lady Blues. Gus is determined to help him recapture his past before it’s all too late.

It’s hard to describe the story without giving away too much, but suffice it to say it’s intelligently and tightly written. I’ll turn my attention to the writing. This is beautiful – evocative, startling, teasing, terse, soothing and suspenseful in turns. Author Aaron Paul Lazar has a wonderfully readable style, empathetic and gentle, but also frank and realistic. The characters he creates are fully rounded, flaws and all, and it’s hard not to be drawn deep into their world with them. Good food and music are recurring motifs throughout the story and so is the Genesee valley. There is so much to admire artistically in this book, and with a catchy cover and a very high standard of presentation, it is a perfectly presented piece of fiction. Very, very highly recommended.

Pic from author's website
Pic from author’s website

Do check out this impressive and prolific author’s website: http://www.lazarbooks.com/

And don’t forget to buy the book from all branches of Amazon. The amazon.com link is here.

Nightmare in Burgundy

Nightmare in Burgundy is the third in the Winemaker’s Detective novel series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Blaen, featuring Benjamin Cooker. This adventure sees him in Burgundy where, at the beginning of the book, he is given the honour of being named Chevalier du Tastevin by the Knights of this order, who have, as their slogan, ‘Never whine, always wine’!

The morning after he receives this honour,  he is, not surprisingly, a little slow but is soon aroused to full capacity when he goes to inspect the graffiti that has appeared overnight in the country town Vougeot, where he’s staying. It inspires him since it’s in Latin, which isn’t usual for graffiti. Sadly, the locals think it’s young vandals, and two of them, the Mancenot brothers, shoot two teenagers whom they believe are responsible. Cooker, appalled by this vigilante justice, isn’t convinced they’ve got the right person.

An elderly friend of his, Brother Clément, helps Cooker determine what this Latin graffiti is all about. It’s a Psalm, and a rather foreboding one at that. Virgile, Cooker’s young and virile assistant, lends a hand too and the sleuthing begins in earnest.

Like its predecessors, this book is a wonderful combination of entertainment and education. We learn about wines, local folklore, history and, this time, some Latin. There’s suspense, suspicion, desperation, humour, lust and erudition. Benjamin Cooker displays his customary calm, loyalty and tenacity as he gets to grips with this definitely different mystery that faces him.

As you would expect from authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Blaen, there is some haunting imagery in this tightly-written, enjoyable novel. My favourite passage is: “In the distance, the massive silhouette of the Vougeot château seemed to be dozing in the middle of a burial ground of vines whose bony limbs and gnarled stumps were packed all the way to the back of the vineyard. A thick sky was brushing against the points of the tower where the crows were performing sinister and mocking spirals.”

If that doesn’t tempt you to want to read more of this book, then I’m not sure what will!

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Follow the rest of the book’s tour here.

And buy the book here.

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This book is an absolute delight from start to finish. But don’t read it – at least, not in a public place. It’ll have you smiling to yourself at the author’s light, lively smile, chuckling quietly at the faux pas, which are a normal part of expat life, that she shares with us and occasionally laughing out loud at the sudden ridiculousness of a crazy situation she finds herself in. And there’ll be the odd gasp of horror at the hair-tearingly-out stubbornness of French bureaucracy, and once or twice of admiration at our narrator’s partying stamina. People sitting in the airport terminal or doctor’s surgery around you shoot you looks of alarm and sidle quickly away from this clearly insane person giggling to themself!
Vicky Lesage shares the adventures of her early years in Paris, warts and all – and that’s what’s so wonderful. ‘Confessions’ is absolutely the right word to go in the title. The author doesn’t spare the French and she doesn’t spare herself. However, she only has a dig at French people when they deserve it, and is quick to admire all their good qualities, of which there are plenty. She’s less forgiving of herself, calling herself a ‘nerd’ now and again and worrying about her language skills. What she forgets to tell us is that Resourceful is her second name. There seems to be nothing she can’t cope with, and she tackles Paris head on – and wins!
We join Vicky as she finds friends, frustrations, places to live, fun, work, more frustrations and, on the way, the love of her life.
I honestly can’t think of anyone who won’t enjoy this book. If you’ve ever thought of going to France either to visit or to live, or even if you haven’t, you’ll get a sharp insight into what it’s like in this country. From the shopkeepers, who regard you as ‘Satan’s spawn’ because you want to pay with a €50 note, or, worse still, a credit card, to the fonctionnaires who always seem to withhold crucial information and thus complicate your life a million times more than it needs to be, to the bewildering number of public holidays, and finally to getting married there. Fabulous!
And as well as being a thoroughly brilliant book to read, it’s a showcase of good self-publishing practice. Here I put on my professional editor’s hat. We have the following:
• a classy, sassy cover
• an extremely well-written and well-presented text
• short, punchy chapters
• acknowledgements and table of contents at the end of the book: I wanted to dance when I saw that! Why? Well, these items take up valuable space in the free sample 10% or so that interested readers download when they’re considering buying an ebook. Given that an ebook opens at the last point you read to, you don’t need a contents list to find your page, so push that to the back. It’s there, but it’s not intruding, as are the acknowledgements. I’ve always advocated this approach but there’s been resistance. We’re too used to having these elements up front. Please, follow Vicky Lesage’s example!
• a chatty ‘about the author’ section, inviting us to review the book in exchange for a bonus story not in the book and to get in touch.

