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Archive for the ‘reading challenges’ Category

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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another world instead

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

This is what happens when a city is bombed:
Part of that city goes away into the sky,
And part of that city goes into the earth.
And that is what happens to the people when a city is bombed:
Part of them goes away into the sky,
And part of them goes away into the earth.
And what is left, for us, between the sky and the earth
is a scar.

(from “These Mornings,” Another World Instead, page 52)

Quick summary: These are Williams Stafford’s earliest poems, spanning the years 1937-1947.  Only a handful of these poems were published prior to this collection.  They were inspired by his experiences during World War II.  Stafford was a conscientious objector, which was a difficult stance to take during a popular war that many people deemed necessary and just.  Under penalty of law, Stafford was sent to work in a Civilian Public Service camp in Los Prietos, California, which he viewed as being exiled in his own country.

Why I wanted to read it: Another World Instead was our book club’s pick for May.  (Yes, I am very behind in writing up reviews, hence my new review format.)  Also, the editor of this collection, Fred Marchant, was my English professor back in the day at Suffolk University in Boston.

What I liked: The introduction by Fred Marchant is very informative, and without knowing Stafford’s background, it would be difficult to understand these poems.  I most enjoyed the poems that were about the war, particularly “These Mornings” (which I quoted above) and “The Sound: Summer 1945,” which compares the atomic bomb with a rattlesnake.

What I disliked: The third and last section of poems from 1946-1947 were my least favorite.  They were odd, particularly in comparison to the previous poems, and even numerous readings didn’t reveal any sort of meaning.  Also, there was a lot of nature imagery in this collection of poems, and while I love being out in nature, I’m not a huge fan of reading about it.  Maybe if I read the poems a few at a time, instead of all at once for the book club discussion, I would’ve enjoyed them more.

Final thoughts: I had mixed feelings after my first reading of Another World Instead, but I had a new appreciation for Stafford and these poems after our book club’s meeting with Fred Marchant via Skype.  Fred went into even greater detail about Stafford’s background, and we read aloud several poems chosen by him and members of the book club, and then delved deeper into them.  At some point, I’d like to read Stafford’s later and more popular poems, but it was interesting to read his first efforts in the genre.  Readers who give this collection a try will definitely want to read the introduction by Marchant first.

war challenge with a twist

Book 19 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

dive into poetry

Book 2 for Dive Into Poetry Challenge

Disclosure: Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 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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sketches of a black cat

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

The smoke covered hillside dimmed the flashes as our altitude increased.  Ahead, a last bursting shell fanned out in the clear smokeless sky like a brilliant American star to light our way.

(from Sketches of a Black Cat, page 94)

Quick summary: Sketches of a Black Cat is the World War II story of Howard Miner, a PBY pilot in the South Pacific.  His son, Ron Miner, found his artwork, journal entries, and other writings after his death and transformed them into this memoir, which chronicles Howard’s military training, service during WWII, and his life after the war.

Why I wanted to read it: I had never heard of the Black Cats, who flew at night in black seaplanes.  I also was curious about Howard Miner’s story and his artwork.

What I liked: The sketches and writings found by Ron Miner after his father’s death are a real treasure.  Sketches of a Black Cat not only shows his father’s evolution from student to soldier but also emphasizes Ron’s love and admiration for his father.  Howard Miner’s story is detailed, full of adventure and even humor.  The photos, sketches, and watercolors bring this memoir to life.

What I disliked: I wouldn’t say I really disliked anything in this book, but at times, it was too detailed for me.  The descriptions of the planes and their maneuvers, for instance, were not as interesting to me as the overall story.

Final thoughts: As fewer and fewer heroes from WWII remain to tell their stories, books like Sketches of a Black Cat take on greater importance, and the inclusion of original artwork make it one of the most unique WWII memoirs I’ve read so far.  I appreciate Ron Miner taking the time to reconstruct his father’s story, sharing it with the world and ensuring his father and his tales of courage during wartime will live forever within its pages.

war challenge with a twist

Book 18 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

Book 1 for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Book 1 for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Sketches of a Black Cat 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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monuments menFor the October readalong for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist at War Through the Generations, Serena and I are turning our attention to World War II, which began 75 years ago on Sept. 1, 1939.

As Hitler was attempting to conquer the Western world, his armies were methodically pillaging the finest art in Europe, from Michelangelos and da Vincis to van Eycks and Vermeers, all stolen for the Führer.

The Monuments Men had a mandate from President Roosevelt and the support of General Eisenhower, but no vehicles, gasoline, typewriters, or authority.  In a race against time to save the world’s greatest cultural treasures from destruction at the hands of Nazi fanatics, each man gathered scraps and hints to construct his own treasure map using records recovered from bombed cathedrals and museums, the notes and journals of Rose Valland, a French museum employee who secretly tracked Nazi plunder through the rail yards of Paris, and even a tip from a dentist during a root canal.

These unlikely heroes, mostly middle-aged family men, walked away from successful careers into the epicenter of the war, risking — and some losing — their lives.  Like other members of the Greatest Generation, they embodied the courageous spirit that enabled the best of humanity to defeat the worst.

