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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

botticelli's bastard

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★☆

“You can hang me on the wall,” the Count said, “and see what others have to say about me.”

As always, the Count’s expression was frozen in time, forever unchanging.  Even so, Giovanni could imagine the Count’s beaming smile, overly satisfied with himself.

(from Botticelli’s Bastard, page 47)

Quick summary: In Botticelli’s Bastard, Giovanni Fabrizzi, an art restorer carrying on the family business in London, finds an unsigned portrait that appears to be from the Renaissance period in a collection of paintings left to him by his father.  Giovanni is in a rough spot in his life; still grieving the death of his first wife, he is cold and distant to his new wife, Arabella, who is 30 years his junior, and he is frustrated with having to move his studio to a newer, more secure building in a different area of London.  So it’s not surprising that he thinks he might be going crazy when the portrait of Count Marco Lorenzo Pietro de Medici begins talking to him.  But when the Count tells him that his portrait was painted by Botticelli and later stolen by the Nazis during World War II, Giovanni has a mystery on his hands — one that takes a toll on his relationship with his wife and his son, dredges up long buried secrets, and forces him to examine his conscience and do what is right.

Why I wanted to read it: I was curious about the mystery behind the painting and its World War II story.

What I liked: I’m not generally a fan of magical realism, and I had no idea the book involved a talking painting.  At first I was a bit apprehensive, but the relationship and conversations between Giovanni and the Count were my favorite parts of the book.  It was an interesting way to detail the history of the portrait, and the Count’s arrogance, wisdom, and loneliness made him an especially intriguing character.  The book is fast-paced, gives readers a working knowledge of the world of art history and art restoration, and takes them on an adventure with Giovanni as he attempts to discover what happened to the painting during the Nazi occupation of Paris, how it ended up in his family, and who it really belongs to now.

What I disliked: I was a little surprised there was no author’s note at the end detailing his research and separating fact from fiction.  I was especially curious about the book cover image, as it’s meant to be the portrait of the Count.

Final thoughts: Stephen Maitland-Lewis does a great job bringing art to life in Botticelli’s Bastard and blending magical realism with historical and mystery fiction.  Although the novel isn’t overly suspenseful and I wasn’t surprised by how the plot wrapped up, Botticelli’s Bastard was an enjoyable book.  While the horrors of the Holocaust overshadow the story, Maitland-Lewis keeps things from getting too heavy, with the Count providing moments of humor throughout the book.  I settled down with Botticelli’s Bastard and a cup of coffee and spent a delightful afternoon with Giovanni on his journey from present-day London to as far back as the Renaissance era to his family’s experiences during World War II, ending with a momentous decision that has huge ramifications for the art world and his own understanding of what is right and just.

Thanks to Italy Book Tours for having me on the tour for Botticelli’s Bastard.  For more information on the book and author or to follow the rest of the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 27 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 25 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Botticelli’s Bastard from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the other girl

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

Her mother had sensed her uneasiness the night before the wedding. “Love grows,” she’d offered unbidden as Maria had packed for her new home.  But with whom? she had wanted to ask, thinking of the stack of letters she had found years earlier buried deep in her mother’s cedar chest.  They had been written in a flowing script that was not her father’s and they had spoken words of love to her mother, painting a picture of a vibrant and adored woman Maria did not quite know.

(from “The Other Girl”)

Quick summary: “The Other Girl” is a companion novella (though I would argue that it’s more of a short story) to Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest.  Set in a small Polish village called Biekowice in 1940 during the Nazi occupation, it focuses on Maria, who married the ex-boyfriend of Ruth Nowak, one of the main characters in The Winter Guest.  Maria has severed ties with her father, a Nazi collaborator, and lives with Piotr’s parents while he is off fighting the war.  When she finds Hannah hiding in the barn, Maria must summon her courage, find someone she can trust, and at least try to save the scared little girl from both the horrors of home and war.

Why I wanted to read it: I am a big fan of Pam Jenoff, and The Winter Guest is one of my favorite books of the year so far.

What I liked: Jenoff briefly introduces Maria in The Winter Guest, and I enjoyed getting to know her a little better through this companion story.  Biekowice is a small village, and the Nazi occupation has its residents living in hunger and fear, and I was curious about how the other villagers were coping.  In so few pages, Jenoff manages to create a well-developed character in Maria.

What I disliked: It was too short!  I was so involved in Maria’s story that I was sad when it ended.  There is so much in Maria’s story left to tell, and I hope Jenoff considers fleshing out her wartime experiences in a sequel to The Winter Guest.

