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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

the mapmaker's children

Source: Review copy from Crown
Rating:: ★★★★★

Today could not have meaning without the promise of ending.  Birth and death, beginning and ending — they were one in the universe’s memory.

But who would remember her tomorrow?

(from The Mapmaker’s Children, page 67)

Quick summary: Sarah McCoy’s latest novel, The Mapmaker’s Children, is a dual narrative whose threads are connected by two women struggling with the fact that they are unable to have children.  Eden Anderson in present-day New Charlestown, West Virginia, has moved away from the hubbub of Washington, D.C., in hopes of finally conceiving a child, but when that doesn’t pan out, she’s left with anger toward her husband, a dog she doesn’t want, and a mysterious porcelain doll head found in the root cellar.  In Civil War-era New Charleston, Sarah Brown, daughter of the abolitionist John Brown, aims to use her artistic talents for the Underground Railroad and find a greater purpose for her life since a husband and family are not an option.

Why I wanted to read it: I’ve loved McCoy’s writing since The Baker’s Daughter.

What I liked: McCoy is a word artist, and I loved this book from start to finish.  The pictures she paints with only a few words draw you into the characters’ worlds, and she’s one of only a few authors able to make the present-day storyline just as compelling as the historical one.  Eden’s relationships with Cleo and Cricket and Sarah’s relationships with Freddy and the rest of the Hill family are touching and show how families can be created in the most unexpected ways.  The mystery of the doll head and the history of the Underground Railroad enrich the story and beautifully connect the past and present narratives, and I appreciated the author’s note at the end where McCoy explains her inspiration for the novel and all the research involved.

What I disliked: Absolutely nothing!  The Mapmaker’s Children is another winner from McCoy!

Final thoughts: The Mapmaker’s Children is a beautifully written novel driven by heroines who are real in their emotions and their flaws, and McCoy brilliantly pulls Sarah Brown out of the shadows of history and brings her to life in full color.  Sarah and Eden are separated by more than a century, but their journeys toward love and family are universal.  McCoy is a master storyteller, and The Mapmaker’s Children is destined for my “Best of 2015″ list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Mapmaker’s Children.  To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received The Mapmaker’s Children from Crown for review.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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bianca's vineyard

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

“What is possible will come only at a great cost to all of us.  Perhaps tomorrow will be our day of reckoning, but it is the days that will come after many tomorrows that we must keep our eyes fixed on.”

(from Bianca’s Vineyard, page 239)

Quick summary: Bianca’s Vineyard is a novel set primarily in Tuscany during World War II and centered on the Bertozzi family, known for making wine and sculpting marble.  Teresa Neumann based the novel on the true story of her husband’s grandparents, Egisto and Armida Bertozzi, who hastily married in 1913 on the eve of Egisto’s immigration to America.  While the political storms begin to brew in Europe, a storm rages in Egisto and Armida’s St. Paul, Minnesota, home as secrets from the past are brought to light.  When Armida finds herself back in Italy, separated from her husband and children, her ties to the fascists jeopardize the new life she has created.

Why I wanted to read it: I haven’t read many books set in Tuscany (a place I hope to visit someday) during World War II, and I was intrigued by the fact that it’s based on a true story.

What I liked: I was swept up in this novel from the very beginning, intrigued by the setting and the secrets hinted at by Bianca Corrotti, Egisto’s 88-year-old niece, as she prepares to meet his American grandson for the first time in 2001.  I liked how after the prologue, Neumann told the story in chronological order, rather than going back and forth in time like so many historical novels do these days.  Neumann inserts the history of the region during World War II into the story without jarring readers out of the narrative, and those details were helpful to me since I can only remember reading one other novel set in Italy during the war (The Golden Hour by Margaret Wurtele).  Most importantly, Neumann brings these characters to life, especially Armida, emphasizing their complexities so readers cannot forget that they are based on real people, flaws and all, and filling in the gaps in the family history with realistic scenarios.