This is their story.  (publisher’s summary)

Here’s the schedule for the discussions, which will be held on War Through the Generations:

Friday, Oct. 10: Chapters 1-14

Friday, Oct. 17: Chapters 15-28

Friday, Oct. 24: Chapters 29-42

Friday, Oct. 31: Chapters 43-the end

We hope you will read along with us, and even if you’ve already read the book, please feel free to join the discussion!

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

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twelfth night at longbourn

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

She would be as these old mumpers — old and alone.  She would have to rely on the charity of her neighbors when no one else cared for her.

And it was all Lydia’s fault.

She flung herself headlong onto her bed.  The pillow muffled her wrenching sobs.  Such was the mumpers’ blessing.

(from Twelfth Night at Longbourn, pages 12-13)

Twelfth Night at Longbourn is Volume IV of Maria Grace’s Given Good Principles series, which are variations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  To fully understand the world Grace has created with Austen’s beloved characters, readers should read the previous books — Darcy’s Decision, The Future Mrs. Darcy, and All the Appearance of Goodness — in order.

With the older Bennet sisters all happily married, Kitty is the only one to be shunned by their neighbors and contend with eventual spinsterhood as a result of their youngest sister Lydia’s elopement.  With Mrs. Bennet confined to bed with her nerves and Mr. Bennet in his own world as usual, Kitty is more isolated than ever, but when Elizabeth invites her to spend Twelfth Night at Pemberley, she jumps at the chance to socialize with people who will not judge her based on her sister’s actions.

Kitty is to spend Christmas in London with Georgiana Darcy before journeying to Pemberley, and while there, she renews her acquaintance with Mr. Bingley and his sister Louisa, who have problems of their own.  Kitty longs to become a more elegant, refined Catherine, but it is difficult to leave her old life behind, especially as Miss Darcy proves herself to be as silly and careless as Lydia.  It’s not long before her plans for the holiday are in ruins, and she will have to learn that Kitty is just as worthy as Catherine.

Grace has quickly become one of my favorite authors of Austen-inspired fiction.  Her love of Austen’s characters and the Regency era shine through in all of her novels, but Twelfth Night at Longbourn is special in that she brings Kitty Bennet to life.  Kitty blossoms within these pages, and it was easy to ignore the fact that Elizabeth and Darcy are relegated to the background.  Grace beautifully details Kitty’s transformation from a lonely girl to a strong woman unwavering in her loyalty to the people she loves and willing to forgive those who have hurt her.

I may not have particularly liked Grace’s portrayal of Georgiana, but making her less shy and more exuberant helps one to understand how she could have been fooled by Mr. Wickham.  My dislike of Georgiana was easily forgotten by how much I enjoyed spending time with the Bingleys and the Gardiners.  Twelfth Night at Longbourn wraps up the series perfectly, leaving readers in no doubt of what happens to all of the characters and satisfied with the outcome, even though the couples were paired differently.  Even so, I would love for Grace to revisit the characters as she portrayed them here and show us how they fared years down the road.

Disclosure: I received Twelfth Night at Longbourn 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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mr. darcy's pledge

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

“Georgiana, I have come to a decision.  It is time for me to find a bride for Pemberley.”

Who that bride would be, he had no idea.  Only one thing was certain.  It would not be Elizabeth Bennet.

(from Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, page 10)

Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, Volume 1 of The Darcy Novels, is a variation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that caught my eye because it focuses on Mr. Darcy’s attempts to forget Elizabeth Bennet by setting out on a quest to find a wife.  After she rejects his disastrous proposal at Hunsford, he returns to Pemberley never having presented Elizabeth with the letter that would have told her the truth about him and cleared up all the misunderstandings.  With the help of his sister, Georgiana, who knows nothing of his failed attempts to secure Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, he sets about making a list of the qualities he most desires in a wife and mistress of Pemberley.

Darcy is rattled when Georgiana questions him about the most important quality he seeks in a wife, remembering Elizabeth’s laughter, impertinence, and ability to remain poised in the worst of situations.  But he can never have her, and his desperate attempts to purge her from his mind give two young women the wrong idea.

Meanwhile, he must contend with Lord and Lady Matlock’s attempts to marry off Georgiana, and he has to patch up his friendship with Mr. Bingley, who has withdrawn from society after learning of the scheme to prevent him from proposing to Elizabeth’s sister, Jane.  When an accident brings Elizabeth to Pemberley, Darcy has a chance to change her opinion of him, but with an assortment of house guests preventing him from speaking to her alone, will he lose his only opportunity to marry for love?

In Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, Monica Fairview lets readers see the events following his failed proposal through Darcy’s eyes.  From wounded pride to embarrassment over his behavior to unexpected feelings of hope, readers see Darcy stumble — even emerging from the water à la Colin Firth — and evolve into a man worthy of Elizabeth’s love.  There were plenty of heated conversations, misunderstandings, and competition among the ladies to have me alternating between anger and laughter, and I wanted to cheer out loud each time Georgiana amassed the courage to put certain disagreeable people in their rightful places.

Fairview keeps readers interested with her expansion of several secondary characters, particularly Georgiana; the introduction of original characters, from the humorous valet Briggs to the obnoxiously transparent Miss Marshall; and Darcy’s sweet attempts to make himself appealing to Elizabeth.  My only complaint is that I finished the book disappointed that I couldn’t start the next installment straight away!

Disclosure: I received Mr. Darcy’s Pledge 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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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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