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the secret betrothal

Source: Review copy from Meryton Press
Rating: ★★★★☆

He does not dare to kiss me, her mind screamed silently, but why am I trembling?  She felt a flutter in the pit of her stomach and could not keep her eyelids from blinking over and over.  He is actually going to kiss me!

Very close to her face and audible only to her ear, Mr. Darcy said, “When I kiss you, Miss Bennet, I will not need the inducement of mistletoe.”  He then touched his lips to her hand, released it, and walked out the door.

The colour drained from Elizabeth’s face as she made her way across the room to the perimeter of the hall.  Her knees suddenly felt quite weak, and she sank down upon a chair, aware that her breathing had grown shallow and ragged.  When he kisses me?  The gall of that man!  That is one thing that will never happen!

(from The Secret Betrothal, page 48)

Jan Hahn’s latest take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice puts an even bigger obstacle than usual in the path to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s happily ever after.  The last time I read Pride and Prejudice a couple of years ago, I remember being really surprised by how much Elizabeth likes Mr. Wickham and falls for his charms.  I think I like to put that out of my mind, but in The Secret Betrothal, Hahn expands on that attraction and kept me cringing and wanting to not believe what I was reading even while making it hard for me to put the book down.

The Secret Betrothal shows what might have happened had Mr. Wickham really, really wanted to punish Mr. Darcy and persuaded Elizabeth to become engaged to him, then keep that engagement a secret, even from her dear sister Jane.  Hahn surprisingly makes this scenario believable, however repulsive it is to imagine Elizabeth linked to that horrid scoundrel.  In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was that I was able to believe it, so kudos to Hahn for that!

There were so many things I liked about this novel, from Hahn’s courage in embroiling the heroine in a secret engagement to the evolution of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship, with confusion, tenderness, passion, and the realization that nothing can keep these characters apart for long.  Hahn lets readers spend more time with Charlotte in this rendition and even inserts some humor in the form of Lady Catherine’s spring tonic.  (Seriously, it’s hilarious!)  But the freshness of the story is really where this novel shines.  I loved that Hahn took the main characters to Brighton and let the story unfold by the sea.

Hahn dedicates the novel to “anyone who has chosen unwisely the first time,” and The Secret Betrothal certainly is a story where that is the case.  Elizabeth has even more to chastise herself about in this retelling, not only for falling prey to a scoundrel but also for risking her reputation.  It’s a novel that highlights the flaws that make Austen’s heroes and heroines so endearing, so life-like, and it also shows that there is no end to the possibilities for these characters.

the secret betrothal blog tour

Disclosure: I received The Secret Betrothal from Meryton 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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citadel

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

The uniforms were different in each age, the battle colors under which they marched changing as the centuries marched on.  Boots and guns had replaced banners and horses, but the story was the same.

Men with black hearts.  With black souls.

(from Citadel)

Citadel is the third book in Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, but it can be read as a standalone novel.  In fact, I have not read the previous installments (Labyrinth and Sepulchre) and didn’t even realize it was part of a trilogy until it arrived in the mail, and I was able to follow it just fine.  However, there is one character that makes an appearance in all three novels, and the supernatural aspect of the story might best be understood by reading them in order.

The novel is set in the fortified town of Carcassonne in southern France.  Much of the book takes place during World War II, specifically 1942-1944, and centers on a network of female Resistance fighters.  Mosse was inspired by a plaque commemorating the deaths of several Resistance members, including two unknown women, who were executed by the fleeing Nazis at Baudrigues in August 1944.  Interwoven with the fictionalized story of these courageous women, led by 18-year-old Sandrine Vidal, is the story of a 4th century monk seeking refuge in the town, carrying with him a Codex the Church wanted destroyed to stifle the power of its words.

The story of the monk may not have been necessary, but it was interesting to see how Mosse connected it to events occurring more than a thousand years later, with a supernatural aspect that goes beyond the typical wartime story of resistance.  It certainly helps to give readers a sense of the lengthy history of the town, and in a sense, Carcassonne itself was a leading character.  Mosse’s descriptions of the town emphasize its age and its beauty and make it come to life in readers’ minds.

