Saturday, March 16, 2024

Book Review: The Berlin Letters by Katherine Reay

Bestselling author Katherine Reay returns with an unforgettable tale of the Cold War and a CIA code breaker who risks everything to free her father from an East German prison. 

From the time she was a young girl, Luisa Voekler has loved solving puzzles and cracking codes. Brilliant and logical, she’s expected to quickly climb the career ladder at the CIA. But while her coworkers have moved on to thrilling Cold War assignments—especially in the exhilarating era of the late 1980s—Luisa’s work remains stuck in the past decoding messages from World War II.

Journalist Haris Voekler grew up a proud East Berliner. But as his eyes open to the realities of postwar East Germany, he realizes that the Soviet promises of a better future are not coming to fruition. After the Berlin Wall goes up, Haris finds himself separated from his young daughter and all alone after his wife dies. There’s only one way to reach his family—by sending coded letters to his father-in-law who lives on the other side of the Iron Curtain. 

When Luisa Voekler discovers a secret cache of letters written by the father she has long presumed dead, she learns the truth about her grandfather’s work, her father’s identity, and why she has never progressed in her career. With little more than a rudimentary plan and hope, she journeys to Berlin and risks everything to free her father and get him out of East Berlin alive.

As Luisa and Haris take turns telling their stories, events speed toward one of the twentieth century’s most dramatic moments—the fall of the Berlin Wall and that night’s promise of freedom, truth, and reconciliation for those who lived, for twenty-eight years, behind the bleak shadow of the Iron Curtain’s most iconic symbol.

This is not author Katherine Reay's first venture into the dispirited world of a Cold War-era Communist country. In her 2023 novel A Shadow in Moscow, Reay offers an alternating timeline which captures a story of secret agents, family dynamics, and struggles within the human condition. In her latest work, Reay travels to Germany in The Berlin Letters. Once again readers are brought into the world of espionage and intergenerational relationships, but the atmosphere is quite different this time. The threat and oppression of the East German government during the Cold War seems to hover over the entire narrative, bringing a seriousness to the novel that gives one pause. 

Although I was born in 1971 and grew up during much of this era, I was fairly unaware of the majority of the political events that were going on in Eastern Europe at that time. Reading The Berlin Letters was an eye-opening experience. While it is a novel which was captivating and a source of entertainment, it was so much more than that. It seems to truly inhabit that world in such a way that the reader can genuinely feel the captivity of the people in that time period. They may have had their families and jobs, but their freedoms were quite limited. Often they were not given the option to even choose their careers. Some were strongly compelled to spy on their own friends and neighbors. Beauty and joy were extracted from their lives bit by bit. Their lives were literally and figuratively overcast and gray.

Despite the serious tone of the novel, I thoroughly enjoyed The Berlin Letters. Katherine Reay's historical research was impeccable, but she also crafted a fictional tale which bonded to the facts of the past seamlessly. Her characters are complex, likable, and well drawn. The villains are not always what they seem to be, and a few in particular took me by surprise. The alternating timeline was creative-- Chapter One opens in 1961, focusing on the lives of Luisa's parents, her father Haris in particular. The contrasting chapters are mostly set in 1989 with Luisa as an adult. As the novel moves forward, the experiences of Haris begin to get narratively closer to Luisa's in 1989. It was quite exciting to see those converging plotlines develop. The epic conclusion is historic, cinematic, and thrilling.

From a content standpoint, The Berlin Letters stands in an interesting position. There is remarkably no salty language, and any romantic content is quite sparse. Given the subject matter, this novel could have been much more graphic. That said, many difficult issues are addressed. This story is not for young children. The trials and tribulations of the people of this era are sometimes hard to take in. Some characters in the story are from the 80s punk scene and lead decadent lives. This is not a negative criticism of the book. Keay writes accurately and paints a realistic picture of what was going on at the time, and honestly portrays issues with which Luisa and her family were wrestling. I felt that this content lent an air of realism to the work. It did not water down or sugar-coat the situation, but its presentation was done in a non-gratuitous fashion.

