Sunday Special: Melanie Willard

Melanie Willard spoke to our Woman 2 Woman Bible Study (Metropolitan Bible Church, Ottawa) session recently about how to care for people in crisis.  She speaks of this with authority because she has been through an amazing, torturous journey that involved drugs, suicide, domestic violence, and cancer.  She has written a book about her true story:  Dare To Be Raw.  Watch Melanie talk about her “redemption” in this interview with Brian Warren.  It is a story of triumph over adversity and hope for the future.

I hope that this will be inspirational for many people.  If you want Melanie to speak to your group, you can reach her through her website,  You can purchase her book through Amazon by clicking on the title above.  Cheers!

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Anastasia (1957), a movie review

I don’t think you could say I prefer old movies to new movies but I am definitely an old movie buff.  The book by Ariel Lawhon, I Was Anastasia, rekindled my interest in the longtime puzzle of whether the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the massacre of the Russian imperial family in Ekaterinburg in 1918.  It led me to research on the internet, a vast number of documentaries, other books, and, naturally, to this 1956 black and white movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner.

In the book, Anna Anderson — claimant to the identity of the youngest daughter of the Tsar — meets with Ingrid Bergman and signs an agreement allowing the movie to go forward.  When the script was written, it was based on a play written by Marcel Maurette who only learned after it was published that Anna Anderson was still alive and therefore 20th Century Fox has to have Anna’s agreement to make the movie.  But Ms. Bergman is only interested in Anna’s story.  She tells Anna,

I know what that feels like. To be disgraced. To be hated and driven to extremes. But I don’t know what drove you to feel those things. And I can’t make this film until I do.

So I had to watch the movie.  I’m sure I had seen it decades ago on TV but I needed it to be fresh in light of the book and the research on the internet it led me to.  The movie is delightful — with a different ending, of course, because there was still much more of the story to unfold.  Bergman is in full command of the many facets of this woman who has experienced memory loss and gradually regains snippets; she is desperate when she decides to throw herself into the Seine, gentle and familiar with the dowager empress (Helen Hayes), imperious with members of the former court, frustrated and impatient with General Bounine (played by Brynner), and flirtatious with Prince Paul to whom she was engaged before the revolution.  She won 3 awards for best actress: an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and the David di Donatello award for best foreign actress.  Brynner is arrogant and manipulative to start, only interested in the fortune, but becomes infatuated and jealous along the way, willing to toss aside his whole agenda for the sake of her love.  He won the National Board of Review award for best actor.

The plot is well paced, beginning with Anna distracted and distraught, throwing herself in the Seine and being jailed for attempted suicide.  While we are never told if she is or is not truly Grand Duchess Anastasia, as the story moves forward Bergman’s brilliant acting provides many hints that she is indeed who Bounine claims her to be even though from the beginning he is certain she is a fraud and doesn’t care — he can make her into the lost duchess either way.  Hayes is brilliant as the forbidding dowager empress who slowly unbends to relive the tender connection she had with her favourite granddaughter and then to accept the seeming inevitable when Anna absconds into the night with Bounine.

Some of the stage-like settings are offset by opulent ballroom scenes and wonderful scenery and it is interesting to see the imagined lives of white Russian exiles, many of whom left their homeland with next to nothing.  The inspired music by Alfred Newman was nominated for an Oscar.  There have been other movie adaptations of this story, most notably the animated Disney version, but if you haven’t seen this movie, your experience of the mysterious Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova is incomplete.  * * * *

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I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

I Was Anastasia begins with a Fair Warning:

If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory—all the twisted coils—and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and the curse I bestow upon you.  A confession for which you may never forgive me. Are you ready for that? Can you hold this truth in your hand and not crush it like the rest of them? Because I do not think you can. I do not think you are brave enough. But, like so many others through the years, you have asked:  Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess. Or am I an impostor?  A fraud. A liar. The thief of another woman’s legacy.

Perhaps one of the longest-lasting puzzles of the 20th century, the story of the possibilities of one of Tsar Nicholas II’s daughters surviving the massacre of his family during the Russian revolution brought forth many claimants and much speculation.  It captured the imagination of the world and sent archaeologists searching for proof as to whether there could have been a survivor or not.  Movies and documentaries were made.  Books were published.  Court cases ensued.  There was a fortune to be claimed.  And one claimant steadfastly ascertained her identity.  This is the story of Anna Anderson, undoubtedly the best-known claimant of the title, Grand Duchess Anastasia.  And it is a fascinating tale.

The story begins with Anna Anderson nearing the end of her life and works its way backwards to the assassination at Ekaterinburg alternating with the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia in her teens as her life inexorably wends its way forward to the same event.  From a pampered, privileged member of the ruling dynasty to the sequestered and demeaning life of captivity, first in the winter palace, then in Siberia, her story is told based on much research and is full of intimate details.  Are they one and the same character?

