Book Review: Count the Nights by Stars by Michelle Shocklee

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Tyndale House Publishers


This is a very engaging dual-time period novel set in 1897 and 1961. I love historicals I can learn from and this one revealed a lot of Nashville’s history from both time periods. The story revolves around the Maxwell House Hotel. (Yes, like the coffee. I enjoyed this historical tidbit!) The earlier time period is set during the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, which is an interesting historical event to learn about. The later time period looks back to that event through the scrapbook of a resident of the hotel during the decline of the hotel. Both Priscilla from 1897 and Audrey from 1961 learn to step out of their comfort zones to help those in need. The plight of immigrants and the exploitation of young girls who are either desolate or too innocent is one of those needs. Civil rights and the education of special needs kids is another. These things could overwhelm a novel but instead Shocklee explores how her characters choose to respond to the people in peril. The title comes from a proverb one of the characters tells Priscilla.

I won’t share any spoilers but this is a book that I’m glad I read and highly recommend.

Read the first chapter here.

Reviewed by Cindy Thomson

I was given a digital copy (via NetGalley) from the publisher for the purpose of review, but no review was required. This is my honest opinion.

Meet Priscilla and Audrey from Michelle Shocklee’s Count the Nights by Stars

Hello, ladies! Please tell our readers a little about yourselves.

Priscilla: I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, seven years after the War between the States ended. My father is in the railroad industry and Mother keeps herself occupied with a full social schedule. They are ever hopeful I’ll marry well and settle down, but I know it will take a very special man to capture my heart. 

Audrey: My family and I live in the Maxwell House Hotel in downtown Nashville where my father is manager. It may sound strange, but I really enjoy living in the old hotel. Did you know it was built before the Civil War? Even though that was over one hundred years ago, it’s still a beautiful place. We’re getting ready for Christmas now, with decorations, cookies, and the Maxwell’s world-famous Christmas Day dinner.

You’ve both spent considerable time at the Maxwell House. If you had to choose one favorite thing about the hotel, what would it be?

Audrey: The lobby. My brother and I used to play hide-and-seek in it while Mom worked the guest services desk. From the lobby, you can also see the grand staircase, which leads to the beautiful mezzanine overlooking the main floor. I’ve often imagined belles in gorgeous ballgowns gliding up and down the marble stairs on their way to the ballroom or out on the town with a handsome escort. 

Priscilla (chuckles): I must admit my favorite thing about the Maxwell has nothing to do with its lovely architecture. My favorite place is the confectionary off the lobby. They have the most delicious peaches and cream. 

I understand the famous Maxwell House coffee is named after the hotel. How did that come about?

Audrey: With my father as manager of the historic hotel, I’ve heard the story dozens of times. Back in the late 1880s, two fellows—Joel Cheek and Roger Nolley Smith—developed a special blend of coffee beans. Cheek gave twenty pounds of the coffee to the food buyer at the Maxwell House Hotel, who agreed to serve it to the guests. When the coffee ran out, the hotel went back to serving their regular blend, but the guests complained. They wanted Cheek’s coffee. The coffee became so popular at the hotel that Cheek and Smith eventually gained permission to name it Maxwell House Coffee. An unverified rumor says President Theodore Roosevelt took a sip of the brew while visiting Nashville and declared it “good to the last drop.” I may be a little biased, but I think it is too.  

Priscilla, what brought you and your family to Nashville?

Priscilla: We came to attend the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. People from all over the world are here to celebrate the state’s 100th birthday. Papa is most proud of the Railway Exhibit, which he declares the best on the fairgrounds. I might have to argue that point, because there are so many fascinating buildings and exhibits. I’m especially fond of the wildly amusing sights of Vanity Fair.

Audrey: Did you ride the giant seesaw and the chute?

Priscilla: I did indeed ride the seesaw, which was thrilling. From the top, you can see well over two miles. But the chute is a water ride that tends to leave everyone rather damp. I decided to save my ten cents and spend it on an Italian gondola ride on Lake Watauga.

Audrey: I wish I could travel back in time to the exposition. I’ve recently visited the Parthenon in Centennial Park and found it utterly fascinating. It must have been quite the sight back in 1897. 

Priscilla: It truly is. The Parthenon and other buildings are so well built, you’d never guess they’re meant to be temporary—built to only last the duration of the exposition. My father says most of them will be torn down once the expo ends in October, so I’m glad to know the Parthenon still stands for visitors to enjoy. 

Audrey: Yes, they rebuilt it with permanent materials in the 1920s. There’s a museum inside. 

What is something each of you would like to accomplish?

Priscilla: I appreciate your question, because I’ve been pondering this very thing for some time now. Although I love my parents and the upbringing they’ve provided me, I want more out of life than dinner parties and keeping a well-appointed house. There are so many people beyond the scope of my sheltered corner of the world that need someone to care about them. I’m just now beginning to discover that we all play a role in offering a helping hand to those in need. To truly see someone for the unique human being they are, created by a loving Father. I’m not entirely certain how to go about fulfilling my part in this whole thing, but I’m eager to begin trying. 

Audrey: I love your answer. That’s exactly how I feel too. I’ve been far too self-centered in the past, and I truly want to become the woman God created me to be, using the gifts he’s given me to serve people. I would especially like to work with children like my brother. Emmett is a very special young man, but sometimes the world doesn’t see him and others like him the way my father and I do. I’d like to change that.

Thank you, ladies! We look forward to reading Count the Nights by Stars and seeing how your stories unfold.

About the book:

Count the Nights by Stars

Count your nights by stars, not shadows. Count your life with smiles, not tears.

