One of our recommended books is The Woman in the Castello by Kelsey James


A Gripping Historical Novel Perfect for Book Clubs

Set in 1960s Italy, this stylish, atmospheric debut spins a bewitching web of ruthless ambition, family secrets, and the consequences of forbidden love, as an ambitious American actress snags the starring role in a mysterious horror movie shooting on location in a crumbling medieval castle outside Rome…

Readers who enjoy the moody gothic allure of Kate Morton and Silvia Moreno-Garcia or the immersive settings of Lucinda Riley and Fiona Davis will be enthralled by Kelsey James’ spellbinding web of intriguing mystery, family secrets, forbidden love, and midcentury Italian flair.

Rome, 1965: Aspiring actress Silvia Whitford arrives at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios from Los Angeles,

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Set in 1960s Italy, this stylish, atmospheric debut spins a bewitching web of ruthless ambition, family secrets, and the consequences of forbidden love, as an ambitious American actress snags the starring role in a mysterious horror movie shooting on location in a crumbling medieval castle outside Rome…

Readers who enjoy the moody gothic allure of Kate Morton and Silvia Moreno-Garcia or the immersive settings of Lucinda Riley and Fiona Davis will be enthralled by Kelsey James’ spellbinding web of intriguing mystery, family secrets, forbidden love, and midcentury Italian flair.

Rome, 1965: Aspiring actress Silvia Whitford arrives at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios from Los Angeles, ready for her big break and a taste of la dolce vita. Instead, she learns that the movie in which she was cast has been canceled. Desperate for money, Silvia has only one choice: seek out the Italian aunt she has never met.

Gabriella Conti lives in a crumbling castello on the edge of a volcanic lake. Silvia’s mother refuses to explain the rift that drove the sisters apart, but Silvia is fascinated by Gabriella, a once-famous actress who still radiates charisma. And the eerie castle inspires Silvia’s second chance when it becomes the location for a new horror movie, aptly named The Revenge of the Lake Witch—and she lands a starring role.

Silvia immerses herself in the part of an ingenue tormented by the ghost of her beautiful, seductive ancestor. But when Gabriella abruptly vanishes, the movie’s make-believe terrors seep into reality. No one else on set seems to share Silvia’s suspicions. Yet as she delves into Gabriella’s disappearance, she triggers a chain of events that illuminate dark secrets in the past—and a growing menace in the present…

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  • A John Scognamiglio Book
  • Paperback
  • July 2023
  • 288 Pages
  • 9781496742919

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$16.95 indies Bookstore

About Kelsey James

Kelsey James is a historical fiction author and content marketer whose work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Insider, ABC News, and The Huffington Post, among other outlets. A graduate of Dartmouth College with a degree in Creative Writing and Classical Studies, she currently lives with her family outside New York City.

Author Website


“You’ll get lost in the pages of this lush, entertaining story.” —Ellen Marie Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Willowbrook

“Like Jess Walters’s Beautiful Ruins, the glamour and heady indulgence of the era take center stage in this captivating, multilayered story that will keep you guessing to the end.” –Susan Wiggs, # 1 New York Times bestselling author

“Mystery, romance, and an enchanting cast of characters with a plucky heroine at its heart. Against the richly drawn backdrop of post-war Italy, in a castle brimming with secrets, Kelsey James explores the enduring and sometimes destructive power of love, family, and ambition.” –Amanda Skenandore, author of The Nurse’s Secret

“A young actress desperate for stardom agrees to film a horror movie in her aunt’s crumbling Italian castle. Then the aunt disappears. What secrets lurk in her past—and in the mysterious lake behind the castle? The Woman in the Castello is a thoroughly original blend of mystery, family drama, and sultry romance, all unfolding in the fast-paced world of a Swinging Sixties movie set. A riveting debut from author Kelsey James!” —Elizabeth Blackwell, bestselling author of Red Mistress

“The 1960s in Rome, a crumbling Italian castle on the edge of a volcanic lake, a glamorous aunt she’s never met, and a starring role in a horror movie that begins to feel a bit too real…Kelsey James’s debut novel is a delicious Gothic filled with atmosphere, twists, romance, and dark secrets. Readers will devour it.” —Megan Chance, bestselling author of A Splendid Ruin

“An impromptu movie set in a medieval castle in 1960s Italy provides a fascinating backdrop for this fresh gothic tale filled with mystery, family secrets, and unexpected romance.” —Lorena Hughes, author of The Spanish Daughter




By the time I reached Cinecittà Studios, I was footsore and dry-throated. I squeezed my purse tightly between my fingers, keenly aware that the small wad of wrinkled lira notes it contained was the very last money I had in the world. But I’d made it here, finally. Cinecittà beckoned me cheerfully, its stucco exterior the color of Roman sunshine, the chrome letters of its name glinting.

