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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

lost among the living

Source: Review copy from NAL
Rating: ★★★★★

Someone should write a poem, I thought, about the women. Not just about the men marching bravely to war and dying, but about their wives, their girls, their mothers and sisters and daughters, sitting in silence and screaming into the darkness. … Someone should write a poem about the women. But I already knew that no one ever would.

(from Lost Among the Living)

Quick summary: Lost Among the Living, the latest novel by Simone St. James, is an atmospheric tale set in Sussex, England, in 1921. The novel is told from the point of view of Jo Manders, whose husband, Alex, went missing in The Great War when his plane went down. She is an unofficial war widow, and without a body to claim, and therefore no widow’s pension, she takes the role of paid companion to her husband’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, who is focused on two things: selling the art she bought while touring the Continent and finding a wife for her wounded son, Martin, who is only now returning from the war. Not long after she arrives at Wych Elm House, Jo sees the ghost of Dottie’s daughter, Frances Forsyth, whose mental illness and mysterious death sparked numerous rumors about the family. Jo is determined to find out why Frances keeps appearing only to her — even if it means she must come to terms with the fact that she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought she did.

Why I wanted to read it: I love ghost stories, and I was intrigued by the connection to the Great War.

What I liked: So many times I stumble upon a novel that is supposed to be creepy, atmospheric, and suspenseful only to be let down. But St. James exceeded my expectations with her vivid descriptions (I could easily picture the mist and the blowing leaves that characterized the dreary landscape), and there were even a few times that I contemplated putting the book down because I didn’t want to read it while alone in the house at night. I thought the plot and the characters were well developed, and the pacing was spot on in terms of building suspense. I liked that I was able to put together some but not all of the pieces of the mystery, and the way St. James weaves in the war and Alex’s secrets was clever. The use of the first person viewpoint created even more suspense in that readers only know what Jo knows.

What I disliked: Nothing! If I hadn’t been so busy, I probably would’ve read this book in one sitting.

Final thoughts: Simone St. James is a new-to-me writer, and as soon as I finished Lost Among the Living I determined that I must read her previous novels, which all seem to be equally suspenseful. I loved her writing here, particularly the passages that describe the intensity of Jo and Alex’s relationship, which enable readers to feel Jo’s grief and the frustration inherent in not knowing Alex’s fate. I also liked that while there was romance and passion, Lost Among the Living is at its core a ghost story, but it’s so much more than that. St. James shows the impact of the war on the returning soldiers and the women whose men never came home, as well as the blurring of the boundaries between social classes and how greed and selfishness can tear families apart. It was a deeper, richer novel than I expected and a strong contender for my Best of 2016 list.

Disclosure: I received Lost Among the Living from NAL for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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fall of poppies

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

We were a wounded people — walking wounded — with some of us more scarred inside than our exteriors revealed. Who and what was going to glue us together again?

Love.

(from “After You’ve Gone” by Evangeline Holland in Fall of Poppies)

Quick Summary: Fall of Poppies is a collection of stories by nine contemporary best-selling authors all set on or near Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Each of these stories beautifully tell a tale of love and hope, but also loss and pain. These stories detail the ways in which World War I, or the Great War, forever upended lives. From a young girl who finds love while helping create facial masks for wounded soldiers to an airman whose fear of loneliness prompts him to make a spontaneous offer right before going into combat, Fall of Poppies shows the impact of war, both the horrifying and the uplifting.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m drawn to stories set during the Great War, and I’ve enjoyed novels by several of these authors in the past.