1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s rooms. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.

1897. Outspoken and forward-thinking, Priscilla Nichols isn’t willing to settle for just any man. She’s still holding out hope for love when she meets Luca Moretti on the eve of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Charmed by the Italian immigrant’s boldness, Priscilla spends time exploring the wonderous sights of the expo with Luca—until a darkness overshadows the monthslong event. Haunted by a terrible truth, Priscilla and Luca are sent down separate paths as the night’s stars fade into dawn.

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels including Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Award finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at

Meet Secret Service Operatives from G.S. Boarman’s One April After the War

Louisville Daily Times reporter submitted this interview with Secret Service operatives Merritt and Argent, aboard a private car on the Marietta & Cincinnati railroad.

REPORTER: Well, gentlemen, how is it that two agents of the general government can rate a private car on this train? 

ARGENT: We are merely guests in this car, accommodations afforded to us by Judge Stallo, in Cincinnati.

REPORTER: You have just recently left Louisville, have you not? Our readers are curious about all your trips to our fair city and especially about all your visits to the Warner farm, outside the city.

MERRITT: We go where we are told and Louisville, being as close as it is to Cincinnati, is becoming more tempting to counterfeiting gangs as a place to circulate their queer and to move it further into the South, using the L&N to do so.

REPORTER: Yes, yes. But these trips out to the Warner farm — what is the allure there?

ARGENT: I hardly think our personal affairs can be of any interest to your readers.

REPORTER: But they are! And I must tell you, the rumors are troubling. Here is your chance to correct them. Miss Warner may be a lunatic, but she is Louisville’s lunatic, and we protect our own.

MERRITT: That is the first rumor that needs correcting: Miss Warner is not a lunatic. She may be a recluse and a little eccentric, but she is as sane as you or I. And I hardly know how I myself might respond to a collection of grief these last few years, as Miss Warner has had to endure.

ARGENT:  What are these troubling rumors?

REPORTER: It is said that you both stay in her home, without benefit of chaperone. You can see how this can be troubling to the better elements of society.

ARGENT: But we are her chaperones. With her brothers and father gone — may they rest in peace — we are keenly aware of her vulnerability. She — and Louisville — need not fear any impropriety from us. We visit her at the request of President Grant, and as representatives of the President, we would hardly take advantage of the situation. And, I might add, as gentlemen the affront to our honor is considerable.

REPORTER:  Yes, that is another rumor whispered in Louisville. What is her connection with Grant?

MERRITT:  Mr. Warner consulted for the President — then General Grant — during the war. Bridges and dams and railroads, that sort of thing. 

ARGENT: There was an earlier connection between the two men. Mr. Warner was a guest teacher or instructor of some kind when President Grant attended West Point. Mr. Warner was a civilian engineer and, of course, President Grant graduated as an engineer from West Point. I am given to understand that a friendship arose between the two and they stayed in touch over the years and General Grant engaged Mr. Warner during the war, as Mr. Merritt has said.

REPORTER: But why does the President send you?

MERRITT: As you know, Miss Warner lives alone and manages the family farm on her own. The President merely likes to know how she is doing and if she needs anything, if there is anything he can help her with.

REPORTER: Surely he could write her or even send telegrams, if that is all there is to it.

ARGENT: Miss Warner is an abysmal correspondent. Many —


ARGENT: Many of the President’s attempts at correspondence go unanswered.

REPORTER: But the expense to send to men, merely to gather intelligence!

ARGENT: It is not intelligence gathering; just a how-do-you-do between acquaintances. And there is no added expense to the general government for these trips. We visit Miss Warner only when our work brings us to Louisville, and when we can spare the time — at our own expense.

REPORTER: And what is your connection to the President? Why does he send you two to look in on Miss Warner?

MERRITT: We merely happened to be at hand. We were wrapping up a counterfeit case in Cincinnati last spring when the request came to us to go to Louisville and request the honor of her accompanying us to see her father’s friend at the White house.

REPORTER: About that trip.  Miss Warner had not been seen in town for over a year, at that time last spring. It is well known that she avoids society in general and, if it weren’t for the occasional need to replenish food stuffs, she would never leave her farm. Yet she left with you — two strangers — and was gone for months. And it was later learned that the first month was spent in merely traveling to Washington City, a trip that would normally take, at most, three days. What took so very long? What happened along the way that caused such a delay?

ARGENT: That would fill a book.

MERRITT: Two books.

REPORTER: I see that I will get nothing more from you today, and I have only room for one column of print. Perhaps I could interview you further at another time.

MERRITT: Another time is always preferable. 

After the death of G. S. Boarman, a great niece cleaned out the old Kentucky family farmhouse and in the attic, amid the rusting coffee mill, the rickety outdated furniture that was still awaiting repairs, and the stacks of vermin-eaten Harper’s Weekly’s and Police Gazette’s, she found a curious box marked simply “M”.

On the kitchen floor, the metal hasps were flipped back and the top pried off. Lying on the top of a very neat and orderly collection of things was a scrapbook and lying loose inside the scrapbook was a note that said simply, “Please finish the story.” The scrapbook itself contained a rough outline of a narrative with sometimes undecipherable glosses and cryptic references to mysterious sources.

From letters and notebooks, ledgers and calendars, train schedules and stockholders’ reports, the story was slowly extracted and pieced together, and the small treasures, carefully wrapped and preserved in the box, took their place in the narrative.

Boarman’s will had already been read, probated, and executed, but the niece, as executrix, felt obligated to fulfill Boarman’s last wish — to breathe life into the long-ago story of a woman who held some importance to Boarman.