A uniformed guard gave me general directions of where to go, and I stepped through the open gate with my heart skipping. The lot was more peaceful than I expected, with green grass and tall umbrella pines dotting the grounds. It was a relief, after the crowded bus ride alongside white-socked children and kerchiefed Italian grandmothers and a blotchy-faced man who’d made sucking noises at me. I got the tingling sensation I always got in proximity to greatness—just over there was the famous Stage 5, where Cleopatra had filmed a few years ago with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Eventually I found the building where I’d be filming Five Days in Roma. Only four lines, but plenty of background scenes, too, and the studio had flown me here all the way from Los Angeles and put me up in a hotel. It was a third-class establishment, with a shared bathroom where you had to pull a cord to activate the hot water, but even so. My mother and Lulu—short for Lucy, but we almost always called her Lulu—were there now, not that the studio needed to know that. I pictured them when I’d left that morning, still curled up together in the bed we all shared, a half-smile on Lulu’s sweet little face and her eyelashes curling against her cheeks.

I’d received instructions to report to the director’s office today, even though production wasn’t officially starting for a few more days. Perhaps Roger Albertson wanted to give me a little pep talk before we began. I walked through the antiseptic hallway lined with offices and knocked on his door, smoothing the skirt of my white cotton dress, scoop-necked, belted, and patterned with bouquets of flowers. It was the best dress I owned and had cost fifteen dollars at Hudson’s, an extravagance I couldn’t afford, but my mother had insisted, determined I should look the part of the blossoming Hollywood starlet. It was a little more prim and feminine than my usual style—I wasn’t big on dainty florals, preferring a younger mod look—but I couldn’t deny her anything, not in her condition.

The man sitting behind the desk wasn’t Mr. Albertson. He looked like another one of the actors. He was blond and sun-beaten and square-jawed, with the sort of roguish good looks that would make him perfect to cast in one of the Westerns that were so popular right now. I could easily picture him as the gunslinging cowboy riding a horse.

“I’m looking for Mr. Albertson?” I made my voice soft and girlish, my consonants feathery light, the way the casting directors seemed to like. It hadn’t quite become a habit yet, and I still forgot to do it sometimes.

“Yes. He’s gone already, I’m afraid. Slunk off like a coward.” The man who wasn’t Mr. Albertson lit a cigarette and came around to lean back against the front of the desk. He acted as if the office were his, and I frowned.

“Do you know when he’ll be back?” My consonants hardened, and my voice deepened. There was no point pretending for a stranger, and an impertinent one at that.

“Oh, that’s much better. You shouldn’t try to be a Marilyn. You have more of a Natalie Wood thing going on.” I stared at him blankly before I realized he was talking about my voice. And then I winced at the reference; I’d adored Marilyn and been devastated by her death. His rudeness shocked me into silence. “One of the actresses, I suppose?”

“Silvia Whitford. I’m playing the secretary.”

“You better sit down.” He gestured toward a chair. I considered refusing him, but he spoke with such authority that it occurred to me he might actually be in possession of some, so I sat. I’d stay only as long as it took to learn who the hell he was and what had happened to Mr. Albertson. He let out a billow of smoke and crossed his feet at the ankles. “I won’t beat around the bush. The picture’s over. The producer and his investors, well, had a falling out, I suppose. There’s not enough money left to shoot a single foot of film.”

I swallowed around something sharp that seemed to have stuck in my windpipe. I tightened my grasp around my ivory patent leather purse. It couldn’t be true. Perhaps this was an elaborate joke, a prank to play on the new arrivals. After all, I didn’t know this man from Adam.