Final thoughts: I think it helped that I read The Winter Guest first; if I would have started with “The Other Girl,” I might’ve been slightly disappointed that The Winter Guest doesn’t finish Maria’s story.  The Winter Guest really sets the scene, so readers understand what is going on in the village and the surrounding area, giving a sense of urgency and danger to Maria’s story.  It is not necessary to read “The Other Girl” after The Winter Guest, but if you love the novel as much as I did, the companion story is definitely worth checking out.

war challenge with a twist

Book 26 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 24 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: “The Other Girl” is from my personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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land of dreams

Source: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★☆

I couldn’t paint.  I had nothing to say.  My art had left me and all I could do was capture the story behind the eyes of a pretty girl.  Somehow, in the past few weeks, I had become silenced.  My voice was gone and I was becoming ever less certain that it would return.

(from Land of Dreams, page 165)

Quick summary: Land of Dreams is the last installment in Kate Kerrigan’s Ellis Island trilogy that follows headstrong Ellie Hogan, who has left Ireland for good to forge a new life in New York City.  Set in 1942, Ellie has become a well-known artist and is raising her adopted sons, Leo and Tom, on Fire Island off the Long Island shore.  She has settled into the quiet life of an artist, but all that changes when 16-year-old Leo runs away from his boarding school to Hollywood to become an actor.  It’s not long before Ellie, Tom, and her old friend Bridie have forged a new life in Los Angeles.  Ellie has lost her creativity, and after the loss of two husbands, she thinks her desire to love and be loved has left her as well.  Amidst the fame and greed of Hollywood, the Japanese internment camps, and memories of the life she left behind, Ellie embarks on a friendship with a Polish composer, Stan, and puts her dreams on the sidelines to give her son a chance to live his own.

Why I wanted to read it: I really enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, Ellis Island and City of Hope, and I wanted to find out how Kerrigan concludes Ellie’s story.

What I liked: Land of Dreams can be read as a standalone novel.  Of course, you’ll care more about Ellie if you read all three books in order, but Kerrigan provides enough back story so you won’t feel too lost — which was good for me since it’s been a year since I read the previous books, and I needed a quick update.  I love the character of Ellie.  She has gone through so much in her 42 years, but she has always managed to pull herself up, adapt, and move forward.  Having long wanted to be a mother, Ellie would do anything for Tom and Leo, putting them first in all things.  The first-person narrative helps emphasize how much she has endured and how much she has sacrificed, and Kerrigan does a great job ensuring that readers understand Ellie, even when they don’t agree with her.  Hollywood in the 1940s is an intriguing setting, but Kerrigan doesn’t let readers forget that there is a war going on.  The fighting may be happening elsewhere, but the tensions and the animosity toward anyone with a connection to Germany and Japan, however slight, is very real and very dangerous.  However, Kerrigan also doesn’t let the war take center stage.

What I disliked: The only thing I didn’t like was having to say goodbye to Ellie when I turned the last page.

Final thoughts: Ellie’s fierce love for her children shines through, and the same take-charge attitude and adaptability that enabled her to survive hunger, build successful businesses, and keep going after tough losses help her see through the glitz and glamor of Hollywood.  Even while stepping aside to let her son shine, Ellie cannot completely hide in the shadows, and the relationships she forges in Hollywood make her realize she still has much to learn about life, love, and creativity.  Land of Dreams is a satisfying conclusion to the Ellis Island trilogy, which centers on love and loss, family, the immigrant experience, and the American Dream.  The trilogy spans the years of the Irish War of Independence, the Great Depression, and World War II and follows a woman who was truly ahead of her time.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for Land of Dreams.  To follow the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 23 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 23 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Land of Dreams from William Morrow for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the summer of long knives

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★☆☆

There was pleasure to be derived from having a false face to hide what the false heart knew.  Maybe, Rolf thought, that was what kept killers like this going when they weren’t strangling or stabbing or torturing.  Just the fun of shaking the maitre’d’s hand, complimenting him on his service and chef’s skill at fixing rabbit, while all the time thinking, you think I’m just a friendly face, but do you know what else these hands will do tonight?  Such thoughts would add spice to the mundane.  Every wave and smile and bit of small talk asks the social world the essential, but unspoken question: do you see me for what I am?

(from The Summer of Long Knives, pages 212-213)

Quick summary: Set in Munich in 1936, The Summer of Long Knives follows Kommisar Rolf Wundt as he navigates the fear and tensions in Nazi Germany to catch a killer who brutally murdered a member of the League of German Girls, carving a message into her bare chest.  Rolf and his wife, Klara, are desperate to escape Germany, as they are a target of the Nazi regime due to their political affiliations, but Rolf is told that he will not be able to leave until this case is solved.  However, as the Gestapo continues its takeover of the criminal police, Rolf soon learns that they care little about finding the real killer and everything about furthering their own agenda.  The Summer of Long Knives delves not only into Rolf’s determination to solve the case but also his marital troubles, as he is forced to seek out his former lover, both to extract information and to save her life.

Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read a crime thriller set in Nazi Germany.