This is one of those books that sent me searching the internet for more details and factual information.  I had been fascinated in the 60s with the story of the discovery of the site of the burial place of the bones of the imperial family and the attempt to destroy them and at the time had read many books about the Tsar, his relatives — King George & Emperor Wilhelm — Rasputin, and Anastasia, but then became distracted with life and somehow missed further developments and research as they unfolded.  I did not know about the latest revelations with DNA and photo comparisons nor had I seen any of the videos of interviews with Anna Anderson.

Anastasia/Anna Anderson

This book peaked my interest way beyond my expectations.  It was deftly told, beautifully written and a totally compelling read.  If I had been aware of all the recent discoveries maybe I wouldn’t have found it so captivating but I’m grateful I learned them after I read the book.  Perhaps the most controversial thing was that the book made Anna Anderson a sympathetic character, spurned by surviving members of the Romanov family, her life in poverty, pursued by those trying to disprove her claim, used by those seeking recompense if she came into the Tsar’s fortune, whereas in videos shot of her late in life she appeared an imperious, petulant old lady who drew no sympathy from me whatsoever.

Ariel Lawhon

If you are unaware, as I was, of the resolution of this puzzle, I won’t spoil the ending for you.  Read the book.  It’s a bit slow to start but picks up into an extremely compelling read.  Lawhon’s details of life inside the palace, the grand duchesses tending wounded soldiers in hospital, the illness of Alexei, the role of Rasputin within the palace, loyal servants, the refusal of Nicholas to acknowledge the crumbling dynasty around him are captivating; the story of Anna, smuggled out of countries in the dead of night, wasting in sanatoriums, harassed by detractors, attempting suicide, meeting with Ingrid Bergman to discuss her life and agreeing to the making of the movie with Yul Brynner, are absorbing.  This is historical fiction at its best.  * * * * *

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Tuesday’s Tantalizing Teasers & First Chapter, First Paragraph: I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

First Chapter, First Paragraph is hosted by I’d Rather Be At The Beach you can reach it here.  Easy to participate.  Include your book title and author, a picture of the cover, and quote the first (or first two) paragraph(s) from the book.  Leave your link at the blog site along with a comment on what is posted there.  Learn about other books people are reading by visiting their blogs and noting their excerpts.

Today’s First Chapter, First Paragraph is from I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon.  It is actually an introduction although it is named Fair Warning.

If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinberg I will have to unwind my memory—all the twisted coils—and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and the curse I bestow upon you.  A confession for which you may never forgive me. Are you ready for that? Can you hold this truth in your hand and not crush it like the rest of them? Because I do not think you can. I do not think you are brave enough. But, like so many others through the years, you have asked:  Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess. Or am I an impostor? A fraud. A liar. The thief of another woman’s legacy.

I am hosting this Tuesdays’ Tantalizing Teasers which is easy to participate in.  It may not appear every week but when it does, it will always be on Tuesday.  To participate, show the title, author, and cover, and choose a random (or not) quote to share with other readers (two or three sentences), and leave a comment with the link to your own tantalizing teaser for the day.  Here’s my quote from the above book:

This proof of her ability to speak Russian leaves him flustered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about—”

“You are clearly ignorant, [replies Anna] but please don’t make yourself a liar as well.  Your libelous book, The False Anastasia, is lying on top of today’s paper in the bag at your feet.” p.82

Would you keep reading?  Have you read this book already?  Share your thoughts and leave a link to your own post.  Enjoy your day!


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Mystery Monday: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Today’s Mystery Monday offering is by Ruth Ware, The Lying Game.  The last time I published a Monday mystery was about 9 months ago and it was also by Ruth Ware The Woman in Cabin 10, which I recommended for my book club for June of this year. I very much enjoyed it and so was pleased to see another book by her and snatched it up.  An equally compelling thriller with a totally unexpected ending.

Kate, Thea, Fatima, and Isa were school chums 17 years earlier at Salten House boarding school, near the seaside town where Kate lived in the Tide Mill on The Reach with her father, Ambrose — art instructor at the school — and her step-brother, Luc.  The mill is within walking distance of the school.  Misfits, the girls were a tight-knit group that broke the rules, smoked, drank, left the premises and played a rather dodgy game they called the lying game.  There were 5 rules:  #1 Tell a Lie; #2 Stick to Your Story; #3 Don’t Get Caught; #4 Never Lie to Each Other; #5 Know When to Stop Lying.  They were all very good at it but it often got them into trouble with authorities at the school and made them enemies both at school and in the town.  When the scandal broke, the girls had been expelled, Ambrose had disappeared, and the girls had lost touch.  And now, it seems, that one of them had broken rule #4.