The conclusion of The Berlin Letters rides the wave of hope and optimism which crashed into Germany during that historic moment in 1989. It doesn't come to that occasion easily. Many sacrifices and risks are taken for the sake of freedom and family love. The journey is fraught with tension, uncertainty, and no guarantee of success. Katherine Reay has crafted an excellent novel, combining the realities of the Cold War with the captivating fictional narrative of her characters. Her epilogue leads me to hope for more from Luisa, Haris, and their associates. The wall may have come down in 1989, but as the decades have passed, the possibilities for more epic tales endure. Katherine Reay not only brings exciting tales of espionage to her readers, but she also reveals history and hope in a way that bears repeating.


Katherine Reay is a national bestselling and award-winning author who has enjoyed a lifelong affair with books. She publishes both fiction and nonfiction, holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University, and currently lives outside Chicago, Illinois, with her husband and three children. You can meet her at

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Book Review: A Lady's Guide to Marvels and Misadventure by Angela Bell

When Clara Marie Stanton’s ex-fiancĂ© begins to spread rumors that her family suffers from hereditary insanity, it’s all Clara can do to protect them from his desperate schemes and society’s prejudice. Her family may be eccentric, yes, but they certainly aren’t insane. Then Clara’s Grandfather Drosselmeyer brings on an apprentice with a mechanical leg, and all pretense of normalcy takes wing.

Theodore Kingsley, a shame-chased vagabond skilled in repairing clocks, wants a fresh start far from Kingsley Court and the disappointed father who declared him dead. Upon returning to England, Theodore meets clockmaker Drosselmeyer, who hires him as an apprentice, much to Clara’s dismay. When Drosselmeyer spontaneously disappears in his secret flying owl machine, he leaves behind a note for Clara, beseeching her to make her dreams of adventure a reality by joining him on a merry scavenger hunt. Together, Clara and Theodore set off to follow Drosselmeyer’s trail of clues, but they will have to stay one step ahead of a villain who wants the flying machine for himself—at any cost.

Taking readers on a whimsical, unforgettable journey through Victorian London and Europe, debut author Angela Bell tells an imaginative tale of danger, adventure, and romance.

We humans can be a complicated lot. Many of us have been damaged emotionally, and we take those injuries into all corners of our lives. Because of hurtful words from others, we might come to believe that we are “less than” or “unworthy” of success, strength or even love. On the other hand, many of us are determined to be strong and self-sufficient, never showing weakness or the need for assistance. In either scenario, hearts can become closed off. We don’t allow ourselves to be truly seen and loved, either because we feel unworthy, or because we could be seen as weak. When this happens, our lives become smaller. We try to maintain control over what is actually uncontrollable, and we reject the love that will soothe our aching souls. 

The lead characters in A Lady’s Guide to Marvels and Misadventure by Angela Bell exhibit these same tendencies. Clara Marie Stanton has been hurt by a former fiancĂ©. Not only has she vowed to never be hurt in matters of romance ever again, but she also feels a strong compulsion to control her environment as much as possible. This includes shouldering the burden of protecting and providing for her family as much as she is able. The compulsion is so strong, that her grandfather refers to her as her “Little Atlas”, as she tries to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Clara comes to know Theodore Kingsley, an apprentice of her grandfather’s who is adept in clock repair. His heart is closed as well, but due to reasons of insecurity rather than self-sufficiency. Rejected by his family and a failure as a soldier, he feels unworthy of love. Due to his service on the battlefield, he is an amputee, and his injury also manifests itself emotionally as he sees himself as “damaged goods.” He struggles to determine his place in the world, almost like a broken cog that needs mending and purpose.

Clara and Theodore find themselves on a fantastic journey, not only on a whirlwind scavenger hunt laid out by her grandfather, but also in a race to outwit a cunning adversary who would do anything to acquire important assets of the Stanton family. Along the way they learn lessons about human self-sufficiency (or lack thereof) as well as the inherent worthiness that we carry to be loved by others and by God.

A Lady’s Guide to Marvels and Misadventure was such a joyful novel. Much like Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Angela Bell’s tale takes her readers to wondrous locations around the globe. There is a bit of a steampunk feel to the story, as certain elements would certainly have been impossible (or certainly not invented yet) in 19th century Europe. If readers can buy into the notion of a huge, flying automaton owl and similar creatures, then this story is a wonder to behold. Bell’s descriptions of the many mechanical creatures are lush and bring the whimsical items to life. I thoroughly enjoyed playing along with Drosselmeyer’s inventions and adventures.

