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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

the sea garden

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

In some ways they were all the same now.  So many people stumbling around in the dark, just as she was.  All across Europe there were secret roads along which men and women were moving, some towards safety, others farther into darkness.  One false step.  Lives in the balance.  So much unknown.

(from The Sea Garden, page 128)

Deborah Lawrenson’s new novel The Sea Garden beautifully weaves together three stories of love and loss during wartime, with a focus on British intelligence and French resistance activities during World War II.  The novel begins with “The Sea Garden,” a story set in the present on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles that focuses on British landscape designer Ellie Brooke, who was hired to restore a memorial garden at the Domaine de Fayols.  There is a haunting and mysterious tone to this story, as Ellie learns about the wartime history of the island, which had been occupied by the Germans, and contends with the elderly Madame de Fayols, whose bitterness turns more sinister as her hold on reality loosens.

In “The Lavender Field,” Lawrenson drops readers into Nazi-occupied Provence, where the blind perfume maker Marthe Lincel is forced to choose between fighting for her country or remaining in the dark.  Lawrenson details the fascinating ways in which perfume was used to carry secret messages, blends the beauty of the lavender fields with the horrors of the war, and emphasizes the dangers and the triumphs that went hand-in-hand with Resistance work.  And in “A Shadow Life,” readers follow Iris Nightingale, a British intelligence officer tasked with helping prepare men and women to serve as spies in Occupied France.  Her love affair with a French agent fuels her need to find out exactly what happened to the agents who went missing during the war.

It’s not until the end of the last story that the novel comes full circle, and readers finally understand the confusing events in the first story.  While I had some idea how the pieces would all fit together, it wasn’t entirely predictable, which kept me up reading until the wee hours of the morning.  The Sea Garden is a unique tale full of well developed, intriguing characters, some of whom are based on historical figures, and I appreciated the author’s note at the end where Lawrenson explains her inspiration for the novel.

The Sea Garden brings to life the ordinary people who did extraordinary things during the war, from the young women who proved they could hold their own as secret agents to the farmers who allowed Allied planes to land in their fields.  Lawrenson captures the desperation of wireless operators running from the Gestapo and those who spent years trying to find out why their loved ones disappeared during the war, as well as the blurred lines between hero and traitor.  I found myself lost in this story from the very beginning, with rich descriptions of the various landscapes and plenty of mystery to keep me guessing.  I think this book just might make my Best of 2014 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Sea Garden.  To check out the rest of the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 13 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 14 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Sea Garden 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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hitler's secret

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

But then, as MacPherson had said, their job was to carry out the mission and not concern themselves with anything else.  Was that right?  How could that be right?  If he thought that way, he would be no different from the Nazis who had taken his family.  They had just been obeying orders, but what they had done was wrong.  Deeply wrong.

(from Hitler’s Secret, page 257)

My daughter always does a fantastic job selecting books for me as gifts, and she hit a home run with Hitler’s Secret, which she bought me for Christmas from the Scholastic book fair at her school.  William Osborne’s novel centers on two teenagers who escaped the Nazis and are safe in England, only to be recruited as spies for the British government in 1941 and tasked with a mission so important, it just might end the war.

Otto fled Germany in 1940 after the Nazis took away his family because his father was a Communist.  Leni is an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis with her mother and sisters in 1938, leaving behind her father and brothers.  Both immediately agree to help Admiral MacPherson of the Royal Navy despite the dangers involved.  Otto will do anything to leave the boarding school where he is bullied for being German, and Leni takes the mission on behalf of her father and brothers.

They are given new identities and tasked with kidnapping a young girl from a convent, getting her over the Swiss border, and turning her over to the British government.  They have no idea why this child is so important to the Third Reich and how knowledge of her existence could end the war.  Despite being well equipped for the mission, their youth means they are bound to make mistakes.  But they are strong and resourceful and accomplish more than I could have in their situation.  It’s not long before the Nazis are after them in search of the girl.  But Angelika is so important to the Third Reich that Reinhard Heydrich, Lieutenant General of the SS and chief of the Reich Main Security Office, is hunting them down himself.  He is ruthless and has no qualms about killing children.