What I disliked: Nothing!

Final thoughts: Bianca’s Vineyard transports readers back in time to a chaotic period in Italy’s history and how people did what they had to do in order to survive or at least be able to live with themselves when all was said and done.  It’s a novel about loyalty, survival, compassion, and forgiveness and touches upon such themes as war, familial obligation, mental illness, and cultural differences.   The story of the Bertozzis is so fascinating that I can see why Neumann decided to write about them.  Bianca’s Vineyard is definitely a contender for my “Best of 2015″ reading list.

Thanks to Italy Book Tours for having me on the tour for Bianca’s Vineyard.  For more information on the book and author or to follow the rest of the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received Bianca’s Vineyard from the author for review.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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a berlin story

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

The women of Berlin were all different now. Not one of them were untouched. They were skins separated from their souls. The women they had been before the Red Army entered Berlin’s city limits and before Hitler had shot himself in the head were all dead even if their lungs still took in air and their hearts were still beating wildly against the inside of their tortured bodies.

(from A Berlin Story)

Quick summary: A Berlin Story is the first novella in Tiffani Burnett-Velez’s Embers of War series set in the days immediately after the end of World War II. The novella follows Annalise Bergen, a 19-year-old pulled out of hiding by a group of Red Army soldiers and chained to a wardrobe for two weeks after they began raping their way through the city. Annalise, whose mother was a Russian dancer, has a hard time comprehending that these monsters are from her mother’s homeland, yet she also believes that the Germans are getting what they deserve for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. After being saved by a Ukranian officer, Annalise tries to make a new life for herself, living in the remains of her family’s apartment building and spending the day hauling rubble in buckets for the little bit of food provided by the Americans. She catches the eye of a friendly American private, Aaron, and begins to hope for better days to come, but those hopes are dashed by the tensions between the Soviets and the Americans and the ultimate division of the city.

Why I wanted to read it: I was in the mood for something short, and I’ve long been drawn to stories about Berlin in the aftermath of the war because of the stories my mother has told me about her aunt, who unfortunately was a victim of rape when the Soviets entered the city.

What I liked: Burnett-Velez deftly paints a portrait of Berlin as a city of battered, starving, hopeless people. I couldn’t help but admire Annalise because she refused to give up despite knowing that her experiences would haunt her forever and that she would never be able discuss them. From my vantage point as the reader, I wanted to yell at her to stop when she left the American tent for displaced persons or walked the streets at night, but I could understand her motivations for those decisions. Despite being such a short work, there were several times I had to put it down because the scenes were too difficult to process, such as when Annalise is forced to take clothes off a woman who had been shot to death in the street along with her baby. As much as I wanted to turn away, Burnett-Velez made the ruins of Berlin come to life, and that is what makes this novella so fantastic.

What I disliked: There were a few grammatical errors in the text and some instances where the third-person narrative shifted to first person for a moment, which seemed more of an editorial issue and not intentional. These issues didn’t prevent me from liking the novella, but I might have given it a 5-star rating had it been a bit more polished. There’s also a cliffhanger ending, but the pages leading up to the ending were exciting, so I guess what I really dislike is that the next installment isn’t yet available and I am dying to know what happens next!

Final thoughts: A Berlin Story is short but powerful and deep. It is full of contrasts, from the differences in how the Soviets and the Americans treated the Germans to the differences between the horrors Annalise endured for two weeks at the hands of the Soviets and the horrors her roommate Rebecca endured for years in a Nazis concentration camp. There are glimpses of humanity in the midst of inhumanity, and it is sure to make readers ponder the idea of blame, whether German civilians deserved harsh treatment for the actions of the Nazis and, in particular, whether a teenage girl should feel like she deserved to be raped by the conquering soldiers as punishment for the atrocities committed by her country. I didn’t expect to be blown away by this novella, but now I can’t wait to find out what happens next in Annalise’s story.