What I liked: Jim Snowden definitely did a lot of research about the political climate after Adolf Hitler rose to power.  The Summer of Long Knives is an interesting take on the power struggles that occurred within the upper levels of the Nazi regime and how Nazi ideology led to many innocent people being arrested, subjected to show trials, and almost immediately executed.  Snowden does a good job showing how difficult it was for Rolf — a man haunted by his job and driven by a need for justice — to get real criminals off the street.  The case and all the twists and turns were interesting, as were appearances by historical figures like Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and of course, Hitler.  This was also my first introduction to Albert Göring, Hermann’s brother, who apparently was known for helping Jews and political dissidents and for his opposition to Nazism.

What I disliked: The author went a little overboard with his descriptions, like using the phrase “blonde ocean of headage” to describe someone with blonde hair.  I also didn’t think Rolf’s actions always made sense, given the climate of the time.  If he was so desperate to solve the crime and leave Germany, of course, he was going to have to go over the heads of the Gestapo, but I find it hard to believe that he would have been able to talk to a Gestapo officer the way he did and still live.  After all, this book is set two years after the Night of the Long Knives — when Hitler purged those he viewed as a political threat — so I don’t think they would have had any qualms about making Rolf disappear. I also didn’t feel any kind of connection to Rolf and Klara and didn’t much care about their martial problems, though I did appreciate his willingness to risk his own safety in his quest for justice.

Final thoughts: My curiosity about the case and how Rolf would manage to find the killer given all the obstacles put in his path by the Nazis enabled me to overlook the flaws, and I was satisfied with the ending.  The book took a little horror-novel turn toward the end, but that just increased the excitement, especially since I didn’t find it overly graphic. Overall, I thought The Summer of Long Knives was an interesting novel about a fascinating period in history.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Summer of Long Knives. To follow the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 21 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 22 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Summer of Long Knives from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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my mother's secret

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★☆

We don’t dream of exotic trips or adventures anymore.

We dream of our old life, and of our routines.  We long to return to the world as we remembered it.

I see that my father closes his eyes when my mother works her visual magic.

He is soaking it all up, like I am.

(from My Mother’s Secret, page 126)

Quick summary: My Mother’s Secret is based on the true Holocaust story of two women, Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter, Helena, who saved several Jews and a German soldier during World War II by hiding them in their home in Nazi-occupied Sokal, Poland (now part of Ukraine).  The soldier in the attic, the family in the loft above the pigsty, and the family in the cellar in the kitchen were unaware that Franciszka was hiding anyone besides them.  Franciszka and Helena hid them right under the Germans’ noses. The novel is told from the points of view of Helena, who must hide their secret from the man she loves, who is close to the German commander; Bronek, a ranch worker desperate to get his family out of the ghetto; Mikolaj, the young son of a Jewish doctor; and Vilheim, a pacifist who abandons the German army to avoid being sent to fight in Russia.

Why I wanted to read it: I was intrigued when I heard this was a Holocaust story with a happy ending, and I’d never before heard the courageous story of the Halamajowas.

What I liked: My Mother’s Secret is a novel that can be read in one sitting.  Its fast pace and simple prose keep the story lighter than most novels about the Holocaust, yet at the same time, author J.L. Witterick makes sure readers do not forget the dangers these characters faced at every turn.

What I disliked: The sparse prose means there is little character development, and the four viewpoints at times are indistinguishable, as they are all written in the same style and voice.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel.  In fact, it’s quite the page-turner!

Final thoughts: My Mother’s Secret is a short novel that packs a punch despite its simple, direct prose, though at times I longed for more description and details.  However, Franciszka and Helena’s kindness, generosity, and bravery overshadow the novel’s flaws and make for a truly fascinating story.

war challenge with a twist

Book 20 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 21 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received My Mother’s Secret from Berkley for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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a jane austen daydream

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: ★★★★☆

“I am a different person now.”

“Different?  How so?”

“I decided this last week,” Jane said matter-of-factly.  “I am planning to begin a new chapter in my life.”

“Is this like one of your little books?”

“My books are anything but little, Cassandra.”

(from A Jane Austen Daydream)

In A Jane Austen Daydream, Scott D. Southard says from the start, “This book is a work of fiction, only marginally influenced by the facts.”  From there, he takes readers on a journey with Jane Austen from her home in Steventon to her brother’s home at Godmersham Park and even to Bath and Chawton, from her early 20s through the publication of Sense and Sensibility.  Readers familiar with the known details of Austen’s life will notice that he plays with the timeline of her life, making her brother Charles younger than he should be, for instance, but his portrayal of Austen’s wit and sharp tongue provides much humor and makes it easy to just go with the flow.

