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The secret book of Flora Lea : a novel
2023
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Chapter 1CHAPTER 1 Not very long ago and not very far away, there once was and still is an invisible place right here with us. And if you are born knowing, you will find your way through the woodlands to the shimmering doors that lead to the land made just and exactly for you. HAZEL MERSEY LINDEN, 1939 October 1940 Binsey, Oxfordshire On a red blanket by the river, six-year-old Flora Lea Linden awakens alone, a dome of blue sky above her and birdsong wild about her. Someone called my name? She glances around the green expanse, at the churning water of the River Thames furrowed with winks and puckers as it nearly overflows its banks, taking to the sea anything or anyone who dares to enter its rush. The river surges toward Oxford where students hurry to and from tutors under pinnacled towers standing guard over cobblestone streets. Then the waters bend and curve, gathering force, bouncing against the stone walls and locks of England until they reach London, where bombs are plummeting to city streets, delivering ruination, where smoldering cathedrals and crushed homes litter the river with their ember and ash. Did someone call my name? Flora sits and rubs her eyes. She's not exactly alone. She has Berry, her stuffed teddy. And she isn't frightened. Why should she be? Her older sister, Hazel, told her many times that these woodlands belong to them, that the shadowed glade and the sacred sunlit puddles where the canopy of trees opens wide is a safe place meant for the two sisters, created just for them. She stands and carefully steps closer to the river. Hazel refuses to go with Flora to Whisperwood anymore, so what's she to do but go alone? It's hers!--not to be abandoned: the glowing castle and the grove of alder, the chattering squirrels and animated trees. Hazel had told Flora that the glinting lights on the river were stars and galaxies, rushing to meet the sea. Hazel had ordered her not to ever become the river, as they became other woodland creatures, nor should Flora ever drink from the river. If she did, she was told, she would never find her way back to Mum or Bridie or their warm cottage in the heather-strewn fields. This enchanting river was--like the apple in the Bible--forbidden. But Flora doesn't believe this beautiful, starry river can be dangerous. She clings to Berry by his worn, furry paw and ventures nearer to the water's rush, thrilled at her boldness. No one knows what might happen to her on this adventure or who she might become. She hears a voice nearby in the woods, familiar, but Flora ignores it. The way here was through a shimmering door, and Hazel was too busy to see it. The river is Flora's companion, her friend, and this intimacy has her creeping ever closer to its edge. Hazel never wants them to pretend to be bunnies, so that's what she's decided today. Flora will be a bunny. She stares down at the river's churned-up waters, looking for stars but seeing only mud and silt, humps of river-smoothed rocks underwater. She skids down on a soggy, earthy incline, her wellies slipping where the browned grasses of October change to mud. Falling on her bum, Flora laughs. What an adventure! Berry slips from her hand as her palms and fingers dig into the wet earth to keep herself from tumbling into the frigid waters. She scoots closer, wanting to grab Berry. He's too close to the river. "It's okay," she says as she reaches for his paw, repeating her sister's words: "It's our land. We're always safe in Whisperwood." Excerpted from The Secret Book of Flora Lea: A Novel by Patti Callahan Henry All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Publishers Weekly Review
In this affecting entry from Henry (Once upon a Wardrobe), a woman stumbles onto a lead in the decades-old cold case of her sister's disappearance. It's 1960, and Hazel Linden is astonished when the bookstore she works at is shipped a volume entitled Whisperwood, which depicts a fantasy realm Hazel dreamed up as a teenager and shared only with her younger sister. Twenty years ago, 14-year-old Hazel and five-year-old Flora were evacuated from London during WWII and took refuge in the idyllic Oxford countryside with Bridie Aberdeen and her teenage son, Harry. There, Hazel told Flora stories about Whisperwood, a make-believe world where the two could seek comfort. Months into their evacuation, Flora disappeared and was presumed drowned in the River Thames. Back in the novel's present, Hazel, still haunted by her sister's disappearance, embarks on a faith-fueled, sometimes-reckless quest to discover if her sister might still be alive, one that involves tracking down the American author of the book and visiting Bridie and Harry for the first time since Flora's disappearance. Though framed by a mystery, Henry's offering shines most in its exploration of the ways relationships grow and adapt to time and trauma, making for a poignant meditation on the bonds of sisterhood. This captivates. (May)
Booklist Review
Hazel's future in 1960 London is bright. She's looking forward to a romantic vacation with her maybe-soon fiancé, Barnaby, and starting a dream job at Sotheby's. But on her last day of work at a rare-book shop, a parcel arrives that brings her past crashing back--an American fairy tale called Whisperwood, about the same secret world Hazel created two decades earlier for her younger sister, Flora. Hazel's stories were a balm during their WWII evacuation, but she put that world behind her after Flora presumably drowned in the Thames all those years ago. Since nobody else knew about Whisperwood, perhaps Flora is alive after all. Uncovering this mystery would mean confronting guilt from Hazel's past and possibly risking the future she was sure she wanted. Henry brings the same sweet energy as she did to Once upon a Wardrobe (2021), celebrating the power of stories and the strength of sisterly love. This dual-time-line narrative is rounded out with a strong sense of place, endearing characters, and unexpected revelations.
Kirkus Review
A young woman searches for the sister who vanished 20 years earlier in Henry's magical novel. In the swinging London of 1960, Hazel Linden is working in a store selling rare books, about to start a new job at Sotheby's auction house and contentedly cohabiting with a hunky professor with "wind-whipped black hair" and family money. Then, on her last day working at the store, she opens a mysterious package that brings her back to her adolescence. Inside is the manuscript of a children's novel titled Whisperwood and the River of Stars, which echoes much more closely than coincidence would permit the enchanted land she invented years earlier and the stories she told about it as a 14-year-old to her 5-year-old sister, Flora, when the two of them were evacuated from London during the Blitz. During the time the two of them were living with motherly Bridie Aberdeen and her artistic son, Harry, outside of Oxford, Flora disappeared one day, leaving her beloved teddy bear by the River Thames and leaving the police to conclude that she had drowned, though her body was never recovered. Hazel, who has always blamed herself for Flora's disappearance because she was off canoodling with Harry when it happened, and who has never given up hope of finding her again, is inspired to redouble her efforts, which lead her both to the book's author on Cape Cod and into her past, where she reconnects with Bridie and, more life-changingly, with Harry as well as with a journalist who has been researching the stories of lost evacuees. Henry, who has a clear affection for almost all of her characters, with the exception of a couple of baddies, sets them in a lush, comforting, and often pagan-influenced world where telling and listening to stories has remarkable transformative effects. An enchanting tribute to the power of storytelling. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