The Stories: “The Daughter of Belgium” by Marci Jefferson * “The Record Set Right” by Lauren Willig * “All for the Love of You” by Jennifer Robson * “After You’ve Gone” by Evangeline Holland * “Something Worth Landing For” by Jessica Brockmole * “Hour of the Bells” by Heather Webb * “An American Airman in Paris” by Beatriz Williams * “The Photograph” by Kate Kerrigan * “Hush” by Hazel Gaynor

What I liked: I loved all of the stories in this collection, and it was hard to choose my favorites. The settings are varied, including an abandoned hospital in Belguim, an estate in England, the sky above the trenches, and various places in France, and the characters are all unique and memorable in their personalities and circumstances. This variety, coupled with the ability of each of these authors to quickly pull readers into their stories, made me want to read the entire book in one sitting but also made me glad that the chaos of daily life forced me to savor these stories over a longer period.

What I disliked: I only wish that I could’ve spent more time in each of these stories to see how the characters fared years after the war.

Final thoughts: People have a tendency to remember exactly where they were during important dates in history, and Fall of Poppies shows where the characters in each story were — both physically and emotionally — when the Great War ended. In the aftermath of the war, countless people wondered how to move forward and rebuild their lives after they lost so much, but these stories show that even in the midst of all the grief, there was a sense of relief and hope. At a time when I’m culling tons of books from my library and keeping very few new arrivals in the interests of space, Fall of Poppies has earned a permanent spot on the shelves and likely will be re-read at some point. Definitely a contender for my “Best of 2016” list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the Fall of Poppies tour.  Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received Fall of Poppies from William Morrow for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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jane and the waterloo map

Source: Review copy from Soho Crime
Rating: ★★★★☆

My brother snorted. “Why should any person wish you harm?”

“Because of what I have seen.” I gazed at him soberly. “Because of the Waterloo Map.”

(from Jane and the Waterloo Map)

Quick summary: Jane and the Waterloo Map is the 13th book in Stephanie Barron’s Being a Jane Austen Mystery series, but only the second one I have read. Set a month before Jane Austen’s 40th birthday and told from her point of view, the novel takes readers to the Prince Regent’s London residence, Carlton House, where she has been invited by the Reverend James Stanier Clarke to tour the library. While on the tour, Jane finds Colonel McFarland, a hero of Waterloo, dying on the floor. While waiting for help, McFarland utters the phrase, “Waterloo Map,” and Jane is swept up into a mystery in which she must determine the importance of a watercolor map and who would kill to possess it.

Why I wanted to read it: I really enjoyed the previous installment in the series, Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, and since they are pretty much standalone novels — with editor’s notes to explain historical details and highlight certain parts of the backstory — I couldn’t resist this one.

What I liked: For the most part, Jane and the Waterloo Map, is a standalone novel, but I am glad I read the previous book because the artist Raphael West, whom Jane meets in the last installment, is drawn into this newest mystery with Jane. I love that Jane gets some help from her family as well. Barron does a great job creating a complicated mystery and unraveling the threads at the right pace. It’s a treat to be taken along for the ride, following the twists and turns and not figuring everything out before the end. The inclusion of historical facts, particularly Jane’s visit to Carlton House and Clarke’s strong suggestion that she dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, creates a fuller story and makes Jane believable as a heroine and sleuth.  But most of all, I appreciate the heroine she has created in Jane Austen, from her cleverness to her determination, from her unwillingness to be pushed aside because she is a woman to her thoroughly entertaining first-person narrative.

What I disliked: I thought the book opened a bit slow, and it took me a couple of chapters to be pulled into the story, but I knew I was in for a treat and was not disappointed overall.

Final thoughts: Barron is a creative storyteller, and she brilliantly weaves together fact and fiction. I really need to find the time to go back to the beginning of the series and read them all in order. However, given that Jane is approaching the last years of her life, I am especially curious to find out how Barron continues the series and what kind of trouble our heroine will find herself in next.

About the book:

Jane Austen turns sleuth in this delightful Regency-era mystery

November, 1815. The Battle of Waterloo has come and gone, leaving the British economy in shreds; Henry Austen, high-flying banker, is about to declare bankruptcy—dragging several of his brothers down with him. The crisis destroys Henry’s health, and Jane flies to his London bedside, believing him to be dying. While she’s there, the chaplain to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent invites Jane to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s fabulous London home. The chaplain is a fan of Jane’s books, and during the tour he suggests she dedicate her next novel—Emma—to HRH, whom she despises.

