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Friday Favorites

It’s been a cold winter here in the Lowcountry, many days with temperatures hovering in the 40s, which means I’ve spent a lot of time curled up under a blanket reading. So much so, that I’ve been averaging a book a week, sometimes more. Thought I’d share a few of my favorites: 

  • Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

Since Covid cancelled my travel plans for this winter, I decided reading about warm tropical islands was the next best thing. This two-book series hit the spot. Besides a healthy dose of the warm, vibrant vibes of this Caribbean nation, there’s mystery, intrigue, romance, and a realistic glimpse of Cuba’s history as well as a glimpse of America’s fingerprints pre and post revolution (details most of us never heard in history class!). 

Both books are Reese Witherspoon Book Club picks, while When We Left Cuba has the distinction of being an instant New York Times bestseller. Both contain interesting characters and plot twists that revolve around one wealthy family’s ties to Cuba’s coffee plantations and the decisions each family member makes, while weighing the costs of being loyal to the government or to one’s heart. 

  • Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

Categorized as suspenseful historical fiction, this story centers around the marriage of a fiery and independent American woman (Blanche Auzello) and her very French husband, Claude, who runs the Ritz hotel in Paris during the 1940’s German occupation. Based on real people and actual events, the story looks at how culture influences relationships, how secrets can destroy our trust in one another, and how affluence can be used and abused during times of conflict. 

Part of the charm of this book is the cast of characters who hung out at the Ritz during this period – everyone from Coco Chanel (who lived there) to Hemingway, who held court at the bar. Hidden beneath the glitz and glimmer of the Ritz, there are frightful secrets, dangerous decisions, and wild gossip that eventually converge in a dreadful, surprising ending. 

I finished this book over two weeks ago and I’m still thinking about the characters and the choices they made. So glad I picked up a copy of this book off the 2-for-1 deal at Barnes & Noble.

  • I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhorn 

Another suspenseful historical fiction pick that kept me reading way past my bedtime. Based on the real-life pursuits of Anna Anderson, who is pulled from the cold waters of a canal in Berlin and taken to a mental hospital, where doctors discover her body is covered with horrific scars. Although reluctant to expose her real identity, we eventually learn that she proclaims herself to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov.

Anastasia’s journey to convince the courts that she is indeed the lone surviving member of the executed royal family, pulls her across three continents and exposes the tenuous lines between the poor and the privileged, between those seeking power and those who don’t want to relinquish it, and between sanity and insanity. 

The plot evolves backwards, which was a bit confusing for me at first. Once I accepted that oddity, the story flowed like a movie in reverse and made the ending explode with a force that kept me awake for hours. This is not a new book, but it’s commentary on the thin line between truth and fiction seems very relevant in today’s “fake news vs real news” debates. 

  • I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

This spy-thriller novel is not typical reading fare for me, but it was given to me at my book club’s annual book exchange and I figured if someone else loved it, I should give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed. The author is a master storyteller and also happens to be an award-winning writer and producer of numerous movies, including PaybackRoad Warrior, and Dead Calm

There are plenty of gruesome events – a murder in NYC, where the face of the victim was dissolved by acid, a beheading in Saudi Arabia, and an eyeless biotech expert found dead in a Damascus junkyard – that are connected in a bizarre and frightening plot that revolves around one radical terrorist who plots the destruction of America via altered vaccines that contain a super-strength dose of smallpox.

Behind the twists and turns of this frightening plot, there are very human characters who struggle with identity, hardship, purpose, and “doing the right thing.”  I was drawn into the story more than I imagined I would be, reminding me how much I always enjoyed Tom Clancy’s novels – until they became too real! Hayes is a gifted storyteller and his ability to merge various plots and backstories together in a 600-page, page-turner is impressive. 

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