Citadel started off slow, but that helped in a way to further the character development.  And there are a lot of characters, making it a bit difficult to follow at times, especially at first, but that’s to be expected in a detailed story about a Resistance network.  Though not all of the characters are memorable, I am not likely to forget the courage and bravery they symbolized.  It was nice to see women and their accomplishments in the Resistance take center stage.

At about 700 pages, Citadel isn’t a very portable book (and if you try to read it in bed, try not to let if fall on your head while you doze off, like I did), but it’s worth the extra time and effort.  Mosse brings to life the women and men who refused to stand still when France fell to the Nazis, and she does this in the context of a coming-of-age story, as readers watch Sandrine fall in love and transform from a somewhat sheltered girl into a take-charge woman.  I was fascinated with the setting as well, and at some point — when I’ve rested and recovered and can once again tackle a lengthy novel — I hope to read the first two books in the trilogy.

Thanks to France Book Tours for having me on the Citadel tour.  To follow the tour, click the banner below.

Citadel BannerAbout Citadel:

From the internationally bestselling author of Labyrinth and Sepulchre comes a thrilling novel, set in the South of France during World War II, that interweaves history and legend, love and conflict, passion and adventure, bringing to life brave women of the French Resistance and a secret they must protect from the Nazis. In Carcassonne, a colorful historic village nestled deep in the Pyrenees, a group of courageous and determined operatives are engaged in a lethal battle. Like their ancestors who fought to protect their land from Northern invaders seven hundred years before, these women — codenamed Citadel — fight to liberate their home from the Germans.

But smuggling refugees over the mountains into neutral territory and sabotaging their Nazi occupiers is only part of their mission. These members of the resistance must also protect an ancient secret that, if discovered by the enemy, could change the course of history.

A superb blend of rugged action and haunting mystery based on real-life figures, Citadel is a vivid and richly atmospheric story of a group of heroic women who dared the odds to survive.

Kate MosseAbout the author:

Kate Mosse is the multimillion selling author of four works of nonfiction, three plays, one volume of short stories and six novels, including the New York Times bestselling Labyrinth and Sepulchre. A popular presenter for BBC television and radio in the UK, she is also cofounder and chair of the prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and a member of the board of the National Theatre of Great Britain. In 2013, she was named as one of the Top 100 most influential people in British publishing and also awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to literature. She divides her time between England and Carcassonne, France.

war challenge with a twist

Book 8 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 10 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Citadel 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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consequences

Source: Review copy from Meryton Press
Rating: ★★★★★

Elizabeth had once believed she would rather know a fact, even if it were unwelcome, rather than just speculate, but she wondered now if false hope was not better than no hope at all.

(from Consequences, page 98)

Consequences is a thought-provoking retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with two novellas joined together into a novel about the consequences of missed opportunities and how doing just one thing differently can turn everything around.  The first part imagines how Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s lives would have played out had she rejected his proposal at Hunsford and then missed running into him later on when she tours Pemberley with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.  The second part has Elizabeth, with the help of her best friend, Charlotte, taking a more practical approach to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, accepting it as a means of saving her family in the event of her father’s death despite her fears of being trapped in an unhappy marriage.

I will not divulge any more of the plot because this is a novel that should be experienced the way I experienced it, not knowing how either journey would play out and going through a roller-coaster of emotions.  I even teared up at one point and had to explain to my husband why I was so sad.  I couldn’t believe an Austen-inspired novel made me cry, but that’s what I loved so much about it.  Odom’s tale felt almost too real at times, as some decisions lead people on a rocky path lined with tragedy, and a bittersweet ending is the most that can be hoped for.  But there also were times when I sighed with relief and cheered on the characters (scenes involving Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine immediately come to mind).

Odom’s take on Pride and Prejudice is thoughtful, emphasizes the complexity of the novel and the many different outcomes that could have occurred, and prompts readers to think about the characters’ motivations, decisions, and ultimate fates in the context of Austen’s time.  Having read a number of Pride and Prejudice retellings, I admire Odom’s courage in taking the characters on at least one journey that many Austen fans might find difficult to imagine for their beloved characters.  For readers who wonder about the proliferation of Austen fiction these days, Consequences really drives home the point that one seemingly small change in the plot can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the story and highlights why many people are fascinated by all the different ways it could have been told.