When a woman discovers a rare book that has connections to her past, long-held secrets about her missing sister and their childhood spent in the English countryside during World War II are revealed.

In the war-torn London of 1939, fourteen-year-old Hazel and five-year-old Flora are evacuated to a rural village to escape the horrors of the Second World War. Living with the kind Bridie Aberdeen and her teenage son, Harry, in a charming stone cottage along the River Thames, Hazel fills their days with walks and games to distract her young sister, including one that she creates for her sister and her sister alone--a fairy tale about a magical land, a secret place they can escape to that is all their own.

But the unthinkable happens when young Flora suddenly vanishes while playing near the banks of the river. Shattered, Hazel blames herself for her sister's disappearance, and she carries that guilt into adulthood as a private burden she feels she deserves.

Twenty years later, Hazel is in London, ready to move on from her job at a cozy rare bookstore to a career at Sotheby's. With a charming boyfriend and her elegantly timeworn Bloomsbury flat, Hazel's future seems determined. But her tidy life is turned upside down when she unwraps a package containing an illustrated book called Whisperwood and the River of Stars . Hazel never told a soul about the imaginary world she created just for Flora. Could this book hold the secrets to Flora's disappearance? Could it be a sign that her beloved sister is still alive after all these years?

As Hazel embarks on a feverish quest, revisiting long-dormant relationships and bravely opening wounds from her past, her career and future hang in the balance. An astonishing twist ultimately reveals the truth in this transporting and refreshingly original novel about the bond between sisters, the complications of conflicted love, and the enduring magic of storytelling.
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