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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

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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jane austen's first love

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

“I take it, Mr. Payler, that you have never read a novel?”

“Never.  It is said that they are designed to entertain the weak of mind.”

“Sir,” said I with animation, “that could not be further from the truth.  Some novels might be poorly written, but in the main, I believe the opposite to be the case.  A good novel — a well-written novel — not only entertains the readers with effusions of wit and humour, it touches the emotions and conveys a comprehensive understanding of human nature — all via the simple and remarkable act of transmitting words on a page — while at the same time displaying, in the best-chosen language, the greatest powers of the human mind.”

(from Jane Austen’s First Love, pages 81-82)

The inspiration for Syrie James’ latest novel, Jane Austen’s First Love, was a single line Jane wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1796: “We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.”  The resulting novel is a beautifully written tale of 15-year-old Jane Austen falling in love for the first time in the summer of 1791 on a trip to Kent to celebrate her brother Edward’s engagement to Elizabeth Bridges.  Despite knowing deep down that a match between herself and Edward Taylor, the heir to Bifrons — who has led a fascinating life on the Continent and even dined and danced with princesses — will never be, his intelligence, knowledge of the world, humor, and admiration of her impertinence make it impossible for her to resist him.

In this delightful novel, told from the first person viewpoint of Jane herself, James portrays Jane as a girl quick to fall in love, open with her opinions, and astute in her observations of human character and behavior.  Early on, Jane says to her mother, “I write because I cannot help it,” and I loved picturing her sneaking in a few moments to write while her mother insists that needlework is more important.

What I loved most about Jane Austen’s First Love were the references to her novels, from misguided matchmaking attempts reminiscent of Emma Woodhouse and the similarities between Jane’s relationship with Cassandra and the bond between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, to Jane’s insistence that love could overpower society’s expectations for marriage.  Jane’s observations of the people she met certainly inspired the various characters she wrote, and James gives readers a glimpse of how that might have happened, and in her skilled hands, Jane’s family, friends, and acquaintances come to life on the page.  James even includes an afterword where she explains her inspiration for the book, details the research she conducted, and points out which aspects of the story are imagined.

Jane Austen’s First Love is a satisfying novel that gives Jane the love story that many of us imagine she had.  But more than that, it’s a portrait of a young woman who was ahead of her time in many ways, whose brilliantly composed stories and characters have stood the test of time.  James shows Jane Austen as a normal teenager, with a desire to act older than her age, an impulsiveness that prompts her to make poor decisions, and a romantic nature that ensured she truly felt the things she wrote about.  The few letters that survived provide the only glimpse we’ll ever really have of the real Jane, but James does such a fantastic job creating a believable inner narrative, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t actually inside Jane’s head reading her thoughts.  Jane Austen’s First Love is another book likely to turn up on my Best of 2014 list!

JA tour

historical fiction challenge

Book 18 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Jane Austen’s First Love 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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grand central

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

In those moments when she was alone, her body propped up in bed and a borrowed book she was using to study English on her lap, she saw her mother saying good-bye for the last time through a forced smile, and her father still holding on to her bag for a few more moments.  She didn’t want to look at those horrible photos in the paper and believe her parents could be amongst the piles off bodies or reduced to dark ash.  She wanted instead to look at the family photograph that sat on her nightstand and believe that they were still just as she had left them.  Father in his dark brown overcoat and stylish fedora, and Mother always with something warm and sweet in her hands.

(from “Going Home” by Alyson Richman, Grand Central, page 27)

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is a collection of 10 short stories that at some point bring readers to Grand Central Terminal in New York City on the same day in September 1945.  The stories are set shortly after the end of World War II, when refugees were creating new lives in America and soldiers were making their way home.  When I saw the list of authors and stories in this collection, I definitely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read it.

  • “Going Home” by Alyson Richman (The Lost Wife)
  • “The Lucky One” by Jenna Blum (Those Who Save Us)
  • “The Branch of Hazel” by Sarah McCoy (The Baker’s Daughter)
  • “The Kissing Room” by Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Sarah Jio (Blackberry Winter)
  • “I’ll Walk Alone” by Erika Robuck (Call Me Zelda)
  • “The Reunion” by Kristina McMorris (Bridge of Scarlet Leaves)
  • “Tin Town” by Amanda Hodgkinson (22 Britannia Road)
  • “Strand of Pearls” by Pam Jenoff (The Kommandant’s Girl)
  • “The Harvest Season” by Karen White (The Time Between)

I don’t usually read short stories because I often feel like they end before the story takes off, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself satisfied by every one of these stories.  I couldn’t put this book down, and while I liked some stories more than others, in the week since I finished it, I still can’t decide which story was my favorite.

These stories are all unique in their subject matter, from a Holocaust survivor trying to get on with his life after losing his wife and daughters to a female pilot struggling with a different sort of grief and guilt, from a woman who dreads her soldier husband’s return to a young girl leaving her home in England to start a new life with her mother and GI husband in America.  Another story follows a young girl who travels alone from Shanghai to New York City to reunite with her father only to learn he’s not the man she thought he was, and Sarah McCoy lets readers know what happened to Hazel from The Baker’s Daughter, who joined the Lebensborn program.

Grand Central seems to perfectly capture the postwar atmosphere in a big city, with the chaos in the train station and the roller coaster of emotions within each character.  The changes in society, especially in regards to women and their romantic relationships and career aspirations, also feature prominently in some of these stories.  I was impressed not only by the character development in these stories but also by the ways in which the characters crossed paths with one another, which emphasizes how well this collection is structured.  If you love novels set during World War II or have loved novels by these authors in the past, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on a copy.

war challenge with a twist

Book 16 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 17 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Grand Central 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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