Consequences Blog Tour Banner

Disclosure: I received Consequences from Meryton 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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Stalemate

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

Perhaps it was denial, perhaps it had been an honest optimism, but this was a continuation in a lesson she was beginning to learn in Hitler’s Germany; that denial was an enabler, and the hope of good people was dwindling to a candlestick’s flame.

(from Sophia’s War: Stalemate)

[Please note that this book is the third in a series.  It is not a standalone book, and while my review will not contain spoilers for the third book, there could be spoilers from the earlier books.  Check out my reviews of book one, Sophia's War: The End of Innocence, and book two, Sophia's War: Lies and Allies]

Sophia’s War: Stalemate is the third book in Stephanie Baumgartner’s series about a young American woman’s experiences in Germany during World War II.  This installment opens in December 1939, a little more than two months into the war.  Sophia has assumed her great aunt’s identity in a deal with her cousin, Diedrich, in order to stay in Germany and run Marelda’s library.

A darkness has descended upon Germany, and Sophia fears Diedrich has embraced Nazism and Hitler’s lies, which run counter to her strong Christian beliefs.  Diedrich has changed since the death of his family, becoming cold, mean, and threatening toward Sophia.  She finds herself torn between showing him love and standing her ground, especially when it comes to her friend, Adrian.  Diedrich wants Sophia to sever ties with him, but the more time she spends with Adrian, the more she likes him.

Not only is Sophia torn between the two men in her life, but she also must contend with a nosy neighbor, a peeping Tom, and an encounter with the Gestapo that makes her finally understand the danger of the lie she has been living.  Sophia has to think long and hard about what she believes and whether she is willing to stand up for those beliefs in a country where freedoms are being taken away.  As an American, even one posing as a German, Sophia is an outsider, not quite understanding how and why Hitler came to power and how everyday life has changed as a result.

Sophia’s War: Stalemate was my favorite book in the series so far, mainly because the action picked up and Sophia finally started to see the truth about the country that is her new home.  Although the series is progressing somewhat slowly, Baumgartner is thorough when it comes to character development.  Readers really get to know Sophia, whose sheltered upbringing means her life in Germany (during a war, no less) and her feelings for Adrian are opening her eyes.  Sophia is firm in her beliefs, but I’m curious to see what kind of soul-searching is in store for her as things go from bad to worse.  Baumgartner has created strong, believable characters, and I can’t wait for the next installment.

war challenge with a twist

Book 6 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 7 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Sophia’s War: Stalemate 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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love at first slight

Source: Review copy from Meryton Press
Rating: ★★★★☆

In no particular order of precedence, Flora’s main occupations were reading ribald romances, sampling grapes in all their myriad, fermented forms, and maintaining her husband’s frangible nerves.

Benjamin’s ruling ambition was securing five wealthy wives for his five healthy offspring.  A man’s world it might be, but women had the almighty power of refusal, and Benjamin was determined to further his sons’ chances against all odds and against all other suitors.

(from Love at First Slight, page 10)

In all my years of reading Austen-inspired novels, I never once thought about how Pride and Prejudice would have turned out had all the gender roles been reversed, but I’m so glad J. Marie Croft did.  Her newest novel, Love at First Slight, is clever and even downright hilarious at times.

In this rendition of Austen’s beloved novel, Benjamin Bennet is determined to make good matches for his five sons: Martin, the heir who would rather read scripture and moralize than run an estate; Charles, who is easy-going and would rather go into trade with his uncle than study law; William, who is flirtatious, outspoken, outdoorsy and would much rather manage an estate than be a deacon; and twins Christopher (Kit) and Laurence (Laurie), who are obsessed with joining the militia and spend much of their time raising hell and embarrassing the rest of the family.  It’s Flora Bennet who would rather stay at home reading horrid novels, drinking wine, and lamenting that she never had a daughter.