Austen never married, but since she wrote much about love and had a keen understanding of romantic relationships and human nature, it’s not surprising that people want to believe she had a great love story of her own.  Generally the novels that create such a love story focus on one romance, but Southard imagines several relationships for Jane, including a youthful flirtation full of misunderstanding with Tom LeFroy and an attraction with a mysterious American with whom she crosses paths in Bath.

Southard also references Austen’s novels, and readers can imagine Jane tucking the things people say into her memory for later use in a novel and picture her at her writing desk remembering the ridiculous people she met over the years and turning them into Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Mr. Collins.  Southard also imagines the events that would inspire the two insulting proposals Elizabeth Bennet receives in Pride and Prejudice, and it was fun to find these things within the story.

A Jane Austen Daydream shows how a palm-reading by a gypsy put Jane on the lookout for love and how each of the men she meets along the way changed her views about love and marriage, her writing and her future.  Southard also focuses on Jane’s close relationship with her sister, Cassandra, how deeply Cassandra was affected by her fiancé’s death, and the burden women placed on their families by remaining unmarried.  Jane’s strained relationships with her parents, her brothers, and even their wives also play a role in the story, making it more exciting and dramatic, whether true or not.

The novel is creative in its blending of the facts with fiction, but the only thing I didn’t like was (spoiler alert, highlight the rest of the sentence to reveal) how the author inserted himself into the story.  Despite that minor quibble, I found myself lost in the novel, enjoying the Jane he brings to life on the page and the nod he gives to her immortality, as she lives on forever in the novels she wrote and the movies and novels they have, in turn, inspired.

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historical fiction challenge

Book 20 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Jane Austen Daydream from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the winter guest

Source: Review copy from Harlequin MIRA and the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night.  I should write it down, I suppose.  The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else.  The history and those who lived it will disappear with the wind.  But I cannot.  It is not that the memories are too painful — I live them over and over each night, a perennial film in my mind.  But I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that had transpired among us.

(from The Winter Guest, page 11)

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, may be her best yet.  Set primarily in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, the novel centers on 18-year-old twins, Helena and Ruth Nowak, tasked with raising their three younger siblings after the death of their father and their mother’s removal to a hospital in Kraków.  Although the Nazis have yet to enter their small village of Biekowice, the sisters must contend with constant hunger and worries about how to keep the family together and keep them warm as winter approaches.

Helena is the strong sister, accustomed to long walks in the forest in search of food and to the city to ensure their mother is receiving proper care at the Jewish hospital, the only facility affordable to the family.  Ruth is the gentle sister, who spends all of her time caring for the children and trying to stretch their meager rations.  Despite being close, the burden of the war and having to act as parents to the younger children take a toll on the sisters’ relationship.  Ruth laments her lost love and the likelihood that she will never have a family of her own, and she cares little about what goes on outside of the family and their cottage — even as talk of the Jews in the city being removed from their homes makes its way to the village.  Helena, meanwhile, is more realistic about what’s going on, but her weekly trips to Kraków to visit their mother put her face-to-face with the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, and she soon realizes that keeping your head down does not ensure survival.

When Helena comes across an injured American paratrooper in the forest, she decides to help him, finding him shelter in an abandoned chapel, feeding him from her family’s nearly bare cupboards, and keeping him a secret from Ruth — and not just because of the danger to her family.  With Sam, Helena not only finds love but also a purpose, someone to trust when the war finally hits home.  But increasing friction and jealousy between the sisters threatens their relationship and their lives.

In The Winter Guest, Jenoff brings to life a small Polish village in the midst of war, from the hunger and the cold to the watchful eyes of neighbors who report the most minor infraction in exchange for money or food.  The Nowak twins always felt out of place in their village, and the war and the loss of their parents isolate them even more.  Neither one wants to be left alone with the responsibility of caring for the children, and the differences that were emphasized since their birth push them apart as the years pass.  Jenoff does a great job portraying their complicated relationship and making me understand the motivations of each sister.  There was one moment when I was so angry at one of the sisters that I had to put down the book and vent to my husband for a few minutes.  Generating such an emotional reaction is a sign of a great book, at least in my opinion.  Jenoff brilliantly creates an atmosphere of nervous calm, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen at any moment.

Although the epilogue was a bit rushed and devoid of some of the tidbits of information that would have made it more believable, I still loved the book.  Jenoff unflinchingly details the struggles of living in an occupied country, the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liquidated Jewish neighborhoods, and the danger of ignoring what’s happening in your own backyard.  She deftly balances the excitement of taking action with the horrors and loss inevitable in war, and she makes a story that happened decades ago relevant in the present day.  The Winter Guest is about the bonds between sisters and twins, the destructive nature of secrets, loyalty and betrayal, and the need to preserve wartime stories of courage and resistance before those who know exactly what happened are gone.

war challenge with a twist

Book 17 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 19 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Winter Guest from Harlequin MIRA and the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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