Otto and Leni are such delightful characters.  Their actions and emotions are exactly as they should be for teenagers, but the troubles they endured because of the Nazis forced them to grow up too soon.  They want to do something to avenge their families, but they didn’t expect to bond with Angelika.  As they pose as a family to make their way to Switzerland, they actually become a family — and when they learn the truth about Angelika and the British government’s plans for her, they are forced to question whether carrying out their orders is really the right thing to do.

Hitler’s Secret is a fantastic novel for young readers and adults alike.  There is a lot of action, suspense, and even some bloody violence, which isn’t overdone and completely fits the story line.  Osborne definitely doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers of the mission, which makes it feel authentic even though it is completely fiction.  (There is an author’s note at the end that separates the fact from the fiction and even explains more about the historical figures who make appearances in the novel.)

I loved so many things about this novel, from the well-developed characters and the sheer excitement of the mission to the fact that it both kept me on the edge of my seat and gave me a lot to think about.  I finished Hitler’s Secret months ago and am just getting around to reviewing it, but the characters and the plot are still fresh in my mind, which to me is the sign of a great book.  I can’t wait to see what book my daughter chooses for me next!

war challenge with a twist

Book 12 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 13 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 5 for the European Reading Challenge (Switzerland)

Disclosure: Hitler’s Secret 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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the wild dark flowers

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

He lifted his head and, for a strange moment, he thought that all the way ahead of him was a meadow full of wild dark flowers.  Dark blue streamers, like irises, or reeds at the edge of a river.  And then he realized that it was not flowers at all, but other men — mere sketches of men now in the ground mist — as they swayed and staggered.  Wild dark flowers bending to the ground.

(from The Wild Dark Flowers, page 257)

The Wild Dark Flowers is the second book in the Rutherford Park series.  Elizabeth Cooke returns readers to the estate of Lord William and Lady Octavia Cavendish in 1915, at a time when World War I was ushering in dramatic changes to English society.  Lord William’s heir, Harry, is a pilot in France, and many of their servants have joined up to fight as well.  The youngest Cavendish, Charlotte, keeps up with current events and wants to volunteer at a hospital in London.  Meanwhile, Octavia is lamenting the loss of true love in her life and merely going through the motions as she comes to terms with her decision to remain at William’s side.

Change is happening everywhere, but William is unwilling to accept it.  He turns his head when he sees women filling the jobs of the men who have gone to war.  He thinks Harry should focus on learning to run the estate, whereas Harry believes his place is in France fighting with everyone else.  And he will soon have to come to turns with the blurring of class lines as his daughter Louisa grows closer to Jack, the stable boy with whom she grew up on the estate.

As in Rutherford Park, Cooke details the different experiences of the titled families and those below stairs.  She focuses on Jack and his frustration over the treatment of the horses taken from their farms and forced into military service, and she follows a footman, Harrison, into the trenches.  There’s also a lot going on in the main house, with the housekeeper, Mrs. Jocelyn, and her hatred for Octavia fueling her religious zealousness and harsh treatment of the housemaids.

Cooke packs so much into 341 pages, including the sinking of the Lusitania, the treatment of the horses taken into battle, the changing role of women in society, the rising power of the lower classes, and the fact that the information about the war published in the newspapers was often far from the truth.  However, I never felt overwhelmed or found it difficult to keep track of all the characters.  If anything, the different points of view helped moved the story forward and made it so readable.