When the widow Mrs. Jane (Bingley) Devenport takes up residence at Netherfield with her dandified brothers, Leonard and Casper, and the haughty heiress Miss Elizabeth Darcy, Mr. Bennet is determined that at least one of his sons will soon be settled comfortably at the neighboring estate.  While Jane hits it off easily with Charles at the Meryton Assembly, William’s request for a dance with “Miss La-Di-Da-Darcy” is turned down, and he overhears her call him merely “tolerable” and make several jokes about his profession.  What follows is a humorous retelling of Pride and Prejudice, with Felicity Wickham catching William’s eye and having nothing nice to say about Miss Darcy, Olivia Collins setting her sights on the middle Bennet brother, and even the formidable Lady Catherine and her daughter Anne replaced by the equally domineering Sir Lewis and his son Andrew.

I don’t want to say more about the plot because even though Croft follows the original novel closely, the reversal in gender roles means there is a lot that is different.  Croft does a great job changing the circumstances to go along with the change in gender, and I loved watching the evolution of Elizabeth and William in these new roles.  I was curious how it was going to play out, especially as Elizabeth’s feelings toward him deepened in an era when “a lady’s feelings cannot be made known.”  And what scandal could befall the Bennet family this time, and how would Elizabeth smooth it all out?

Croft’s handling of the flipped characters was beautifully done, and she perfectly balanced the subtle humor with the ridiculous, mirroring Austen in that respect.  Love at First Slight‘s originality makes it a must-read for fans of Austen-inspired novels and especially for readers who have grown a bit tired of all the Pride and Prejudice-inspired novels being published (and it continues to surprise me that I have yet to tire of them myself).  I’ve long loved Austen for the timelessness of her stories and characters, and Croft’s novel is an example of the many different ways Austen’s novels can be explored.

Disclosure: I received Love at First Slight from Meryton 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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a lasting love affair

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

“You must tell me what you think of him.”  Her ladyship paused a moment but not nearly long enough for Elizabeth to fashion a response. … “Pray, is he amiable?  Is he a handsome man?”

“Though our meeting was by happenstance, as Betsy likely told you, I do not know that I would describe him as amiable.”  In fact, I found him arrogant and a bit condescending.  “As for your second question on whether he is handsome, I would say he is tolerable.”  Yes — tolerable is the word I would choose.

(from A Lasting Love Affair, page 15)

P.O. Dixon’s short novel, A Lasting Love Affair: Darcy & Elizabeth, is a unique retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with new characters and a change in the scenery.  Elizabeth Bennet literally bumps into Mr. Darcy on the street in Bosley, where she is now living with her father’s sister, Lady Vanessa Barrett, who has been estranged from her brother since he married Fanny Gardiner and is now in need of an heir.  Mr. Darcy, meanwhile, is staying with his friend, Lord Holland, who happens to be Lady Vanessa’s nephew.

Elizabeth isn’t looking to form an attachment with anyone, having suffered a significant loss, and is content merely pouring her heart out into letters she will never mail.  Despite the expectations of his family, Mr. Darcy finds himself captivated by her, but he has to overcome Elizabeth’s fear of giving her heart away and the expectations of a match between Elizabeth and Lord Holland.  From the gossipy Caroline Bingley to the greedy Mr. Wickham to Lady Catherine on a mission, there are plenty of obstacles in the way of their happiness.

A Lasting Love Affair was an enjoyable retelling of Austen’s novel, mostly because Dixon takes the characters away from Meryton and Netherfield and puts them in an entirely new setting.  I was heartbroken for Elizabeth, but her fear of losing someone else close to her was a different challenge for Mr. Darcy to tackle.  Dixon portrays Elizabeth as someone just beginning to emerge from a deep grief, and the change of scenery means she and Mr. Darcy get to know each other without the obnoxious Mrs. Bennet and the other Bennet sisters lurking in the background.

Although I wish I felt a stronger connection to Dixon’s Elizabeth and Darcy, I couldn’t help but like this novel.  Even though I knew they would achieve their happily ever after, changing the main stage and adding a few new players meant that I wasn’t sure exactly how they would get there.  A Lasting Love Affair is a light and quick escapist read that kept me company at a time when I needed a little Darcy pick-me-up, and I’m looking forward to reading more by this author.

