Sharon's Book & Wine Club - July 2020

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

The Florida Keys were ground zero for the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, a devastating Category 5 storm — in fact, the strongest recorded hurricane to hit the United States. The novel’s imminent danger, its ticking clock, is the hurricane, but the three main characters and their complicated relationships really deliver the tension. Shy but resilient Helen Berner is nine months pregnant and in an abusive marriage. As both the storm and the baby approach, she has a choice to make about her nine-year marriage. Elizabeth Preston is a young and beautiful socialite, with a fiancé in New York City, but she’s traveling alone, looking for her brother. After several personal tragedies, her search for her brother may also help her decide whether or not marriage is the right next step for her. Newlywed Mirta Cordero is visiting from Havana on her honeymoon. An arranged match, her wealthy husband is a casino owner in Havana, but what kind of business does he operate in New York City? When faced with devastating obstacles in the midst of a deadly Labor Day hurricane, the women confront it all with strength and grace. A romance and perfect beach read!

We will have a ZOOM discussion of the book at the end of the month and I would love for you to join us. I encourage you to read reviews, buy your own copy, and register for our ZOOM book club meeting!

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Think of a classic old movie with gritty, believable characters, stunning locations, and a massive dose of danger (like a hurricane, or a war, or a terrible crime) and then add tons of suspense (will your favorite actors live or die?). Perhaps Grand Hotel (1932) or Lifeboat (1944) or something made in the 21st century like The Perfect Storm (2000).

Next, transplant those feelings from the silver screen to a suspenseful, romantic, thrilling historical novel featuring three women on separate journeys as a hurricane bears down on them. Now you have Chanel Cleeton’s The Last Train to Key West.

Edge-of-your-seat storytelling is Cleeton’s hallmark; she hit the bestseller lists for her previous books When We Left Cuba and Next Year in Havana. In her latest, Cleeton takes on one of the deadliest natural disasters of the early 20th century in an intimate tale of survival, love, and courage.

The Florida Keys were ground zero for the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, a devastating Category 5 storm — in fact, the strongest recorded hurricane to hit the United States. It destroyed property throughout the Keys and took more than 400 lives, both civilians and the World War I veterans living in cheaply constructed work camps as they built a new rail line. The novel’s imminent danger, its ticking clock, is the hurricane, but the three main characters and their complicated relationships really deliver the tension.

Falling in love, overcoming the fear of love, and learning who not to love are key obstacles for these women as they deal with the immediate terror of a hurricane. The narrative jumps between Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth, but each character resonates from chapter to chapter, and heightening the tension. And Cleeton keeps the surprises coming: Each woman is distinct in voice, manner, and goals, and the pace of the story never slows.

In 1935, the Depression defined the lives of both men and women: Fortunes lost in the stock market crash, little or no work regardless of your background. But for the women in Cleeton’s story, the Depression means something more — that marriage, or a relationship with a man, is their only assured path to survival. But Helen, Mirta and Elizabeth don’t buy into the limitations of their gender. They refuse to give up when faced with devastating obstacles, be it a marriage, engagement, or a relationship they’re expected to accept without question — or a deadly Labor Day hurricane.

The book is a bit dialogue-heavy at times, and I could’ve used a few more descriptions, a little more time spent with each character — especially once the storm struck, and in its immediate aftermath. But overall, The Last Train to Key West blends danger, intimacy, history, and suspense in a taut, romantic story I didn’t want to end.

NPR Reviews

Inspired by her own family’s history and the stories she grew up hearing, Chanel Cleeton writes with a clear and beautiful voice as she brings us another sure-to-be bestseller with The Last Train to Key West. Three women, each in very different circumstances, but each with a fascinating story, touch each other’s lives through little more than happenstance in the shadow of a natural disaster.

A book that weaves together the stories of remarkable women always hits my sweet spot, so when I picked this book up thinking I would do just a little lazy Saturday morning reading, I soon realised I could not put it down. Each character is so unique and interesting, and written so incredibly well, that within just a few pages each already feels like a living, breathing person. It takes no time at all to get completely invested into their lives.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 is a very real event, in fact to this day it remains one of the three worst Atlantic hurricanes on record. It is against the background of this looming storm that we meet the three magnificent characters that the story revolves around.

Helen is a kind waitress in a diner and is very heavily pregnant. She’s a local in Key West who seems to brighten the day of most of her customers while she herself lives a rather miserable life in a run-down beach shack with her physically abusive fisherman husband. One customer comes to her aid and begins to change the course Helen believed her life was set on.

Mirta is on her honeymoon in the Keys after just marrying an American man who is a virtual stranger to her. Back in Havana, her family had fallen on difficult times financially as well as politically. This arranged partnership would benefit her family greatly. Slowly, however, she is beginning to learn of her new husband’s notoriety and how dangerous her new life may be.

