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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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going after cacciatoFor the December readalong for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist at War Through the Generations, Serena and I are turning our attention to Vietnam.  Tim O’Brien always comes to mind when I think about books about the Vietnam War, and I can’t wait to finally read the copy of Going After Cacciato that has been sitting on my shelf for too long.

“To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.”

So wrote the New York Times of Tim O’Brien’s now classic novel of Vietnam.  Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, Going After Cacciato captures the peculiar mixture of horror and hallucination that marked this strangest of wars.  In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris.  In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel.  Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.  (publisher’s summary)

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

Friday, Dec. 12: Chapters 1-24

Friday, Dec. 19: Chapters 24-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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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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village of secrets

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

As ever, the truth, inasmuch as it can be established 70 years after the event, is considerably more interesting.  The myth has much diminished reality.  It has also given rise to an unceasing flow of feuds, jealousies, backbiting, calumnies, hearsay, claims and counterclaims and prejudice, pitting Catholics against Protestants, armed resisters against pacifists, civilians against Maquisards, believers against agnostics, those who seek glory against those who wish to remain silent. … What actually took place on the plateau of the Vivarais-Lignon during the grey and terrifying years of German occupation and Vichy rule is indeed about courage, faith and morality.  But it is also about the fallibility of memory.

(from Village of Secrets)

Quick summary: In Village of Secrets, Caroline Moorehead provides a detailed account of how a small village in the mountains of eastern France saved thousands of people — including Jews and OSS and SOE agents — during World War II.  Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is just one village on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon who hid these people right under the noses of the Germans and the French collaborators.  Moorehead describes the history of the plateau, including the religious battles that paved the way for resistance over the centuries, and how its geography helped in their efforts.  Most importantly, Moorehead compares the myth of Le Chambon to the truth of what actually happened, based on interviews with the rescuers, those who were rescued, and relatives of both, as well as unpublished letters, journals, and other sources.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m always interested in stories of courage and resistance during World War II, and I was especially intrigued by this book’s focus on mythmaking and the fallibility of memory.

What I liked: Moorehead goes into a lot of detail about the villagers, from the pastors to the farmers to those operating children’s homes, and individual stories of those in need of sanctuary.  She spends a lot of time building the story, with background information about the Vichy regime, the French internment camps, and the religious history of the region, which was important in what played out on the plateau.  Moorehead also provides a lot of information about what happened in the years after the war, from following up with the principal actors to how the events were portrayed in the media, and discusses the gray areas where the truth likely can be found.

What I disliked: Sometimes, there was almost too much information.  There were small sections here and there that were a bit dry, but it was easy to read beyond them to get back to the meat of the story.  Even when I was a little bored with the information (like the details going back to the 1600s), I could see why those details were important.  Because there were so many people involved in the events, it was hard to keep track of everyone and the time line, but I just tried to go with the flow, and in the end, it didn’t prevent me from following or being fascinated with the story.  Also, there were French phrases used here and there, and they weren’t always translated, which bothered me because I don’t speak or read French, but again, that’s a minor quibble.

Final thoughts: Village of Secrets is a fascinating story about a French village whose inhabitants were willing to risk everything to save thousands of people, especially children.  Moorehead delves deep into the region’s history before, during, and after the war to provide a balanced view of events.  The book brings to light the true number of villages and rescuers involved and how many people were saved, underscores how people exalted for their goodness were really less so, and how the reality was distorted and became a legend over time.

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

war challenge with a twist

Book 25 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

Book 1 for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Book 3 for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Village of Secrets from Harper 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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liesl's ocean rescue

Source: Review copy from Gihon River Press
Rating: ★★★★☆

On the ship, Liesl could eat whatever she wanted.  She could walk freely around the ship and see movies in the recreation room whenever they played.  Back in Germany, she could only eat rationed bread and eggs.  And Jews like Liesl and her family weren’t allowed to stroll in the park, walk on the sidewalk, or go to the movies.