Disclosure: I received A Lasting Love Affair: Darcy & Elizabeth 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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lies and allies

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

She had been naive before, not to see what was happening in Germany.  All things that were considered noble — mercy, Christian verities, altruism — had been distorted into forms of weaknesses.  Power was not found in love, but in might, in hostility…

In Nazism.

(from Sophia’s War:  Lies and Allies, page 182)

[Please note that this book is the second in a series.  It is not a standalone book, and while my review will not contain spoilers for the second book, there could be spoilers from the first book.]

Sophia’s War:  Lies and Allies is the second book in Stephanie Baumgartner’s series about a young American woman living in Germany during World War II, and it picks up right where the first book, Sophia’s War:  The End of Innocence leaves off.  Sophia left her home in Virginia to help her great aunt build a library in her home in a small German village, and now that Marelda is gone, Sophia feels it is her duty to make sure the library is successful.

However, without any money of her own, Sophia is beholden to her cousin, Diedrich, who used to be like a brother to her but in the midst of his grief has become cold, unreachable, and even sinister.  In order to remain in Germany, Sophia must pose as Marelda, albeit a younger version, speak only in German, and break off her friendship with soldier and war photographer, Adrian.  Sophia is willing to comply with the whole Marelda charade, but Adrian was the first person to befriend her in Germany.  And as the attraction between them grows, she is unwilling to end their relationship — even when Diedrich’s threats rise to a new level.

Sophia must contend with feelings of isolation, with Diedrich often leaving for long stretches of time without notice; her meddling neighbor, Wilhelmina, who reports a mysterious man peeping in Sophia’s windows; and anger, uncertainty, and fear, as she learns more about Nazism and begins to see it as a real danger.  She also struggles for a way to get through to Diedrich, to show that she loves him, even when he is being unreasonable.

Sophia’s War: Lies and Allies is an exciting second book in a series that I hope will continue to be enthralling as the war begins to have more of an impact on Sophia and her new home.  I like that Sophia is such a well-drawn character; she’s naive and overly optimistic, but she’s also strong and intuitive.  I did want to shake some sense in her when it came to the bargain she made with Diedrich; even when she seemed torn about lying about her identity, she still didn’t seem to understand how dangerous doing such a thing would be in Nazi Germany.  I also was surprised that, being an American, no one questioned her accent.

I am really enjoying this series so far.  Baumgartner does a great job letting readers into Sophia’s head so they can understand her feelings and motivations.  Not only does she explore more deeply the characters that intrigued me the first time around, but she also introduces an assortment of new and interesting characters — from a little boy with cerebral palsy forced to leave his parents to Rolf, Adrian’s soldier friend who seems taken with Sophia and makes me worried for her.  Baumgartner leaves enough unanswered questions that I can’t wait to pick up the latest book in the series, Sophia’s War: Stalemate, yet I feel satisfied with how the story progressed in this installment.

Sophia’s War: Lies and Allies is just what the title implies:  a tale of the alliances and lies that are forged in the midst of war.  But these books are more than just Sophia’s experiences during war.  There is a war being fought between her beliefs and those of her cousin and a war within her soul as she struggles with her expectations for romance and the reality of her relationship with Adrian.  Baumgartner has only scratched the surface of Sophia’s wartime trials, and the longer she stays in Germany, the more entangled she will become.  Sophia is torn between familial and romantic love, and I can’t wait to see where Baumgartner takes her next.

war challenge with a twist

Book 5 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 6 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 2 for the European Reading Challenge (Germany)

Disclosure: I received Sophia’s War: Lies and Allies 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 star for mrs. blake

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

They walked through the park and continued along Boulevard Saint Michel, the words freely bubbling out, about how Sammy had joined the army after his grandfather died, the prayer she repeated several times a day while he was overseas, neighbors who helped with the farm work, the shameful wish that somewhere along the line she’d had another baby.  The writer listened, the notebook filled up, and Cora could feel something lift, as if she’d tossed that thorny secret over her shoulder, left it to the pond and the flower beds and the bittersweet afternoon light.

