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my mother's secret

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

We don’t dream of exotic trips or adventures anymore.

We dream of our old life, and of our routines.  We long to return to the world as we remembered it.

I see that my father closes his eyes when my mother works her visual magic.

He is soaking it all up, like I am.

(from My Mother’s Secret, page 126)

Quick summary: My Mother’s Secret is based on the true Holocaust story of two women, Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter, Helena, who saved several Jews and a German soldier during World War II by hiding them in their home in Nazi-occupied Sokal, Poland (now part of Ukraine).  The soldier in the attic, the family in the loft above the pigsty, and the family in the cellar in the kitchen were unaware that Franciszka was hiding anyone besides them.  Franciszka and Helena hid them right under the Germans’ noses. The novel is told from the points of view of Helena, who must hide their secret from the man she loves, who is close to the German commander; Bronek, a ranch worker desperate to get his family out of the ghetto; Mikolaj, the young son of a Jewish doctor; and Vilheim, a pacifist who abandons the German army to avoid being sent to fight in Russia.

Why I wanted to read it: I was intrigued when I heard this was a Holocaust story with a happy ending, and I’d never before heard the courageous story of the Halamajowas.

What I liked: My Mother’s Secret is a novel that can be read in one sitting.  Its fast pace and simple prose keep the story lighter than most novels about the Holocaust, yet at the same time, author J.L. Witterick makes sure readers do not forget the dangers these characters faced at every turn.

What I disliked: The sparse prose means there is little character development, and the four viewpoints at times are indistinguishable, as they are all written in the same style and voice.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel.  In fact, it’s quite the page-turner!

Final thoughts: My Mother’s Secret is a short novel that packs a punch despite its simple, direct prose, though at times I longed for more description and details.  However, Franciszka and Helena’s kindness, generosity, and bravery overshadow the novel’s flaws and make for a truly fascinating story.

war challenge with a twist

Book 20 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 21 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received My Mother’s Secret from Berkley for review.

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

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a jane austen daydream

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: ★★★★☆

“I am a different person now.”

“Different?  How so?”

“I decided this last week,” Jane said matter-of-factly.  “I am planning to begin a new chapter in my life.”

“Is this like one of your little books?”

“My books are anything but little, Cassandra.”

(from A Jane Austen Daydream)

In A Jane Austen Daydream, Scott D. Southard says from the start, “This book is a work of fiction, only marginally influenced by the facts.”  From there, he takes readers on a journey with Jane Austen from her home in Steventon to her brother’s home at Godmersham Park and even to Bath and Chawton, from her early 20s through the publication of Sense and Sensibility.  Readers familiar with the known details of Austen’s life will notice that he plays with the timeline of her life, making her brother Charles younger than he should be, for instance, but his portrayal of Austen’s wit and sharp tongue provides much humor and makes it easy to just go with the flow.

Austen never married, but since she wrote much about love and had a keen understanding of romantic relationships and human nature, it’s not surprising that people want to believe she had a great love story of her own.  Generally the novels that create such a love story focus on one romance, but Southard imagines several relationships for Jane, including a youthful flirtation full of misunderstanding with Tom LeFroy and an attraction with a mysterious American with whom she crosses paths in Bath.

Southard also references Austen’s novels, and readers can imagine Jane tucking the things people say into her memory for later use in a novel and picture her at her writing desk remembering the ridiculous people she met over the years and turning them into Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Mr. Collins.  Southard also imagines the events that would inspire the two insulting proposals Elizabeth Bennet receives in Pride and Prejudice, and it was fun to find these things within the story.

A Jane Austen Daydream shows how a palm-reading by a gypsy put Jane on the lookout for love and how each of the men she meets along the way changed her views about love and marriage, her writing and her future.  Southard also focuses on Jane’s close relationship with her sister, Cassandra, how deeply Cassandra was affected by her fiancé’s death, and the burden women placed on their families by remaining unmarried.  Jane’s strained relationships with her parents, her brothers, and even their wives also play a role in the story, making it more exciting and dramatic, whether true or not.

The novel is creative in its blending of the facts with fiction, but the only thing I didn’t like was (spoiler alert, highlight the rest of the sentence to reveal) how the author inserted himself into the story.  Despite that minor quibble, I found myself lost in the novel, enjoying the Jane he brings to life on the page and the nod he gives to her immortality, as she lives on forever in the novels she wrote and the movies and novels they have, in turn, inspired.

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historical fiction challenge

Book 20 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Jane Austen Daydream from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review.