The Wild Dark Flowers was a fantastic sequel, and Cooke made me care about characters I didn’t really connect with in the first book.  Where Rutherford Park introduces the characters and sets the stage for the inevitable changes and losses brought about by the war, The Wild Dark Flowers really gets inside the character’s heads, inside the trenches, and inside the sheltered, splintering lives of people holding onto the past.  So much happened in this book that I can’t wait to see where Cooke takes these characters in the next installment.

war challenge with a twist

Book 11 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 12 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Wild Dark Flowers 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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for such a time

Source: Review copy from Bethany House
Rating: ★★★★★

Home . . . Leaving behind the lofty slopes to descend the mountains into Czechoslovakia, Stella looked out at the patchwork swells of white amidst evergreens that swept past the car.  She was reminded of the quilt she’d made, a surprise birthday gift for her uncle.  That was before the Nazis destroyed it along with the rest of their possessions — before they took Morty away.

Lord, why don’t you hear me?  Why have you taken away my joy?

Anger battled her exhaustion with the drowsing lull of the car’s motion.  Home was a place that, even if she lived, would never be the same.

(from For Such a Time, page 27)

Kate Breslin’s debut novel, For Such a Time, is a retelling of the biblical story of Esther set in Czechoslovakia during World War II.  It is the story of 23-year-old Hadassah Benjamin, whose blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to pass as an Aryan, Stella Muller, until an encounter with the Gestapo lands her in Dachau.  Rather than be shot by the firing squad, she is whisked away to Theresienstadt by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt to serve as his secretary.

From the very beginning, Stella and Aric’s relationship is complex.  He is a Nazi, but new to the SS, having served as a Wehrmacht officer until an injury ended his career on the front lines.  He is drawn to Stella and vows to protect her, but his conscience and sense of duty are in constant battle — especially when Stella urges him to help the weak, starving, bedraggled prisoners in the ghetto.  Aric isn’t aware of Stella’s true identity, but she sees the compassion he has for his houseboy, Joseph, an orphan from the ghetto whom Stella treats like a son.  He also goes out of his way to protect her from the lecherous, scheming Captain Hermann.

Their relationship seems doomed from the start, especially when Stella learns that the “paradise ghetto” is a transit camp and that the prisoners await further horrors at Auschwitz, and Aric is tasked with making the camp look like a resort to fool the Red Cross delegation that is soon to arrive.  With danger coming from all directions, Stella and Aric must keep faith in God and each other in order to survive.  But survival isn’t good enough for Stella unless her people can be saved, too.

I think novelists take a risk when they write about the Holocaust.  How do they convey the hopelessness, the horror, the evil, and the magnitude of the Holocaust and, at the same time, approach it from a new angle?  How do they rewrite a part of history and fictionalize the events without dishonoring those who lived it?  In For Such a Time, Breslin changes timelines and facts in order to mirror the events in the biblical story of Esther.  For the most part, I think she was successful.  Breslin does a wonderful job capturing the conflicting emotions and actions of the main characters, and her descriptions of the squalid conditions in the ghetto and the horrible way its inhabitants were treated are believable.  At times I thought Aric and Stella’s romance was a bit overdone, but Breslin enabled me to know and understand them enough that I could believe it.

However, I struggled with how to rate this novel based on the believability of the plot.  I appreciated the author’s note at the end where Breslin clearly separates the fact from the fiction, but in this case, it’s mostly fiction.  But I reminded myself that it is a novel, after all, and a page-turner at that.  Life has been so busy and stressful these last several months, and it’s been hard finding the time and energy to read.  For Such a Time was the first book in a long time that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to read, and for that alone it deserves 5 stars.  It was an enjoyable novel (or as enjoyable as a novel about the Holocaust can be), and it read like a thriller toward the end.  I just got lost in the story and followed the characters through times of despair, hope, bravery, sorrow, and joy.  Even if I couldn’t believe the outcome, I wanted to, and I applaud Breslin for taking a chance and telling a story about hardship and courage, love and faith, and a fight for freedom.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the For Such a Time tour.  To check out the rest of the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 10 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 11 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 4 for the European Reading Challenge (Czechoslovakia)