Disclosure: A Berlin Story is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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even in darkness

Source: Review copy from PR by the Book
Rating: ★★★★★

At the bottom of the canvas, a woman clutching her baby appeared to stare straight out at her, and Kläre thought she could hear her ask, “How must I save them?”  An answer flew to Kläre from a place of deep knowing.

“With a strong heart,” she said quietly.

(from Even in Darkness)

Quick summary: Even in Darkness is a novel that spans the world wars and beyond, focusing on Kläre Kohler, a Jewish woman living in Germany in a time of turmoil.  Barbara Stark-Nemon brings to life the story of her great aunt, portraying a strong woman who lives a life filled with hardship and loss but finds love in a most unexpected way.  From a German village with memories of a happier time to the horrors of Theresienstadt to a flourishing kibbutz in Israel, Stark-Nemon takes readers on a journey marked by deep grief but also hope, love, and peace.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m drawn to novels set during the world wars, and I was intrigued by Kläre’s story, more so when I learned the novel was based on a true story.

What I liked: Even in Darkness is a beautifully written novel centered on a strong woman. Kläre is such a complex character, a woman who loves fiercely and completely, a woman who goes to extraordinary lengths to keep her family safe. She marries Jakob despite his serious manner, and while her passion is directed toward someone else, Kläre tenderly cares for him as the tremors related to a gas attack during World War I worsen over the years. She knows she must get her children out of Germany despite the pain of separation. She reaches out to her best friend’s stepson, who is isolated from his family, and she protects her frail mother after their deportation. She even uses her training in massage from her work during the first war to keep her alive in the second. Time and again I was amazed by her strength and her courage and fascinated by her story.

What I disliked: That there wasn’t a tissue in sight when I needed one!

Final thoughts: Even in Darkness is a novel that shows both the best and worst of humanity, and in showing how Kläre rebuilt the broken pieces of her life after World War II, Stark-Nemon shows how hope and love won in the end.  Love is at the core of this novel, in all its forms, and the fact that Kläre felt that emotion and so strongly after all she endured is remarkable and inspirational.  I felt so connected to Kläre and invested in her story that I wasn’t ready for it to end, though the final lines of the novel are true gems.

Disclosure: I received Even in Darkness from PR by the Book for review.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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hummingbirds in winter

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

For Solansky, it was a new beginning that started with one great sweep of an arpeggio spanning several octaves and then several smaller arpeggios falling part way back down the keyboard. It was as if for every great step forward, Solansky had to endure several tumbles back downward, but that was just the beginning. There would be other great sweeps forward, again and again.

(from Hummingbirds in Winter, page 78)

Quick summary: Hummingbirds in Winter is a novel about composer Ben Solansky and his determination to save himself and his family — his wife, Ilonia, a soprano, and their children, David, a musician, and Lily, an artist — from the Nazis. Solansky manages to get his family out of Poland before the Nazi invasion, and author Anna Franco chronicles the family’s movements from country to country in a quest to get to New York. Franco details the lengths Solansky is willing to go to keep his family safe and the musical pieces he composes during the war, particularly the ones that bring to life America’s involvement in the war, both in Europe and the Pacific. The novel also follows the Resistance activities of people the Solanskys meet in Denmark and Brussels, providing a variety of wartime perspectives.

Why I wanted to read it: I can’t resist novels about escapes set during World War II.

What I liked: Hummingbirds in Winter shines in Franco’s descriptions of Solansky’s musical compositions, and I enjoyed how I could almost hear the pieces while I read about them, which is saying a lot because I know so little about classical music. It was a quick read, and I was intrigued by the characters and their stories.

What I disliked: The narrative lacks description, aside from the musical aspects of the story, and feels like the narrator simply tells readers what has happened. While I found the story readable and interesting, the characters and the various scenes could have been fleshed out more. Huge events that were important to the plot and the evolution of the characters were described in just a few paragraphs, which prevented the scenes and the characters from really coming to life. I was able to understand the characters and their motivations, but I just couldn’t connect with them.