Elizabeth has come down to the Keys from New York searching for someone. At the same time, she is also searching for a solution of how to save her family after the devastating Wall Street collapse. As a young, single woman she is not safe investigating the Veterans Camps with their poor sanitation conditions and thousands of strangers. Fortunately, she finds a rather unexpected ally along her journey, though he has secrets, too.

The stories of all three women are fascinating and beautifully written. Each of their stories is completely unique and are interwoven beautifully. In the events of each story there are men involved, but our three women are always the focus. Each of them feel incredibly modern, but still fit perfectly into the 1930’s narrative.

The storm looming over the novel is a character in and of itself and it is written ass perfectly as Cleeton’s human characters. As someone who lives in a hurricane-prone area, I admit to being quite particular about how hurricanes are described or used in stories. Cleeton does an outstanding job of capturing and conveying the attitudes of locals before storms move in, the general disagreement about where storms will go, and the sheer panic when it is suddenly too late to decide about evacuation and you are left to your own devices.

Without a doubt, this is one of those books that as soon as you finish it you will be handing it off to your best friend. It is a great book club selection, and will make the perfect summer beach read. I highly recommend it especially for fans of Chanel Cleeton’s previous novels as well as fans of All the Ways We Said Goodbye or Fountains of Silence. This is another masterwork of historical fiction.

Nerd Daily

When I saw that this book wasn’t going to follow the other Perez sisters, I was a little disappointed but then again, I was happy to see that it does follow the Perez family, just in a new way and during a new time. But by the time I re-read When We Left Cuba, I was kind of ready to explore a new period in Cuban history. This was one of my most highly anticipated books of the summer and I have to say, I was NOT disappointed at all! It was a fantastic story!

One of the things that I have come to love about Cleeton’s books are her vivid descriptions. I instantly feel transported to Cuba, like I’ve stepped into a whole new place and time. She truly has a gift for creating special places that stand out and will remain memorable for readers. I also love how she picks new and interesting events in history. I especially loved the hurricane piece in this book because I love extreme weather and found the way the hurricane wove into the plot was great and unique. The historical fiction market isn’t exactly teeming with Cuban history which in addition really make Cleeton’s books stand out.

As always, Cleeton has crafted a believable romance that I felt fully invested in. I wasn’t exactly sure about Mirta and Anthony at first but was swooning by the end! I love how well Cleeton does romance, this book is balanced perfectly with history and romance and I couldn’t have been happier with it. All of Cleeton’s books can be read as standalones and aren’t officially part of a series so if you haven’t read anything by this author before, just know that you don’t need to read any of the other books to enjoy this one.

As I mentioned this was my most anticipated book of the year and it absolutely met all my expectations. I adored it and can’t wait to see what Cleeton comes up with next. If you are on the fence about this one, don’t be. It’s wonderful and I would gladly give it all the stars!

The Lit Review 

This was my first book by Chanel Cleeton. Let’s blame that on too many books, too little time. I’ve heard of her, of course. Seen her books on lists, been intrigued by the covers, blurbs, and reviews. But, until now, I’ve not yet taken the time to read one. And that was a mistake. The only thing that would have made the experience of reading The Last Train to Key West more pleasurable is if I had been actually sitting on the beach instead of imagining it while losing myself in this compelling and richly detailed story.

Cleeton’s characters are well-developed and relatable, their circumstances eliciting my interest immediately. I found myself invested in them, eagerly following their compelling individual, and connected, journeys, often with my heart in my throat. They are so vividly depicted that I quickly began thinking of them as real people which, of course, raised the emotional stakes they faced even higher. I enjoyed how Cleeton told each woman’s individual story while seamlessly interweaving them into and out of each other’s lives, and flawlessly, and in some cases, surprisingly, interconnecting them all as they eventually face a common danger greater than any of them can possibly imagine.

Cleeton has a gift for creating a sense of time and place that immersed me in the Florida Keys of 1935. Her historical detail is rich, and well researched, enabling me to experience, through her words, the beauty of the undeveloped area, the post-Depression hopelessness, and the sinister undertones of those who would take advantage. Then, for even more compelling danger, she places her characters in the path of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, one of the strongest, and deadliest, Atlantic hurricanes to ever make landfall. I don’t know if this author has ever experienced a hurricane first-hand but her descriptive writing had my heart racing as fast as if I’d been right there with her terrified characters, waiting for death while praying for life.

If you haven’t discovered Chanel Cleeton’s novels yet, I highly recommend beginning with The Last Train to Key West. I couldn’t put it down.

For the romance lovers among you, while this novel is historical fiction, there are romantic threads for Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth and a satisfying conclusion for this reader.

The Romance Dish


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