Disclosure: I received For Such a Time from Bethany House 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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Dominion

Source: Review copy from Mulholland Books
Rating: ★★★★☆

Jim spoke then: “In the trenches, at night, sometimes it could get really quiet.  People don’t realize that.  Then the big guns would start up over on the German side, somewhere down the line.  And I used to sit there, wondering if the sound would get closer, if the shells would maybe land on us.  I used to think, there’s some young fellow just like me over there, sweating to load one big shell after another.  Just a young chap like me.  It was nights like that which made me understand that war is totally wrong.  Not in the heat of battle, but during the quiet moments when you had a chance to think.”

(from Dominion, page 93)

In Dominion, C.J. Sansom reimagines the events of World War II after 5 p.m. on May 9, 1940.  Imagine a world where Lord Halifax became prime minister instead of Winston Churchill, a world where people feared a repeat of the bloodshed of World War I, so much so that World War II never happened, with the Nazi invasion of Norway and the retreat of the British troops putting a stop to the fighting.  This is a world where Britain signed a peace treaty with Germany, under which Britain would keep its Empire, Hitler would take the rest of Europe, and Churchill, correct in the assumption that the treaty would lead to German dominion over Britain, goes underground to stir up resistance.

The novel is set in 1952, with Germany still at war with Russia and Britain suffering from rampant unemployment and poverty.  The novel focuses on four characters: David Fitzgerald, a veteran of the 1939-40 war and a civil servant in the Dominions Office who hides his mother’s Jewish ancestry and works as a spy for Churchill’s Resistance; Sarah, David’s wife, who is unaware of her husband’s Resistance ties and thinks he is having an affair, as the accidental death of their toddler son has taken a toll on their marriage; Frank Muncaster, a geologist at Birmingham University and an old friend of David’s who was sent to a mental hospital after an altercation with his brother; and Gunther Hoth, a Gestapo agent known for his success in tracking down hidden Jews who feels worn out and hopes a new assignment will give him the opportunity to do something important with his life.

Gunther is tasked with finding out what Frank knows about his brother’s work in America on the atomic bomb — intelligence that the SS wants in order to further its nuclear program and ultimately win the war against Russia.  David, however, has been given the task of rescuing Frank, which puts both him and his wife on Gunther’s radar.  Meanwhile, Sarah, the daughter of a WWI veteran and staunch pacifist, witnesses violence in the streets and the relocation of London’s Jews, forcing her to question her beliefs.

At more than 600 pages, Dominion is a novel that takes a bit of effort to get through.  It was hard to push all that I’ve learned about WWII over the years out of my mind and suspend disbelief, but it really is a novel where you have to go with the flow.  I had some trouble following all the politics and understanding how this alternate world came about, but Sansom doles out plenty of details as you go along.  Because so many details have to be given in order for readers to buy into this version of events, the story starts off slow, and in the end, is probably longer than it needs to be.

However, there were a lot of things I liked about this novel.  Sansom does a great job developing his characters.  I felt like I really understood them and their motivations.  There are many references to the London fog, or the Great Smog of 1952, which helps evoke a dreary atmosphere that is perfect for a dark, suspenseful novel.

Overall, I enjoyed Dominion for provoking much thought about what could have happened had Hitler’s Reich lasted longer than it did.  I appreciated the author’s notes at the end, where Sansom explains his ideas for the book and the vast amount of research that went into its creation.  Ultimately, it’s a novel that is a bit scary in contemplating how many more lives could have been lost but also hopeful in realizing that, regardless of the scenario, there always will be courageous men and women willing to resist and fight back.

Thanks to Amy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for having me on the tour for Dominion.  Click the image below for more information about the book and to follow the tour.

Dominion_Tour Banner

war challenge with a twist

Book 7 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 9 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 3 for the European Reading Challenge (United Kingdom)

Disclosure: I received Dominion from Mulholland Books 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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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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