Readers of classic fiction will find many winks to some of our favorite novels. Of course there are many tips of the hat to The Nutcracker, given Clara Marie’s name, her grandfather Drosselmeyer, the great Owl and other elements. I also spotted acknowledgements of Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, Clement Moore, Dumas, and King Arthur. The modern Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles even have a cameo with one particular character. This was especially amusing.

Author Angela Bell weaves a delightful tale of adventure, romance, whimsy, and redemption. Her worldview is unmistakably Christian, as God’s saving grace is mentioned on numerous occasions. It is especially applicable in the lives of Clara and Theodore. Clara is so self-reliant, her heart is closed to the possibility of romance, and she struggles with trusting God with the many obstacles she faces. She must come to learn that we need each other as well as our Heavenly Father in order to flourish in this life. Theodore’s lessons lie in understanding God’s love for him. Clara’s mother says to him, “Don’t confuse the character of your heavenly Father with the voice of your earthly one.” This is a difficult truth for Theodore, as he believed the lie that he was broken and worthless. Watching the development of Clara and Theodore, both as individuals and as partners in a grand escapade was as enriching as it was entertaining.

Given the perspective of the author, the content of A Lady’s Guide is decidedly family-friendly, but there are moments when Bell does not shy away from difficult issues. On more than one occasion Theodore recalls moments of abuse and trauma from his past. I found one scene in particular to be difficult to read, in fact. This type of material isn’t pervasive, but if the reader finds family conflict to be triggering, I would proceed with caution. That said, the darker material was handled very carefully and could have been far more graphic and troubling. The scenes that are shared merely illustrate the depth at which Theordore’s pain has reached, and it also therefore demonstrates the levels to which he can be healed.

As a debut author, Angela Bell has produced a strong and enchanting first novel. A Lady’s Guide to Marvels and Misadventure seems primed for the possibility of a sequel. Given the richness of the narrative and the possibilities inherent in Bell’s steampunkian world, the options are really almost endless. My hope is that A Lady’s Guide takes off to grand success, and readers are treated to yet another international, spectacular adventure with her delightful characters.

Thanks to for including The Calico Critic in the blog tour!

About the Author

Angela Bell is a twenty-first-century lady with nineteenth-century sensibilities. She resides in Texas with her charming pup, Mr. Bingley Crosby. One might categorize her work as historical romance, but Angela likes to describe it as “a cuppa Victorian whimsy” because it sounds so much more poetical. Whenever you need a respite from the modern-day hustle, you're welcome to visit her parlor, where she can be found waiting with a pot of tea and a great book. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Book Review: The Lily of Ludgate Hill by Mimi Matthews

Fortune favors the bold—but is a confirmed spinster daring enough to loosen the reins and accept a favor from the wicked gentleman who haunts her dreams? 

Lady Anne Deveril doesn’t spook easily. A woman of lofty social standing known for her glacial beauty and starchy opinions, she’s the unofficial leader of her small group of equestriennes. Since her mother’s devastating plunge into mourning six years ago, Anne voluntarily renounced any fanciful notions of love and marriage. And yet, when fate puts Anne back into the entirely too enticing path of Mr. Felix Hartford, she’s tempted to run…right into his arms. 

No one understands why Lady Anne withdrew into the shadows of society, Hart least of all. The youthful torch he once held for her has long since cooled. Or so he keeps telling himself. But now Anne needs a favor to help a friend. Hart will play along with her little ruse—on the condition that Anne attend a holiday house party at his grandfather’s country estate. No more mourning clothes. No more barriers. Only the two of them, unrequited feelings at last laid bare. 

Finally free to gallop out on her own, Anne makes the tantalizing discovery that beneath the roguish exterior of her not-so-white knight is a man with hidden depths, scorching passions—and a tender heart.

Mimi Matthews continues her Belles of London series with a rousing new addition, The Lily of Ludgate Hill. Like the other Belles, the titular character of Lady Anne Deveril is an accomplished horsewoman who must also overcome challenges within her society and family. As she mourns the loss of her father, she must also tend to her grieving mother and face the prospect of eviction from her home. Mr. Felix Hartford, a former love interest returns to her social circles, and the enduring chemistry between them more than complicates matters. What follows is a dance of two strong yet vulnerable individuals who have loved and have been hurt, but are tentatively willing to consider another waltz together.