Fatima, now a doctor, married with two kids, has returned to her Islamic roots.  Thea is an alcoholic living on the edge.  Kate survives by selling off her father’s paintings and forging more of them when she needs to.  The Tide Mill is now a dangerously decrepit structure at the mercy of the tide.  Her step-brother Luc is now a young man, estranged from her and very angry.  Someone in the village is threatening Kate and  Isa, who is telling the story, is now a lawyer and fully aware of the implications of the phrase “accessory to murder”.  She fears it will be applied to her as the police interrogate her and her chums about the body the elements have uncovered at The Reach.

Seventeen years had passed before the text from Kate arrived:  I need you!  And as always, they all responded — and for Isa and Fatima, their carefully constructed lives were about to fall apart; for Kate and Thea, things were going from bad to worse.  How could they have been so stupid!

A great psychological thriller involving revelations of things that, as teenagers, they had been totally oblivious of, and as they peel away the layers of deception it slowly becomes clear that Ambrose had been murdered and who his murderer was.  Great story, well told with lots of surprises and suspense. * * * * *



If you, too, are a fan of mysteries, I hope you’ll not only enjoy my Monday posts but will contribute by publishing your own Monday Mystery, mention my meme, then come to my blog, comment on your mystery (or mine) briefly, and include the link directly to your mystery review.  You can also copy my MMM badge to your post or your sidebar.  (Links to books are an Amazon affiliate link!)

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On My Bookshelf — April 26th, 2019

It’s been 9 months since I’ve tended to my book blog and while I haven’t been writing, I have been reading.  Now that my renovations and upgrades in my new condo are almost done, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back to the work I love to do — writing about what I’ve been reading.  Here are some of the books I’ve read recently that I hope to review in the next few weeks:

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Strange events reunite 4 friends who fear the lies they told are catching up with them and the murder they tried to hide will come to light.

Camino Island by John Grisham

Forgeries, fakes, and amateur spies involved in a million dollar, underground book industry.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

The last in the alphabet detective series featuring sleuth, Kinsey Milhone, by author Sue Grafton.

David Baldacci:  The Fix

A murder/suicide leaves FBI and DIA agents fighting over jurisdiction and baffled as to any connection between the victim and the murderer.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Retracing steps to discover a danger that can reach out from the past to destroy the present.  A post-WWII spy novel.

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Historical fiction that will shatter any illusions you had about the possibility of the Czar’s surviving daughter.


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The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Historical fiction, Robson has pulled together many threads of the time: post war austerity in Britain, the role of the monarchy in buoying public spirit, the declining yet still marked difference between classes, personal rebuilding from wartime trauma, and the painstaking skill of embroidery in a designer’s factory as female employees work against the clock with pride to complete an amazing gown for Princess Elizabeth’s upcoming wedding.

The story is told in two different times and places:  London, 1947, and Toronto, 2016.  The connection is the journalist granddaughter of one of the embroiderers seeking to discover her grandmother’s past — a past neither she nor her mother knew anything about, yet one that leads her on a path to an incredible story which turns out to be this story.  As the past is being told in turns by Ann and Miriam, embroiderers in the Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell, Heather Mackenzie opens a box left to her by her grandmother to find beautiful, delicate embroideries that research on the internet reveals to be part of the wedding gown Queen Elizabeth II wore when she married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.

Ann Hughes is the last of her family; her brother was killed in the blitz and her parents had died before that.  She and her brother’s widow, Milly, live together in a council house meant for a family of 4.  When Milly decides to emigrate to Canada, Ann invites a new embroiderer at Hartnell’s, Miriam Dassin, to live with her.  It is only when Ann sees the drawings her friend works on in her spare time that she realizes Miriam is a French Jew who has survived the holocaust but is clearly suffering from post-war trauma.  Each of the women meets someone interesting and is wooed — one for herself and one for information about the gown for the wedding, details of which are to be top secret and the revelation of which could net the seller a huge profit.  One finds true love while the other is brutally abused and disillusioned.  After the wedding, one becomes a great artist while the other retreats to a quiet and obscure life to raise her daughter where no questions will be asked.

The Gown is a powerful story, well told with compelling and well researched details. Almost as interesting as the novel itself, is the author’s notes in the back about how she did her research, what sparked her interest in this story, an interview with a surviving seamstress who worked on the gown, and questions for book clubs, which is becoming an expected addition to novels today.  A thoroughly enjoyable book, for me, is one that sends me searching for more information on the internet and makes further connections of interest for me to read and follow.  This is one of those books.  While it is the first I’ve read by Jennifer Robson, it will not be the last.  All of her titles sound equally interesting and I will certainly be delving into them.   * * * * *

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