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

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the winter guest

Source: Review copy from Harlequin MIRA and the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night.  I should write it down, I suppose.  The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else.  The history and those who lived it will disappear with the wind.  But I cannot.  It is not that the memories are too painful — I live them over and over each night, a perennial film in my mind.  But I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that had transpired among us.

(from The Winter Guest, page 11)

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, may be her best yet.  Set primarily in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, the novel centers on 18-year-old twins, Helena and Ruth Nowak, tasked with raising their three younger siblings after the death of their father and their mother’s removal to a hospital in Kraków.  Although the Nazis have yet to enter their small village of Biekowice, the sisters must contend with constant hunger and worries about how to keep the family together and keep them warm as winter approaches.

Helena is the strong sister, accustomed to long walks in the forest in search of food and to the city to ensure their mother is receiving proper care at the Jewish hospital, the only facility affordable to the family.  Ruth is the gentle sister, who spends all of her time caring for the children and trying to stretch their meager rations.  Despite being close, the burden of the war and having to act as parents to the younger children take a toll on the sisters’ relationship.  Ruth laments her lost love and the likelihood that she will never have a family of her own, and she cares little about what goes on outside of the family and their cottage — even as talk of the Jews in the city being removed from their homes makes its way to the village.  Helena, meanwhile, is more realistic about what’s going on, but her weekly trips to Kraków to visit their mother put her face-to-face with the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, and she soon realizes that keeping your head down does not ensure survival.

When Helena comes across an injured American paratrooper in the forest, she decides to help him, finding him shelter in an abandoned chapel, feeding him from her family’s nearly bare cupboards, and keeping him a secret from Ruth — and not just because of the danger to her family.  With Sam, Helena not only finds love but also a purpose, someone to trust when the war finally hits home.  But increasing friction and jealousy between the sisters threatens their relationship and their lives.

In The Winter Guest, Jenoff brings to life a small Polish village in the midst of war, from the hunger and the cold to the watchful eyes of neighbors who report the most minor infraction in exchange for money or food.  The Nowak twins always felt out of place in their village, and the war and the loss of their parents isolate them even more.  Neither one wants to be left alone with the responsibility of caring for the children, and the differences that were emphasized since their birth push them apart as the years pass.  Jenoff does a great job portraying their complicated relationship and making me understand the motivations of each sister.  There was one moment when I was so angry at one of the sisters that I had to put down the book and vent to my husband for a few minutes.  Generating such an emotional reaction is a sign of a great book, at least in my opinion.  Jenoff brilliantly creates an atmosphere of nervous calm, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen at any moment.

Although the epilogue was a bit rushed and devoid of some of the tidbits of information that would have made it more believable, I still loved the book.  Jenoff unflinchingly details the struggles of living in an occupied country, the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liquidated Jewish neighborhoods, and the danger of ignoring what’s happening in your own backyard.  She deftly balances the excitement of taking action with the horrors and loss inevitable in war, and she makes a story that happened decades ago relevant in the present day.  The Winter Guest is about the bonds between sisters and twins, the destructive nature of secrets, loyalty and betrayal, and the need to preserve wartime stories of courage and resistance before those who know exactly what happened are gone.

war challenge with a twist

Book 17 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 19 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Winter Guest from Harlequin MIRA and the author for review.

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

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jane austen's first love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JA tour

historical fiction challenge

Book 18 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Jane Austen’s First Love from Berkley for review.

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

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grand central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

war challenge with a twist

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

historical fiction challenge

Book 17 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Grand Central from Berkley for review.

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

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war babies

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

We sat outside in a sort of silence.  Everything else made noise — the black birds growled, the trees rattled in a wind that stuttered, then died — while Hilary ran her fingers round and round the moistened rim of the glass we had drunk from.  It screamed despite its thickness and heft, proving its value.  I’d proved mine, I thought, by standing for the toast to the hero my father had helped to betray.  I disproved mine, I thought, by sitting with the hero’s daughter whom I probably would betray.  What I wanted was her history.  What she offered me was all the rest.  I’d taken some of each.  I wanted more.

(from War Babies, page 49)

In War Babies, Frederick Busch emphasizes how war wounds the children of soldiers long into adulthood.  Peter Santore is an American lawyer whose father was jailed for being a traitor during the Korean War.  While in a POW camp, Peter’s father worked with the Peace Fighters Battalion in coercing confessions out of American and English soldiers.  He never really knew his father — why he did what he did, whether he really had converted to the side of the enemy — and he has spent much of his life searching for answers.