(from Liesl’s Ocean Rescue)

Quick summary: Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is a picture book based on the true story of Liesl Joseph, who was one of around 900 Jews to escape Germany on the MS St. Louis.  The ship left Hamburg in May 1939 bound for Havana, Cuba, but the fate of the passengers hung in the balance when they were denied entry to Cuba and the United States, generating chaos and fear when they learned they were ordered to return to Germany.  The captain and a committee comprised of some passengers scrambled to find other countries that would take them.

Why I wanted to read it: I was curious how the subject would be handled in a children’s book.

What I liked: Barbara Krasner tells the story through the eyes of a young girl who doesn’t understand why her freedoms have been taken away and why her family must leave their home in Germany forever.  Readers see how the voyage to Cuba was a carefree one for Liesl, with so much promise, and how the fear returned when they were not allowed to leave the ship.  Avi Katz’s illustrations are fantastic in that they capture the myriad emotions on the character’s faces, from hope to fear to joy.  At the end of the story, there is an author’s note that lets readers know what happened to Liesl and her family after the MS St. Louis, and there is a bibliography with a list of books and DVDs to learn more.

What I disliked: There was nothing to dislike.  Krasner and Katz did a wonderful job adapting such a heavy story for a younger audience.

Final thoughts: Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is a gentle introduction to the Holocaust for children.  Of course, the book doesn’t touch upon reports that around 227 of the 915 refugees perished in the Holocaust after being given refuge in European countries that eventually were occupied by the Nazis.  But it does explain why Liesl’s family had to leave Germany and what happened on the ship in a way that children can begin to understand the history of the time, even if it really is impossible to truly comprehend why these things happened.  Parents can use the book as an introduction to the events leading up to World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, providing an opportunity for deeper discussions later.

war challenge with a twist

Book 24 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

Disclosure: I received Liesl’s Ocean Rescue from Gihon River Press 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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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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GI Brides

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

When they had married, it had been in the midst of a war that seemed never-ending.  She had accepted Raymond’s ring without considering the fact that one day it would mean following him halfway across the world.  But now, as she waited for her orders to join him in America, she began to question what she had done.

(from GI Brides, page 174)

Quick summary: GI Brides profiles just four of the more than 70,000 British women who married American soldiers during World War II and followed them to the United States, including author Nuala Calvi’s grandmother, Margaret. Based on interviews with the women, the book goes into detail about each of their lives during the war, how they met their GI husbands, and what life was like for them in a new country as they raised their families.

Why I wanted to read it: I had no idea there were so many war brides, and I was curious about how these women fared after leaving their homes and families to start anew in a strange country.

What I liked: GI Brides reads like a novel, which makes it very easy to get absorbed in the stories of these women. Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi obviously did a lot of research, and they present the stories of Sylvia, Rae, Margaret, and Lyn in such a way that I cared about them and felt like they were old friends. Pictures are included so readers can put faces to the names, and I found myself flipping to them many times while I read.

What I disliked: The chapters alternate among the women, and at first that made it difficult for me to keep track of their stories, especially if I put the book down for a day or two before coming back to it. That didn’t keep me from loving the book, though.

Final thoughts: Sylvia, Rae, Margaret, and Lyn came from different backgrounds, but they had a lot in common. These women each found a way to do their part for the war effort, whether volunteering at a Red Cross club like Sylvia or joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service like Rae. Despite each of them finding love or at least some semblance of happiness with their American soldiers, these women experienced many challenges and hardships. Most importantly, these women were strong, adventurous, and able to overcome the various obstacles thrown in their paths. GI Brides is a fascinating book about just a few of the many women brave enough to cross an ocean — on their own — for a chance at love, with no guarantees that it would work out or that they would ever see their families again.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for GI Brides. To follow the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 22 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

Book 1 for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Book 2 for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received GI Brides 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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