However, before she can speak to HRH, Jane stumbles upon a body—sprawled on the carpet in the Regent’s library. The dying man, Colonel MacFarland, was a cavalry hero and a friend of Wellington’s. He utters a single failing phrase: “Waterloo map” . . . and Jane is on the hunt for a treasure of incalculable value and a killer of considerable cunning.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Photo credit: Marea Evans

Photo credit: Marea Evans

About the author:

Stephanie Barron was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written fifteen books.

She lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about Stephanie and her books at her website, visit her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Giveaway:

Grand Giveaway Contest

Win One of Three Fabulous Prizes

In celebration of the release of Jane and the Waterloo Map, Stephanie is offering a chance to win one of three prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

Waterloo Map Blog Tour Prizes x 500

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any or all of the blog stops on Jane and the Waterloo Map Blog Tour starting February 02, 2016 through 11:59 pm PT, February 29, 2016. Winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments and announced on Stephanie’s website on March 3, 2016. Winners have until March 10, 2016 to claim their prize. Shipment is to U.S. addresses. Good luck to all!

To follow the tour, click the banner below:

JANE AND WATERLOO - Blog Tour Horizontal

Disclosure: I received Jane and the Waterloo Map from Soho Crime for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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moonlight over paris

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

She would go somewhere…she wasn’t sure where, but it would be somewhere else, somewhere new where no one cared about her disappointments and failures. And she would…she wasn’t sure what she would do, not yet.

But she was certain of one thing. If she survived, she would live.

(from Moonlight Over Paris)

Quick summary: Moonlight Over Paris is the third installment in a series of sorts that takes readers from World War I Europe and beyond, but it is a standalone novel. This time, Jennifer Robson tells the story of Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr, who has been shunned by society in the years since her broken engagement to Lord Cumberland. After nearly dying from scarlet fever, Helena decides that she wants to really live. Nearing 30 and giving up on ever having a husband and family, Helena convinces her parents that a year living in Paris with her aunt Agnes and going to art school is just what she needs. It is 1924, and the bohemian lifestyle and the salons of Paris suit Helena, who is just Ellie Parr to her friends. Things become more complicated when she meets American journalist Sam Howard, who sees her as more than just a wealthy Englishwoman from an aristocratic family. Helena’s life changes just as chaotically as the post-war society, and she is forced to consider who she is and what she wants if she is to be a modern woman.

Why I wanted to read it: I loved Robson’s previous novels, Somewhere in France and After the War Is Over. Both made my “best of” lists in the years they were published!

What I liked: Robson is a fantastic writer with the ability to place readers in whatever historical period she writes about. In Moonlight Over Paris, she makes the Lost Generation come to life, and readers get to meet the Hemingways, Sylvia Beach, and Gertrude Stein, among others. Most of all, I love how Robson focuses on the changes to society in the World War I and post-war era, particularly in regards to women. One of the most memorable parts of the novel is the conversation between Helena and her aunt, in which her aunt tells her that she has a choice as a modern woman; she can stay friends with a man or become his lover, but the most important thing is that she chooses happiness. I really liked Helena in that she just wanted to be normal, not a “Lady,” and while part of that was about escaping the gossip back in London, she wasn’t above cleaning out a dirty space to make an art studio.

What I disliked: While I enjoyed following Helena as she forged a new life, there were a few spots in the novel where I wondered when the pace was going to pick up.

