Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs

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Map of the Heart will be published August 22, 2017. I was in the mood for a love story, and this one was a perfect fit. This is a modern-day romance mixed in with a healthy dose of historical fiction, historical mystery, and a forbidden historical romance.

36 year old widow and single mother, Camille, has shut off her own heart from feeling happiness or true love, since her husband died in a tragic accident five years prior. At that time, she also gave up her favorite past-time which brought her the most joy – photography.

Camille spends her days trying to figure out the best way to deal with her moody teenage daughter and aging father, whose cancer is fortunately in remission. Part owner of Oh-La-La, a home-goods shop in downtown Bethany Bay, the New England touristy beach town she calls home, Camille also has a film developing business. She specializes in developing and restoring very old film.

Enter Finn, Malcolm Finnemore, but known only as Finn. He’s a handsome historian and professor who specializes in war and military history and volunteers his time recovering lost soldiers remains to give families closure. His own father, a soldier, disappeared during the Vietnam War before Finn was born, and Finn has been unable to find any clues to locate him, until a lost roll of film from his father’s camera was uncovered. The film could be images of the last place his father was alive, and it could even lead to his whereabouts. Giddy with excitement at the prospect of getting closer to finding his father, he contacts an expert, Camille, to restore and develop the very old, important film for him.

What follows is a series of sparks, then fires, then uncertainty, and passion in a romance made for the movies. Oh la la, indeed!

Camille’s father, Henri, who grew up in Bellerive, France, receives a box found in the attic at Sauveterre, and estate in southern France where he grew up and that he owns. Inside are some puzzling items that belonged to Henri’s mother, Lisette, who died during childbirth. There is little to no resemblance between Henri and his presumed father, Didier. Camille and Henri begin to question whether Didier Palomar, mayor of Bellerive and a Nazi supporter who was killed shortly after WWII ended, is actually Henri’s birth father.

Henri and Julie, Camille’s daughter, decide to spend the summer in southern France at Sauveterre, despite Camille’s resistance. She finally gives in after Julie is involved in an accident at school and Camille is unsure whether Julie is the bully or the bullied. Julie is miserable, and a summer away with a mystery to solve may be just what she needs to snap back into a happier childhood. And, of course, Camille realizes that Aix-en-Provence where Finn lives is very close to Bellerive. A summer in beautiful southern France AND a handsome, charming, single man dying to meet up with her as soon as possible – any woman in her right mind would be crazy to turn that down! Thank goodness, for the sake of the story, Camille lets go and heads to France.

The story switches back and forth to the 1940’s as readers get to know young Lisette and her remarkable story. Once the truth about Henri’s real father and Lisette’s past are revealed, readers will not be able to put the book down. I know I certainly couldn’t!

Map of the Heart is well-written with equal parts heartbreak and romance. The romance isn’t too steamy, but subtle and implied. I felt transported back and forth between the beach town of Bethany Bay and the picturesque estate of Sauveterre in the Var – both places that I would love to be. I loved the story and even the ending, which I sometimes do not like in romantic fiction. Fans of Elin Hilderbrand and Kristin Hannah will love this story.

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

After having seen the book-to-movie film preview for this novel, I purchased a copy, thinking it would be like so many of the historical fiction novels of WWII that I’ve read and enjoyed. Though it was very different, I still enjoyed it very much. It took me quite a bit longer to read it than others, but I believe that is because of the large amount of quotations and well-researched background information. This is a nonfiction narrative based upon the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski during WWII in war-ravaged Warsaw, Poland. Jan was the zookeeper for the well-known and successful Warsaw Zoo. His wife, Antonina, shared a special bond with the animals at the zoo, and her courageous and compassionate personality allowed her to save over 300 people, mostly Jewish, who were seeking refuge from the Nazis during WWII. The reason the Zabinskis were able to hide so many Jewish people on the zoo property and in the villa is because of the Nazis obsession with preserving certain animals in their purification scheme. Were the Nazis not concerned with animals and zoology, Jan and Antonina would likely not have been able to save lives like they did.

The descriptions of exotic zoo animals and even common animals in the story are detailed and realistic. The author clearly completed many hours of extensive research in order to tell the Zabinski’s story, as evidenced by the lengthy chapter-by-chapter details section and the bibliography at the end of the book. This story was different from most of the WWII novels that I normally read because rather than focusing on life in a concentration camp, it detailed the daily life of those living in Poland during the war, which for some was living in constant terror and fear. Because of the wealth of detail and personal stories weaved into the story, this was not a quick read. It took me a while to get through the book, but it was worth the read and I did enjoy it very much.

I look forward to seeing the movie, because I believe it will be a nice complement to the book.

Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen

I’ve read all of Tess Gerritsen’s novels and have loved each and every one. Her background in the medical profession is evident by her ease of writing medical suspense with both clarity and interest. Her books are very difficult to put down, as they captivate the reader from the very start.

Her newest novel, Playing with Fire, is a stand-alone and is rather different from any of her previous works. She combines suspense, mystery, family drama, and historical fiction, and she does it beautifully. One of the coolest things about this book is that Tess actually composed a piece, a waltz titled Incendio, which is the theme music for the story. Not only is she a very talented writer, but it turns out that she is just as talented musically. A sample of Incendio can be found at http://www.tessgerritsen.com/. Listening to the music after reading the story made it even more powerful. What a nice treat to have a musical score to go along with such a wonderful story.

The story switches back and forth between present day and 1940’s Italy during WWII. Modern day, Julia Ansdell, a violinist, happens to find some very old music in an antique store in Rome. The music, which has never been published, captivates her and she begins to learn the complicated waltz, titled Incendio. The music starts to affect her three year old daughter in horrifying ways, which in turn causes Julia’s husband to worry that her mental health is unstable. Julia is scared, because her own mother was deemed criminally insane and she died while at an institution. Could the mental illness be passed down to her, or worse, to her 3 year old daughter? Determined to find the source of the waltz and its composer, Julia takes off for Venice while her family thinks she is elsewhere. What and who she finds there will shock the reader, as well as Julia herself.

During 1940’s war torn Europe, young Lorenzo, a talented violinist, and also a Jew, begins practicing music with Laura, a beautiful Italian cellist. Lorenzo finds himself falling for Laura, despite the odds against them. Soon, Lorenzo and his family are rounded up by German soldiers, ripped from their homes, and sent by train to the concentration camps in Poland. Lorenzo is torn from his family by an officer charged with finding musicians to play at the concentration camp. While there, he composes the waltz, Incendio. I won’t give away any more of Lorenzo’s story, because I don’t want to spoil the ending. Let’s just say you’ll want to read it for yourself.

This is a beautiful story, and I wish the novel was longer, because I read through it and found myself wishing for more at the end. Playing with Fire is a wonderful example of the powerful, lasting affect which music has on a person’s life, memory, and attitude. Well done, Tess. This is one of the best pieces you’ve written!