Peter thinks Hilary Pennels, a bookstore owner in Salisbury, has the answers he seeks, so he goes to England to track her down and learn how his father played a role in the death of her father, the “hero” lieutenant.  In an oh-so-convenient fashion, Peter finds Hilary almost immediately after he arrives, and the pair right away commence a very weird, very sexual relationship.

Through Hilary, Peter meets a Mr. Fox, who was in the same POW camp as their fathers and has a strange obsession with Hilary; one can’t tell whether he wants to be her lover or her father figure.  Readers learn what happened in the POW camp through Mr. Fox’s bitter, exaggerated, and even romanticized narrative.

War Babies is a short novel, but its disjointed narrative makes it a bit of chore to read.  In fact, if Serena and I hadn’t been reading it for a readalong on War Through the Generations (click here and here for our discussions, beware of spoilers), I doubt I would have finished it.  I couldn’t connect with the characters; they spent most of their time together in bed, the dialogue was just odd, their whole meeting felt contrived, and I felt like I was missing something essential about them.  What I did take away from the story was a sense of pain and loss.  Mr. Fox’s war story speaks for itself, but both Peter and Hilary were wounded in different ways by their fathers, especially Hilary, who doesn’t see her father so much as a hero but as the man who chose not to come home.

War Babies is an intriguing novel, but Busch spends too much time on Peter and Hilary’s “relationship” yet barely scratches the surface of the most interesting (and arguable most complicated) character — Mr. Fox.  It’s probably not a book to pick up if you know very little about the Korean war (like me) or want a more traditional war novel (like me).  However, War Babies is worth giving a try if quirky characters are your thing or you have an interest in character studies dealing with the effects of war.

war challenge with a twist

Book 15 for the War Challenge With a Twist (Korean War)

historical fiction challenge

Book 16 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed War Babies from my local 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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i am regina

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“I don’t remember my mother,” I told Quetit.

“You must remember something,” Quetit said.

I closed my eyes and with all my aching heart I tried.  I saw a dark mist and two oxen pulling a wagon away from me.  That was all.  And suddenly, I felt so terribly alone, with nothing to fill the years behind me and nothing to look forward to.

(from I Am Regina, page 153)

I Am Regina is a young adult novel set during the French and Indian War.  It is based on the true story of Regina Leininger, who was kidnapped by Indians in 1755 at the age of 11 and held captive for nearly a decade.  She and her sister, Barbara, witness the murders of their father and older brother, and the pair become the spoils of war.  Separated from her sister, Regina and a little girl she names Sarah are suddenly the property of Tiger Claw, who takes them back to his village and his bitter mother Wolefin.

Regina and Sarah are assimilated into the tribe.  Regina is given the name Tskinnak, or the blackbird, and Sarah becomes Quetit, or little girl.  They are not allowed to use the language of the white man and must learn the Indian ways — from farming to scavenging for food when Tiger Claw leaves for weeks and rarely brings home the promised food and supplies.

Regina’s memories of the song her mother always sang to her, her faith, and her new friendship with Nonschetto, who becomes like a mother to her, keep her alive, but as the years pass, she loses her language, the memories of her old life, her name, and her identity.  Her new life is fraught with hardship — from her tumultuous relationship with Tiger Claw to the war and disease that take their toll on the village.  Even as Regina becomes part of the tribe, she hangs onto the hope that she and Sarah will one day be rescued.

I didn’t know what to expect from I Am Regina, but I know I didn’t expect to become so absorbed in the story.  Keehn is not afraid to focus on the darker aspects of Regina’s time in captivity, which really makes the story come alive and feel authentic.  Telling the story in the first person from Regina’s perspective gives it a sense of immediacy and helps readers imagine themselves in Regina’s shoes.  Most importantly, Keehn enables readers to see the good and evil on both sides — to see the humanity in Regina’s captors and feel compassion for them.

The only thing that kept me from loving this book was the ending, which seemed too rushed and abrupt and kept readers from coming full circle with Regina.  Although there is an afterword that aims to wrap things up and shed light on the real-life events that inspired the story, it just wasn’t satisfying, given that the entire narrative up until that point had so fully grabbed my attention.

Still, I Am Regina exceeded my expectations.  I can’t remember ever having read a novel set during the French and Indian War, so it really piqued my interest in that period.  I think it would be a great novel to cover in school, with engaging, well-developed characters, a real-life heroine, and plenty of topics to discuss.  In fact, check out the readalong chats that Serena and I posted on War Through the Generations here and here (beware of spoilers).

war challenge with a twist

Book 14 for the War Challenge With a Twist (French and Indian War)

historical fiction challenge

Book 15 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed I Am Regina from my local 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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