“Who are you?”

“Oh, right. Sorry. Paul Rudderman. Assistant director. Or I was supposed to be, at any rate.”

My throat constricted further, and my head grew light. It was a hot July day, but the air-conditioning in the room didn’t seem to be working, and a fan rattled uselessly in the corner. My thighs stuck to the vinyl, and a bead of sweat trickled down my neck. I thought I might faint, but I didn’t want to do it in front of him.

“If you phone Sam, he can get your return airfare sorted out for you. Your room is booked through the end of the week.” He bumped his cigarette against an ashtray and recrossed his ankles. His insouciance infuriated me. He’d just delivered the most devastating news imaginable—he couldn’t begin to fathom how devastating. “That’s all. You can send in the next one, if someone else is lurking out there.”

I didn’t move. I couldn’t; my muscles had atrophied in the stuffy little office. My stomach had bottomed out after growing heavy with fear.

“What about money? I was promised a hundred dollars a week.” It wasn’t a fortune, but it was the best paycheck I’d had in a while and had felt like a windfall, given they had also promised to pay for my room. Three weeks of shooting, they’d said.

“Yes, well. Not if there’s no film, I’m afraid. You can check your contract.”

And suddenly it was all too much. I burst into tears. Through my sobs, I could see that Mr. Rudderman had grown positively alarmed. His rough-and-ready exterior softened a touch.

“Hey there, it’s not as bad as all that. You’ll find work on another picture. It’s what I’m going to try to do. We’re in the same boat, you know.”

I hiccupped into my hands. “No, you don’t understand. I needed that money.” It was more honest than I’d intended, but it was the truth. I was near to broke. My mother wanted to be buried in Italy, where she’d grown up, and had spent the last of her savings on airline tickets for herself and Lucy. She’d sold her little house in San Diego years ago so she could be with me in Los Angeles, and our apartment had been a month-to-month rental. We’d packed everything we needed into suitcases, and we weren’t planning to go back. This picture had seemed like a miracle; my big break. And in Rome, with free accommodations for three weeks. It would have been enough to get us settled here and get me on my feet.

Now I had until the end of the week before we were out on the streets. I pictured my darling Lulu, probably at the breakfast table right now, singing half-pronounced nursery rhymes for her >nonna and littering the floor with crumbs.

Mr. Rudderman looked sorry for me, which only made me angrier. “Hey, if I hear of anything, I’ll keep you in mind. Miss Whitman, right?”

“No. Silvia Whitford.” My words were acid. I finally found my strength and got to my feet. “No wonder this lousy picture is over, when you couldn’t even bother to learn the names of the cast. I suppose you figured since you were firing everyone, you didn’t need to remember who any of us are. That we’re real people. That would have been too much courtesy to expect.”

My face grew hot, and I turned to go.

“Hey, hey, hey. I’m sorry, all right? This isn’t my fault.”

I walked out of the office and slammed the door. Then I put my face in my hands and cried some more, and wondered how I’d ever be able to tell my mother the news.

* * *

I finally made my way back to the hotel, after another bumpy, crowded bus ride. I was nauseated at the end of it, but I didn’t know whether that was due to the journey or my anxiety. I found my mother and Lulu playing with her toy cars in the hotel lobby, while the lone receptionist snoozed behind the counter. The terrazzo floor wasn’t the cleanest, and I pursed my lips. But poor Lucy needed to play somewhere. My mother was crouched next to her and laughing. She was having one of her good days. They were still mostly good days.

“Mommy!” Lulu ran over and hugged my legs. I bent down and kissed the top of her silky dark curls, breathing in her sweet toddler scent.

“Back already?” my mother asked. I adored my mother, but we were opposites in every way—fire and ice, my father had called us. Where I could never hide what I was feeling, my mother was always calm and collected. She placed great importance on her ability to fare la bella figura—literally, to make a good figure, but really meaning to put up a good front and make a good impression.

“Yes. Just a quick check-in before we start.” I didn’t like lying. But I couldn’t tell her, not yet. Not until I had a plan. I refused to put this weight on her shoulders, on top of everything else.

“I was thinking of taking Lucy to the park.”

I knelt to hug Lulu properly, and she wrapped her chubby little arms around my neck. And then yanked on one of my earrings.

