Seeing all the posts touting how many books people read in January is making me feel guilty. My reading output was low last month. I managed 4 ½ books. Of course, 1 ½ of those were research books. I blame holiday burnout and vacation. Hard to read when you’re traipsing about the Everglades.

But fear not, I have three great books to recommend for you this month. 

Queen of Exiles by Vanessa Riley. 

Why aren’t more people reading this woman? 

Queen of Exiles is the story of Marie Christophe, the first Queen of Haiti who, in the 17th century, was exiled to Europe following the death of her husband, King Henry the First. 

What’s that? You didn’t know Haiti had a king? Neither did I! That’s why you should read Vanessa Riley. She brings forgotten history like this to life. Marie Christophe was a powerful, confident, and intelligent black woman who deserves recognition.

Meticulously researched, Queen of Exiles takes you from Marie Christophe’s coronation to her death. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say Haiti’s royal family had intrigue and backstabbing just like every other country. Some people might not like that Riley tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, but I liked it. Too often, biographical fiction suffers from a lack of tension. By moving around to different moments in Marie’s life, Riley was able to hold information back and keep readers guessing. 

My only criticism is that got bogged down in the middle – like with her sophomore book Mother, Sister, Warrior, it was a case of the author having too much information she wanted to share. Overall, however, this was a good read. I learned a lot. Plus, Riley’s writing is unbelievably lyrical. 

I highly recommend reading this.

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Unsinkable by Jenni L. Walsh. 

Another book that didn’t disappoint. Rating-wise, it floated between a 4 ½ and 5

This book balances the factual story of Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic and a few other sea disasters with the fictional story of Daphne Chaundanson, a recruit in the Special Operations Executive. The two storylines, based in different wars, have very little connection until the very end. When the connection is finally revealed, it’s a good one.

I confessed I enjoyed Daphne’s story more than Violet’s. It’s not that Violet wasn’t admirable, it’s that most of her storyline involved her reacting to events rather than actively doing things. Meanwhile, Daphne’s story involved life and death. 

Still, it’s a good read, one I would recommend, especially if you’re looking for something that isn’t overly gritty or dark. Walsh has a very pleasant writing style that is emotional, but not overly angsty.

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And now for the big review. 

When the World Went Silent by Donna Jones Alward.

Everyone here knows that Donna is my co-host on Step into the Story and my best friend. She and I chat almost every day. So obviously I went into my reading primed to love the book, and spoiler alert: I did. 

However, I want to try and give you as honest a review as I can.

When the World Fell Silent is Donna’s first historical fiction novel after writing fifty-plus romance novels. It’s the story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. For those who don’t know, there was a collision in the narrows of Halifax harbor. A ship carrying munition exploded decimating a huge portion of the city. We’re talking whole neighborhoods leveled to the ground. Over 1700 people died and another 9000 were injured. Donna’s story follows two explosion survivors, Nora and Charlotte, who are connected in a surprising way.

As someone in the middle of a career pivot herself, I can tell you that switching genres can be difficult, especially when, like Donna, you have such a solid career established. This book manages to bridge the gap perfectly. 

Of the two storylines, Charlotte’s drew me in the most, largely because of the manic desperation in it. A woman who has potentially lost everything and everyone, she’s barely keeping herself together. There are times when you can feel her grip on reality slipping and as the story unfolds, you can’t imagine it ending well. With Charlotte’s story, Donna really kicked it up a notch as a writer

Meanwhile, Nora’s storyline had a more familiar feel. Yes, there are times when it’s tragic and gritty. For example, the scene where Nora confronts her overwhelming loss is viscerally painful to read. And she doesn’t pull punches when it comes to bad things happening to good people. But underneath the grit and sadness is that hopeful, small-town sweetness readers have come to expect from Donna’s romances. Smart move on Donna’s part as it will entice a lot of her current readers to check out the book. 

New and current Donna Alward readers won’t be disappointed.

When the World Comes out this summer. You can pre-order it now.

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