(from A Star for Mrs. Blake)

A Star for Mrs. Blake is a novel about the thousands of American woman who traveled to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun, France, in the 1930s to visit the graves of their sons and daughters who died during World War I.  Set in 1931, the novel focuses on a handful of women from different walks of life who were brought together in their grief.  April Smith centers her novel on Cora Blake, a librarian and cannery worker in Deer Isle, Maine, whose son, Sammy, enlisted after lying about his age and died toward the end of the war.  She is tasked with coordinating the other mothers in her party for the trip to France.

Smith shows how these women came together as friends but also how the differences in race and social class caused friction.  She shifts back and forth between the points of view of the Gold Star Mothers and even gives readers a glimpse of the massive military operation behind the tours by including the viewpoints of the army officer and the nurse that accompanied the women to France.  Arranging the travel and accommodations for thousands of women at a time as they made their way to New York City, then to Paris, then to Verdun was a massive undertaking, and as Smith shows, things didn’t always go smoothly.  The differences in accommodations based on race are highlighted, with the white Gold Star Mothers given the best rooms, food, and service and the black Gold Star Mothers — despite making the same sacrifice and suffering the same intense grief — given dormitory/cafeteria-like service.

A Star for Mrs. Blake is a well-written novel about a little known aspect of history, and Smith’s storytelling is fantastic.  I really got a sense of who these women were, the differences in their circumstances, and the intensity of their grief.  Smith covers so much ground, from the mothers’ back stories to their shared journey to the graves and the battlefield, from the soldiers who survived with deformities and both hid behind and were able to live because of facial masks to the new generation of soldiers slowly marching toward the next world war.

This is a slow-building, character-driven novel.  It’s not until the half-way point in the novel that the women make their way to Verdun, and even though the slow pace meant I read this book more slowly, the more thoughtful, reflective prose matches the journey the mothers take.  Once the women arrive in France, the book picks up steam, as their faith in the government their sons served is tested and tragedy strikes.  A Star for Mrs. Blake is fascinating look at a government program in which 6,693 women traveled to France over a period of three years and powerful story about the bonds between mothers and their children and the long-lasting impact of war.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for A Star for Mrs. Blake. To follow the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 4 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 5 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Star for Mrs. Blake from Knopf 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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daughters of the nile

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

But there will be nothing but shame for me, because I must side with the emperor.  If Agrippa sees my children as a threat now, he will always see them as a threat.  The admiral is a danger to my children and me.  The emperor is a danger too but he would defend my children because he believes they are his.  So I will side with the emperor as I have always done.  There is no escaping it.  There is no escape from him, after all.

(from Daughters of the Nile, page 139)

I had been eagerly awaiting the final book in Stephanie Dray’s trilogy about Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony, ever since I devoured the first two books, Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile.  But having finished Daughters of the Nile with tears in my eyes, I’m a mess of emotions, which pretty much boil down to the fact that I had grown fond of Selene and wasn’t ready for her story to end.  [I wouldn't consider this a standalone book, so you'll want to read them in order, and since this is the last book in the trilogy, there could be spoilers in my review for the previous books.]

Daughters of the Nile opens in 19 B.C., with a 20-year-old Selene five years into her marriage to King Juba II and her reign as the Queen of Mauretania.  Their marriage is not one based on love; in fact, Selene has long held Juba’s loyalty to the emperor Augustus Caesar and his involvement in her parents’ deaths against him.  But she must consummate her marriage to Juba to prove to Augustus that she is another man’s wife, in hopes of ending his obsession with making her his very own Cleopatra.  However, it’s not long before Selene is back in Rome, and Augustus seeks to claim both of her children, Princess Isidora and Prince Ptolemy, as his own.

There are so many layers to this novel that it’s hard to summarize it, but Daughters of the Nile is about a mature Selene who comes into her own as a queen and a vessel of the goddess Isis.  She knows she will always be in danger so long as Augustus is in power, and she soon realizes the threat her children pose as well — and she will do anything to protect them.  While Selene tries to give her children the carefree childhood she never knew and contends with her softening feelings for her husband, she also works to prevent civil war as relations between Augustus and the men closest to him break down, navigates the threats posed by King Herod, insists her children make marriages worthy of their Ptolemaic blood, and longs to know the fate of her twin, Helios.