Final thoughts: Moonlight Over Paris is a beautifully written novel about art, love, and learning how to truly live for oneself. Robson has created an intriguing character in Helena, a woman who lived by society’s rules for too long, and her spirit nearly paid the price. I’m looking forward to seeing what Robson writes next!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for Moonlight Over Paris. To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received Moonlight Over Paris from William Morrow for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the forgotten room

Source: Review copy from NAL
Rating: ★★★★★

But it was better this way, wasn’t it? Better that she pretended it hadn’t happened. Better that the door to the room upstairs remained shut, because what beckoned beyond it — she had a vague impression of colors and vibrancy and imagination and laughter, something extraordinary and never ending — was nothing more than a fairy tale.

(from The Forgotten Room)

Quick summary: In 1944, Kate is a doctor at Stornaway Hospital who is drawn to one of her patients, Captain Cooper Ravenel, who seems to recognize her from somewhere, though she’s never seen him before. The mystery of a miniature portrait and a ruby pendant bring them together while the reality of their lives outside the hospital threaten to keep them apart. In 1920, Lucy is a secretary for a dashing lawyer whom she believes holds the key to uncovering her true identity, but she is captivated by a smooth-talking art dealer from Charleston who is looking for the truth about his father. In 1892, Olive is a housemaid seeking revenge against the wealthy family who tore her family apart, but her attraction to the charming, artistic Harry Pratt could be her undoing. The Forgotten Room is a beautifully written collaboration by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig that follows three generations of women as they navigate society’s constraints, love and loss, secrets and betrayals — all connected to an attic room in a Gilded Age mansion in Manhattan.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m a big fan of Karen White, and I was intrigued by the mystery and the World War II setting.

What I liked: I loved this novel from the start. The women’s stories switch from chapter to chapter, and the layers of the mystery are gradually and beautifully unraveled. The writing is so seamless, it’s hard to believe that it’s a collaboration among three authors. I felt like I truly knew and understood all three women, and I loved that each was ambitious, hardworking, and strong.  There were some aspects of the story that were predictable, but there also were some twists and turns that I didn’t expect. I also equally enjoyed each of the narratives, which is unusual for me when the story shifts back and forth in time.

What I disliked: Sometimes it was hard for me to keep track of all the characters and their connections, but that’s only a minor quibble. There are some pretty amazing coincidences that occur throughout the novel, which are hard to believe, but it is fiction after all.

Final thoughts: I was surprised by how emotional I was at the end of the book. I liked that the stories weren’t all happily ever after and tied up neatly, but that made me a bit sad, too, because I’d grown so connected to the characters. The Forgotten Room is a rich novel with memorable characters whose stories span more than five decades, from the Gilded Age to Prohibition to World War II. The authors did a fantastic job with each setting, and the pacing was spot on. I really hope they team up again for another novel!

Disclosure: I received The Forgotten Room from NAL for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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hidden halos

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

Sophia had always heard her grandmother express confusion over how so many people could fall prey to something so radical as Nazism. Indeed, from an outsider’s point of view, it did seem unthinkable. Being in the midst of such indoctrination, however, Sophia had begun to understand how some had come to believe it, how some wanted to believe it. Even being a foreigner who did not agree with Nazism in the slightest, Sophia could not deny the chill of patriotism in the broadcasts.

(from Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos)

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

Quick summary:  Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos opens in November 1940. Sophia is still living in her deceased great aunt’s home in Germany, having assumed Marelda’s identity so she can continue running the library Marelda worked so hard to build. Sophia’s relationship with her cousin, Diedrich, is still strained, and he continues to spend weeks working in Berlin while she remains at home alone. She has cut ties with Adrian — the Wehrmacht war photographer whose friendship was increasingly becoming more — because of Diedrich, and when she finds it too painful to be so close to Adrian without being able to really be with him, she thinks it might be time for her to finally go back home to Virginia. The fact that the villagers have too much on their minds in the midst of the war to visit the library gives her an excuse to leave — never mind the fact that Diedrich wants her gone. And if being an American living in Nazi Germany under an assumed identity wasn’t dangerous enough, Sophia’s new reason for staying could be deadly.