We have not only authoring, but indie authoring at its very, very best in this little gem of a book. It’s a self-publishing party in itself!

parispartygirl vickiAnd to finish, here’s a short extract from the first chapter.

 

Sister Mary Keyholder

I would like to say that when I first stepped off the plane and embarked on my new life in France, something memorable happened. Or something funny or amazing or romantic or at least worth writing about. Truth is, I don’t remember. I take that to be a good thing. Considering all the mishaps I’ve had since moving here, “uneventful” nearly equals “good” in my book.

Looking back all these years later, I see myself as a hopeful, naive girl full of energy stepping off that plane. Tired of running into my ex-boyfriend seemingly everywhere around my midwestern American hometown, and having been unceremoniously freed from my IT job, this fearless 25-year-old was ready for a change.
I had dipped my toes in the proverbial European pond over the course of several college backpacking trips and now wanted to experience living there. To wake up to the smell of fresh croissants, to drink copious amounts of wine straight from the source, and maybe meet a tall, dark and handsome Frenchman. Who was, of course, not a wienie.
Oh, to be back in the shoes (or flip-flops, as it were) of that intrepid girl, arriving in a new land, successfully commandeering the Métro and her luggage, triumphantly arriving on the doorstep of her destination.
The smooth sailing didn’t last long.
I had sublet an apartment for the summer from an unseen Irish girl, Colleen, using Craigslist. The photos showed a charming, yet tiny, apartment that I already pictured myself living in. You’d think this was where the story starts to go wrong, but the girl and the apartment did exist! Making it probably the last apartment to be legitimately rented online before scammers cornered the market.
For me, the issue was getting in to the apartment.
First I had to get the key. Colleen had agreed to leave it next door at the convent (Me? Living next to a convent? This’ll be good.) The Catholic schoolgirl in me had an overly romanticized notion of how a Parisian convent would look. I was expecting some sort of Gothic cathedral with nunny looking nuns. So I must have walked past the modern, imposing structure about twenty times, sure I’d been conned, before I noticed the sign. Ahem.
I retrieved the key using a combination of my shaky French and the logic that, c’mon ladies, how would anyone else have found out about this bizarre scenario and come knocking on your door?
“Bonjour, je m’appelle Vicki. Comment allez-vous?” I asked the group of navy-blue-clad, pious-looking women gathered inside the doorway.
The elderly (aren’t they all?) nun closest to me cautiously replied, “Pas mal. Et vous?”
Ack! What did she say? I was so busy forming my question I didn’t plan for her response! Just keep going, you can do it. “Je cherche une clef.” I’m looking for a key.
“Une clef?”
“Oui, une clef.” Now I know that’s not much to go on, but let’s be real. Do lost girls often come to their door? Hrm. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s how girls become nuns? Better speed this up before I get stuck in the nunnery, never to be seen again. “Colleen leave key? It’s for me.”
“Oh yes, a key! For an American girl. That must be you.” Was it that obvious? Was it my blonde hair? Wide, toothy smile? No, it was probably my command (or lack thereof) of the French language.
“You’re friends with Colleen?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure how to answer that since we weren’t really friends, but then again I wasn’t even sure that was the question. My French wasn’t up to the task of explaining how I knew Colleen, and for sure if I said we weren’t friends, Sister Mary Keyholder would never hand over the precious key.
“Yes,” I said with a smile, then promptly got the heck out of there.
Key and two heavy suitcases in hand, I headed to my new apartment building. The number on the front, 20, was written in the ornate curlicue script that most French buildings employ. The large windows of each apartment were fronted by black wrought-iron rails, providing the perfect vantage point from which to observe the goings-on of the street below. I eagerly punched the five-digit code into the digicode reader to the right of the door and was in.
Next issue: finding the actual apartment. You’d think this would be easy since Colleen had said it was on the third floor. Silly me, that seemed like enough information until I scoped out the situation.
Problem 1: Once inside the front door, I saw two buildings – one that faced the sidewalk (in which I was currently standing) and one past a quiet courtyard containing a few trees and a large, overflowing trash barrel. Which building was it?

 

Follow the rest of Vicky’s tour.

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Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen is best summed up, I think, as a cozy mystery for men set in the ostentatiously wealthy world of winemakers and connoisseurs. There is a definite feeling of Gentlemen’s Club in the novel with erudite discussions and witty wordplay amidst a haze of cigar smoke. The characters we meet would definitely never confuse “a Bordeaux with a Burgundy”, and I’m not sure the same could be said for a lot of its readers. (I know I’d be struggling!) However, the book gives us a fascinating glimpse into this exclusive world.