Dray’s novels remind me why I love historical fiction.  You can tell she really does her research, and her attention to detail is amazing.  But most of all, I love how she truly brings these characters to life.  In this final volume of her life, Selene has paid the price for her desire to reclaim her mother’s kingdom, and now she must distance herself from Augustus.  She chooses the kingdom she has built with Juba and fights back against the emperor.  Watching Selene’s evolution from the first book to this one is completely captivating, and with the first person narrative, readers get to know her, inside and out.  It’s also fascinating to see all the political maneuvering, court intrigue, and how difficult it was for women, who were repeatedly married off and forced to give up their children.

Readers will appreciate Dray’s detailed Author’s Note that separates fact from fiction and explains the choices she made for her story.  Dray tells Selene’s story in a clear, powerful voice, with vivid imagery and rich detail.  She brilliantly captures both the evil and the humanity in the emperor, and the ongoing dance between the emperor and Selene kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the whole trilogy.  Daughters of the Nile is a novel you will want to savor and devour at the same time.  I am always fascinated by authors who can take the historical record and give it new life, and that’s exactly what Dray does in this trilogy.

historical fiction challenge

Book 4 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Daughters of the Nile from the author and 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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dear mr. knightley

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

If you truly are a “Mr. Knightley,” I can do this.  I can write these letters.  I trust you chose the name as a reflection of your own character.  George Knightley is a good and honorable man — even better than Fitzwilliam Darcy, and few women put anyone above Mr. Darcy.

Yes, Darcy’s got the tempestuous masculinity and brooding looks, but Knightley is a kinder, softer man with no pretense or dissimilation.  Yes, he’s a gentleman.  And I can write with candor to a silent gentleman, and I can believe that he will not violate this trust.

(from Dear Mr. Knightley, page 13)

I must admit that when I picked out Katherine Reay’s epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, as a birthday gift (per my husband’s request), I thought it was a Jane Austen-inspired novel.  It is, in a way, but it really is a modern-day retelling of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.  I haven’t read — and to be honest, never heard of — Webster’s novel, so I can’t make any comparisons between the two, but I can say that Reay’s version is a charming, overall feel-good novel.

Reay’s heroine is Samantha Moore, a 23-year-old orphan living in a group home.  She can stay there until she’s 25, provided she attends school, and with her attempt to break out on her own proving to be a failure, she takes advantage of an offer from a mysterious benefactor.  This “Mr. Knightley” will pay her tuition for the master’s program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, provided she keeps up a written correspondence with him about “things that matter.”

Sam is socially awkward, not knowing how to make friends or interact with other people, and speaking and writing in the words and styles of her favorite classic authors when things become too difficult.  In these letters to “Mr. Knightley,” however, she can be herself, without worrying what he will say because the conversation is one-sided.  No matter how hard Sam tries to change, to make friends, to forge a career in journalism, to write these letters effortlessly, she always finds something to hold her back.  But her relationships with her favorite novelist Alex Powell, Professor and Mrs. Muir, the tough Dr. Johnson, and Kyle, a rough youth at the group home, might just put her on the path to finding herself.  However, the journey isn’t an easy one, and when her curiosity about “Mr. Knightley” gets the best of her, the world she so carefully built begins to crumble.

I’m a big fan of epistolary novels, and I found it easy to lose myself in Sam’s story.  Reay’s writing is smooth, the literary references are relevant and fun, and the Christian elements of the story aren’t preachy.  Sam is easy to like, though her naivety is a bit unbelievable at times, especially for a girl who spent time on the streets.  However, I couldn’t help but root for her, and she won me over in the end.

Despite its predictability, Dear Mr. Knightley is a charming novel.  Reay shows how easy it can be to lose one’s way and sense of self after years of feeling worthless, but it is possible — with some tough love, some hope, and a whole lot of courage — to find value in oneself.  Dear Mr. Knightley‘s literary connections are what caught my eye, but its heartwarming story of a young women looking to find her voice, personally and professionally, is what prompted me to finish the book in one sitting.

Disclosure: Dear Mr. Knightley 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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