The relationship between Lady Anne and Felix Hartford is very similar to the lead characters in the television program Miss Scarlet & the Duke. Like the lead pair in that enjoyable mystery series, Anne and Felix have known each other for several years, prior to full adulthood. Both have strong personalities and are prone to bicker and spar with one another. However, beneath the contentiousness lies a connection that will forever tie them together. As Anne wrestles with troublesome issues within her family, Felix has familial struggles of his own. Yet despite all they have weathered, Mr. Hartford in particular is persistent in fully winning the heart of this admirable and beautiful young lady. Through sacrifices that they both must make, there is the possibility of a conclusion that will not only satisfy them both, but surprise many around them. 

As has been the case with other works by Mimi Matthews, I highly enjoyed The Lily of Ludgate Hill. Like characters in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne and Felix wrestle with unrequited love and the opportunity for a second chance in a way that is quite delicious. Each individual must learn to compromise and consider the other on more than one occasion. Their flirtations are sweet, with a slight edge at times. They seem to be truly sparring, although they simultaneously support the success of the other. Felix is saddened to see Anne shackled by the mourning state of her mother, which has affected Anne’s ability to move on with her life. Anne’s growing awareness of Felix’s burdens not only increases her affection for him, but allows her to stand by his side to support him as well. Between the challenging situations they face individually and the romantic issues they tackle together, Anne and Felix’s narratives combine to produce a compelling work of fiction. 

For those who are interested in the nature of the content within the novel, The Lily of Ludgate Hill does not become overly steamy or rife with colorful adult material. That said, Matthews’s writing is powerful and still presents a compelling tale. She simply does not have to rely on ripped bodices, extensive violence, or pervasive harsh language in her work. Adult themes are indeed mentioned though. A persistent, illicit affair by a “righteous” person plays a key role in one family’s history. Anne’s mother is very interested in spiritualism, which was a common pastime in Victorian England. That said, there are no seances or gothic scenes shared. There are a few moments of violence, but they are tempered. Matthews focuses on the lives and loves of her main characters in a way that can be recommended to all audiences. 

I particularly appreciated the opportunities for forgiveness and redemption given to multiple characters. Mistakes are made, but the narrative illustrates a worldview allows for new beginnings. The inherent imperfection of the human condition was poignantly addressed in the following passage (edited to withhold spoilers), as Anne discusses a seemingly righteous person who had moral failings:

 "He idolized [him] that much?"

"If he didn't while he was alive, he certainly does now. ... The snow-white reputation of the esteemed moralist...has only grown after his death. He was, apparently, a man too good for this world."

"No human being is that good," Anne said.

"Some are."

"Nonsense. If we didn't make any mistakes, we'd have no need to be forgiven." (p.332)

The Lily of Ludgate Hill is a fine addition to the Belles of London series. Although it could feasibly stand alone, the enjoyment of the novel would be enhanced if the reader is familiar with the previous two works. Characters and plot points from both The Siren of Sussex and The Belle of Belgrave Square are mentioned on several occasions. In fact, several scenes from Belgrave and Ludgate overlap in such a fashion that I actually pulled out my copy of Belgrave to compare and contrast the simultaneous experiences of the characters. It was an interesting experiment! Matthews also plants the seeds for the next title The Muse of Maiden Lane, which will focus on the character of Stella. Like the women who came before her, Stella seems to be an interesting woman, and I look forward to seeing where Mimi Matthews takes her next. The Lily of Ludgate Hill was a diverting ride, and I wait in expectation for more adventures to come. 


USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

Read Chapter One of The Lily of Ludgate Hill HERE





Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Book Review: A Winter by the Sea by Julie Klassen

With over 1.5 million copies sold, bestselling author Julie Klassen’s name is synonymous with regency fiction in the eyes of her many loyal readers. A former editor turned three-time Christy Award winner, Klassen continues to be at the top of her game—delivering the immersive storytelling, satisfying romance, and intriguing mystery that make her books unforgettable. This winter, return to the Devonshire coast with the Summers sisters, where fiction collides with the annals of history, secrets come to light, and new love emerges in the highly anticipated series continuation A Winter by the Sea.
. . . .