Final thoughts: Hummingbirds in Winter is a novel about perseverance and making the best of any circumstance. The Solanskys gave up successful careers and left all of their belongings behind in an effort to survive persecution (and worse) at the hands of the Nazis, and they started over, settled into a routine, then uprooted themselves over and over again in order to stay alive. But Ben and his family kept living and creating, never taking their eyes off the prize. Although I would have preferred a fuller, more descriptive narrative and an emotional connection with the characters, the fast pace and intriguing characters enabled me to enjoy the novel overall.

Disclosure: I received Hummingbirds in Winter from the author for review.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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stella bain

Source: Personal library
Rating ★★★★☆

Publisher’s summary: It is 1916, and a woman awakens, wounded, in a field hospital in northern France.  She wears the uniform of a British nurse’s aide but has an American accent.  With no memory of her past or what brought her to this distant war, she knows only that she can drive an ambulance, and that her name is Stella Bain.

As she puts her skills to use, both transporting the wounded from the battlefield and ministering to them in hospital tents, the holes in Stella’s psyche gnaw at the edge of her consciousness.  At last, desperate to find answers, she sets off for London to reconstruct her life.

She is taken in by Dr. August Bridge, a surgeon who becomes fascinated with her case and with the agonizing and inexplicable symptoms that plague her.  Delving into her deeply fractured mind, Bridge seeks to understand what terrible blow could have separated a woman from herself.  Together, they begin to unlock a disturbing history — of deception and thwarted love, violence and betrayal.  But as her memories come racing back, Stella realizes she must embark on a new journey to confront the haunted past of the woman she used to be.

In a sweeping, dramatic narrative that takes us from England to America and back again, Anita Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, and about loss and redemption in the wake of a war that devastated an entire generation.

My thoughts: I really liked how Shreve focuses on the experiences of women during World War I and acknowledges that they might not have been in the trenches but still put their lives on the line and suffered the consequences.  By telling the story from Stella’s point of view when she has no memory, readers see how the war took its toll on her, and through her drawings, Shreve emphasizes the complexity of memory.  The novel is about more than the war and shell shock; it is about the difficulties women faced when they sought independence from the confines of marriage and home.  I might have loved this book, but the ending was a bit flat, though satisfying overall.

Disclosure: Stella Bain is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I’m going to finish this week in blogging by FINALLY posting reviews of two books I read last summer.  These books have been staring me down for months, but I just haven’t been motivated to blog about them.  Well, I figured it was time for me to share a few thoughts on them so I can finally put them away.  Stay tuned for the second mini-review on Friday.  Also, I may not be around much for the next month or so, as I’m busy with some freelance editing projects.  I can’t wait to tell you all about the books I’ve been editing!  Anyway, on to today’s mini-review:

once we were brothers

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Publisher’s summary: Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fund-raiser when he is suddenly accosted by Ben Solomon and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek, the Butcher of Zamość.  Although the charges are denounced, his accuser is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice.  Solomon reveals that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon’s own family, only to betray them during the Nazi occupation.  But has Solomon accused the right man?

Once We Were Brothers is the compelling tale of two boys and a family who fight to survive in war-torn Poland, and a young love that struggles to endure the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust.  Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for a moving and powerful tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

My thoughts: I had such mixed feelings about this book.  The narrative set during World War II was very interesting, as was the quest in the present to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice.  However, I had some issues with the structure of the narrative.  Despite all the time constraints on the legal side, Ben insists on telling the story in chronological order, and with Catherine always cutting him short, it seemed to drag it out longer than necessary.  And the author would insert information/statistics about the Holocaust into the dialogue, which was unnecessary and felt forced.  I also felt it was unnecessary to focus on Catherine’s life outside of the case; I didn’t find her to be very interesting.  I liked the book overall, but it could have been a great book if it had been structured differently, without Catherine’s story and without all the shifts from past to present.

Disclosure: Once We Were Brothers is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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