Why I wanted to read it: I enjoyed the previous books in the series, so I can’t stop now!

What I liked: It’s obvious that Stephanie Baumgartner has done extensive research about life in Nazi Germany, and it has enabled her to show how life in a small German village changed (in big ways and in so many small ones as well) during the course of the war. With Sophia being an outsider, she has a different perspective on Nazism, which enables her to see things that the Germans may not and keeps her at arm’s length from the Nazi ideology. I like that Sophia is a bit innocent and impulsive, but she is also strong and firm in her Christian beliefs, which means she cannot just sit around and watch when the Nazis’ talk finally becomes action. I still can’t figure out Diedrich, with his moments of tenderness before he turns cold again, and that adds a layer of mystery to the novels.

What I disliked: I think Sophie’s War: Hidden Halos is a solid addition to the series, but it is a bit quieter than the other volumes. However, I think that’s important as this installment is more of a turning point for Sophia, where she needs to take stock of her options and ultimately take some kind of action. There isn’t a lot of back story in these novels, so it’s a good thing that readers now have the opportunity to read them all at once.

Final thoughts: The decision Sophia makes in Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos is an important one, and it seems like the next books will really take things up a notch. I have all but the last book in the series on my side table waiting to be read, and while I can’t wait to see what happens next, it’s a series that I want to savor. I’m enjoying watching Sophia’s character evolve as life in Nazi Germany takes a more sinister turn, and I like that I have no idea how Sophia is going to fare as the war begins to take a bigger toll on Germany. Baumgartner does a great job effecting a satisfying ending while making readers want to immediately crack open the next book.

Disclosure: I received Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos 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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port of no return

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

Her dishevelled state alarmed Contessa, but she could well understand it. She curled an arm around her friend and sat and wished that life were not so cruel, even though they knew it was, and worse, that there was nothing they could do about it. They sat, without speaking, grappling with the loss. They were beyond denial and so, with acceptance, came a slow torturous sorrow.

(from Port of No Return)

Quick summary: Port of No Return opens in 1944 and follows Ettore and Contessa Saforo, who are managing the best they can to care for their children in German-occupied Fiume, Italy. Their town is close to the border with Yugoslavia, and when the Germans lose control of Fiume, Ettore is forced to flee to the hills to escape the Yugoslav Partisans, who are hunting down anyone who worked for the Germans. Meanwhile, Contessa must get her mother and young children out of Fiume and hope that her husband will meet them. The novel details the struggles of the thousands of Italians displaced following World War II and the atrocities committed by the partisans.

Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read about Tito and the Yugoslav Army and never heard of the foibe massacres, so I was intrigued.

What I liked: According to the acknowledgements, Michelle Saftich interviewed her father and other Italians who were displaced due to the war, and this shows in her painstaking attention to detail. I could picture the displaced persons camps — the grief, the hunger, the despair, and even the hope. There was a sizable cast of characters, encompassing not only the Saforo family but also the friends they made along the way, yet I felt like I got to know them all. Saftich provides enough historical information so that someone unfamiliar with the details of the politics can easily follow the story, and those details are skillfully woven into the narrative.

What I disliked: The children’s dialogue often seemed a bit too mature for their ages, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. The timeline seemed to be in chronological order, but toward the end, the timeline moved forward and then back a bit, which was somewhat jarring. However, the dates and locations are indicated at the beginning of each chapter, so that made it less confusing.

Final thoughts: Port of No Return is a heartfelt story of family, love, and survival. Saftich’s characters are believable and likable, and their experiences make readers ponder the meaning of home when there is no physical home left. It is difficult to grasp all that these families, especially the children, endured, but Port of No Return shines a light on the experiences of thousands of people, acknowledging not only their struggles but also their resourcefulness, their courage, and their belief that a new life was on the horizon.

Thanks to Italy Book Tours for having me on the tour for Port of No Return. To learn more about the book, connect with the author, and follow the rest of the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received Port of No Return 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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