Winemaker Benjamin Cooker is the victim of a carjacking in Paris. To recover from the unpleasant ordeal, he takes himself off to a rather nice hotel in Touraine to convalesce. Here he meets the British version of himself – Robert Morton, another man who likes his fancy motors and vintage wines. He’s also pulled into a murder when Morton’s young female companion is found dead, and shortly afterwards Cooker stumbles on another body. While this is going on, his friend Hubert de Boüard, owner of the Château Angélus, is suffering from burglaries and receiving clever, cryptic messages from the thieves. Cooker throws his returning energy and intelligence into working out what’s going on in both cases. He certainly does seem more clued up than the investigator from the gendarmes, especially when it comes to European car registration numbers. With the help from his assistant, Virgile, Crooker sets to.

The book is partly set in Bordeaux, without doubt the most beautiful city in France. (With my daughter at university there, I get to visit it every now and again.) If you know the city, but actually even if you don’t, you can really appreciate the descriptions of various parts of it that we find in the book. There are a few mentions of its history too. There is some lyrical writing (“The two pilgrims braved the west wind and the light rain that seeped into their bones, and for a while, they forgot their ages, their health, their ambitions, and perhaps even their own convictions”), and sharp observation (“Restaurants always seemed to be full of bored couples who enjoyed eavesdropping”). It’s tightly written, moves steadily and always with dignity, like Cooker himself, and is an intriguing mystery.

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I’ve mentioned the Gentlemen’s Club atmosphere, and this is a predominantly male book. There are some women amongst its pages, although they do stay in the background. There’s Cooker’s wife, Elisabeth, patient and loving, also a bossy nurse, a moody prostitute and an eye-catching waitress. They’re succinctly portrayed and, whilst minor characters, they’re certainly not shadowy.

Time for a very quick, gentle grumble. We get a ‘discretely’, meaning separately, where we need a ‘discreetly’, meaning stealthily, and teetotaler preceded by ‘an’ amongst the, admittedly, very few typos in this very well presented novel. However, to make up for that we get the lovely touch of the made-up term ‘Saint-Emillionnaire’ to describe someone who’s made a fortune from that type of wine. And I was delighted to see that Cooker’s dog is called Bacchus – I mean, what else! And to return briefly to our ‘an teetotaler’, the definition is wonderful and gives us a good idea of what our hero Benjamin Cooker is about. To him teetotalers are “A race of individuals not to be recommended…”, and the same can be said of the criminals Cooker helps to root out. (I’ve since been informed that I had an ARC – advanced review copy – of the book and that these and other typos will be sorted out in the final version.)

This is an enjoyable read. It’s quite a short book but, since it’s only the second of a promised series of twenty-two, then we can be consoled with knowing that there is plenty more entertainment coming our way from these two authors.

grandcru authorsPhoto is copyright of David Nakache

Follow the rest of this enchanting book’s virtual tour by visiting the France Book Tour  website.

 

 

sevenminutesWill has recently been made redundant so he’s taking care of the farm and family while his wife commutes abroad to work for the mother she’s never got on with. There’s not much demand for history of art graduates and job hunting isn’t going well. So when Will finds an untitled book on his doorstep, he’s more than happy to let it distract it from what he should be doing. It’s a mysterious manuscript, presenting him with snippets from the lives of various people – Angelica, Sabina, the inappropriately named Clemence (he’s a boy), Helen, Louise and Mangikas – at key moments in their lives. These are their most powerful memories. They give Will fascinating insights into these memorable characters, but gradually he begins to see that their lives are connected to each other.

But what has all this got to do with him? Why has this book ended up on his doorstep? Did his wife, Sarah, write it? The mysteries in his life only deepen when he’s invited to what has to be the most bizarre interview he – and possibly anyone else – has ever had. And increasingly he finds himself drawn ever more deeply into the pages of the book. It’s almost as though a web is closing around him.

This is a fantastically imaginative novel from debut author Jessica Stritch. She has taken this idea of us each having our seven minutes of crucial memories, which is intriguing itself, and turned it into a fast paced, absorbing, highly original story. Every aspect of her writing is sharp and honed, but her strength undeniably lies in her creation of characters. She gives us people from not only different walks of life, but also of different nationalities and at various ages. Whether interacting with others, or wrestling with their own beliefs, they are persuasive and empathetic. Given the diversity of the people we meet in the book, the settings vary from sunny Greek beaches to a car race track to boarding school to wartime Germany, to give a few examples. Like Will, the reader can’t help but be drawn into their lives. There’s an unexpected but welcome twist as the novel reaches its climax making this a rewarding and very polished piece of fiction indeed.

You can buy the book here at Amazon.com and at all Amazon branches.