“No, no, sweet pea. We don’t yank.” I looked toward my mother. “Oh, let’s. She needs to run around.”

And so we toddled over to the Villa Borghese gardens, Lulu between us holding each of our  hands and punctuating our journey by pointing out the cars and naming their colors, with mixed accuracy. The gardens were only a few blocks, really, but with Lulu, we went nowhere quickly.

When we finally reached the rolling green lawns and cypress trees, some of the tension left my body. I found Rome’s frenetic pace exciting, the Vespas and the horns blaring and the shouted Italian, but it was very different than Los Angeles, with its low-slung sprawl and laid-back California vibe. The humiliation of the morning and the terror about the future dissipated the tiniest fraction. I saw it in my mother’s face, too, the worry creases in her forehead smoothing a little. My mother was pale and fair, with clear blue eyes—again, the opposite of me, with my dark hair and big brown eyes—although there was similarity in the shape of our faces, our high cheekbones and classic Roman noses. My lips were fuller than hers, and I had straight hair with flipped ends that I teased into a bouffant, whereas hers was almost always up. I was supposed to favor an aunt I’d never met, who still lived in Italy, and I balanced the topic on the tip of my tongue.

“Did you plan to see your sister?”

My mother gasped. Her sister was a taboo topic, and only my current desperation had made me broach it. “No. Why would you ask this?”

They had had some kind of falling out during the war and never spoken again after my mother moved to America. My father had been one of the soldiers who helped drive the Germans out of Italy, and somehow found time to fall in love with and marry my mother when they marched through. I’d been conceived during their whirlwind romance, and after the war, my mother and I had journeyed to join him in California. I’d always found it terribly romantic.

Lulu tugged her hand out of mine and darted across the grass to investigate a squirrel, then watched in awe as it scampered up a tree. “Squirrel! Squirrel, Mommy!”

“Yes, darling. The squirrel is in the tree now.”

I adjusted my sunglasses. I couldn’t tell my mother the real reason. That when she was gone, it would just be me and Lulu, and I was scared. One of my neighbors in our Los Angeles apartment building was a single mother, and I’d seen the social workers arrive unexpectedly to harass her, and I could still hear her screams the morning they took her sweet baby away. I didn’t know if I’d be able to provide for Lulu by myself. I needed help. I swallowed around that sharp thing in my throat again. “I just thought I’d like to meet her. We are here in Italy, after all.”

“She won’t give you any money for Lucy. I know that’s what you’re thinking. Why don’t you ask her father?”

Now it was my turn to be shocked. Lulu’s father didn’t know she existed, and I’d make sure he never would. He was a struggling musician whom I’d moved in with impulsively, whose moods ricocheted between charming and cruel. He’d hit me when he’d been drinking, more than once, his dry, guitar-player’s hands lean and callused. Aside from Lulu, my improved skills with makeup were the only thing of value I took away from that relationship.

“How dare you suggest such a thing.” I studied my mother, who retied her chic white-and-blue floral headscarf around her chin and smirked at me. She favored ladylike swing dresses that accentuated her wasp waist, one feature we both shared. I was partial to shift dresses with contrasting colors, especially black and white, big button accents, and big sunglasses. Soon, we might have to sell off our nicest items. The headscarf was real silk, and I wondered what price it might fetch.

“You see? Now you understand. Some people we cut out of our lives for a reason, Silvia. We won’t speak any more about this.”

I nodded, but it was another lie. Because I’d seen the letter my mother received from Italy three months ago, the one she’d tried to keep hidden. She’d saved it, packing it in her worn leather suitcase for our journey, the envelope creased and the ink smeared. I’d found it when going through her things looking for something of Lulu’s, and I hadn’t read it—I wouldn’t invade her privacy so deliberately—but I had noted the return address. Gabriella Conti, Castello del Lago. I’d looked on a map and found that it wasn’t so far from Rome: a little town about forty miles outside of the city.

I didn’t want to go against my mother’s wishes, but just knowing there was another person in the world who might help, whatever my mother said, made our circumstances slightly more bearable. Even the name of the town sounded alluring, and it seemed to beckon me.

If my mother wouldn’t go see her sister, perhaps I would.