When the Duke and Duchess of Kent rent the neighboring Woolbrook Cottage for the winter, the Summers sisters—Sarah, Viola, Georgiana, and Emily—are called upon to host three of the royal couple’s male staff in their seaside house. But they soon realize they’ve invited mysterious secrets and the sweet possibility of romance into their home.

Meanwhile, Emily Summers approaches a local publisher in hopes of fulfilling her dream of becoming an author. When he turns her down, his dashing competitor promises to consider her novel if she will first write a new Sidmouth guidebook for him under his name. Emily accepts and begins researching with the help of the Duke of Kent’s handsome private secretary, James Thomson. But a surprise visitor from her past shows up at Sea View, leaving Emily torn between the desires she used to hold dear and her budding dreams for the future.

Full of romance, intrigue, and the unbreakable bonds between sisters, this story will have readers eager to escape to a setting made famous by films such as Sense and Sensibility and Sanditon—the charming Devonshire coastline.

My Thoughts

Author Julie Klassen returns to the 19th century Devonshire coast in her latest novel, A Winter by the Sea. As the title suggests, the majority of the tale occurs in the winter months, and in this case it is the winter of 1820. This reader’s local region is currently in the grip of frigid temperatures, so the timing could not have been more perfect to read this delightful novel. I would recommend that readers curl up with a cozy blanket, favorite warm beverage, and possibly a furry friend to enjoy A Winter by the Sea during these cold days of January and February. 

Although this is the second title in a series and previous plot points are mentioned, I found that A Winter by the Sea could easily be read independently. Although not quite a standalone title, it offers sufficient exposition for those just joining the narrative arc of the Summers family. As is consistently the case with Klassen's work, the story is compelling, family-friendly, sweetly romantic, and spiritually uplifting. It is an excellent sequel to The Sisters of Sea View. Many aspects of history are woven into the chapters, with just a few creative licenses taken. Those with an interest in the infancy of the future Queen Victoria and her family will find several compelling moments as she and her parents come to stay in Sidmouth during the first year of her life.

The characters in Klassen’s vision of Sidmouth are well drawn, with many stations and social positions. Their desires, choices, and motivations were quite believable. Protagonists were likable, and the few villains which emerged served their purposes well. In several cases, those with difficult relationships were given the chance to reconcile or begin to consider the notion. Matters of Christian faith were included in a limited organic way and were not heavy-handed.

Jane Austen could often be seen as an inspiration, as the women of the Summers family have had to leave their childhood home, much like the ladies in Sense and Sensibility. Main character Emily seemingly gets a second chance at love when a long-lost beau comes to town, a la Persuasion. The charm of the seaside town of Sidmouth brings to mind the coastal resort of Sanditon. One gentleman offers a lady a marriage proposal that borders on insulting condescension, much like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Klassen’s story takes many different turns than these classic tales, but this Janeite loved the possible Austenesque touches in the lives of these Sidmouth residents.

Although A Winter by the Sea comes to an exciting conclusion with the confrontation of an enemy and Happily Ever Afters for multiple characters, this is not the end of the series. Julie Klassen has another full book and Christmas novella planned for the Devonshire Shores collection, and this is good news. This reader senses there is more to come with a certain wayward Summers sister. Could a reconciliation be at hand? Another Summers sister (or two) could easily find her own Happily Ever After as well, be it in the romantic sense or in other ways. There is much to come, and after enjoying A Winter by the Sea, I am anticipating more time spent on the Devonshire Shores. 

About the Author

Julie Klassen loves all things Jane—Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. Her books have sold more than 1.5 million copies, and she is a threetime recipient of the Christy Award for Historical Romance. The Secret of Pembrooke Park was honored with the Minnesota Book Award for Genre Fiction. Julie has also won the Midwest Book Award and Christian Retailing’s Best Award and has been a finalist in the RITA and Carol Awards. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Julie worked in publishing for sixteen years and now writes full-time. She and her husband live in St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, visit

Click HERE to read the first chapter of A Winter by the Sea!









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