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Archive for the ‘read in 2011’ Category

Sometimes, when she wasn’t imagining herself with a frying pan in her hands, she pictured herself screaming, her mouth wide open, her eyes bulging nearly out of their sockets.  The temptation to scream was growing harder to resist.  But she mustn’t give in to it.  Do that and she might lose it and never stop screaming.

Not Losing It was one of her New Year’s resolutions.  Along with:  Do Something New.  Learn To Stand Up For Myself.  Lose Weight.

Other than Not Losing It, she had done nothing about the resolutions, but it was only the third of January, so early days.

(from Promises, Promises, page 2 in the uncorrected advance copy; finished version may be different)

Promises, Promises was just the book I needed to get me back in the reading groove since coming back from my grandmother’s funeral.  Despite being what some would call “chick lit,” Erica James puts her characters in more serious situations than you would expect from such a novel, though she writes these heavier themes with a light hand.

Promises, Promises revolves around three characters.  Maggie Storm, a thirty-something house cleaner unhappy in her 17-year marriage to Dave, a.k.a. Mr. Blobby, who pretty much ignores her until he needs clean clothes, dinner, or a beer.  Her only friends are her mother’s eccentric group, The Sisters of Fun, an eccentric, fun-loving bunch of gals, and Mrs. Oates, her elderly neighbor.  Out with The Sisters of Fun one evening, she wins a big bingo prize and decides to put some money away for herself.  When she begins to fantasize about the handsome man she meets through Mrs. Oates’ boyfriend, Maggie starts to see herself in a new light…but she can’t seem to stand up for herself when it comes to her husband and his horrid, insult-slinging mother.

Meanwhile, Ella Moore is a specialist painter hired by Francine Edwards to create a fairy tale dining room, and she becomes friends with Maggie, who cleans the Edwards’ home.  Ella has just left a seven-year relationship with Lawrence, a widower with two children, one of whom never liked Ella and did all she could to push Ella out of their lives.  After Ella helps Ethan Edwards, Francine’s husband, during a mugging (not knowing he was her employer), she hesitantly agrees to become Ethan’s friend — a move that creates waves when Lawrence’s daughter has a change of heart and wants Ella to come back to the family.

Ethan also is unhappy in his marriage, and when you meet the snobby, classist, and bitchy Francine, you kind of can’t blame him for having been unfaithful in the past.  However, Ethan realizes that the one-night stands haven’t made him happy and puts an end to them.  What he really wants is a friend, and with his company on the brink of financial ruin, his marriage in shambles, and his wife’s best friend throwing herself at him, he really needs someone to talk to.

James has created characters that are both likeable and extremely flawed, which made their situations feel real to me.  Many times throughout the book I wanted to throttle them for their blindness.  James really drives home the point that if you’re unhappy with your life and just going through the motions, you are the only one who can change that.  And you have to be willing to take a chance, even if you don’t know how it will all turn out.

Promises, Promises is exactly what you would expect from a “chick lit” novel.  There’s humor, romance, and sex (though nothing graphic), and of course, a certain level of predictability.  While I didn’t love it like I love Jill Mansell’s novels, it was an enjoyable, escapist read — perfect for when there’s a lot going on in your life and you want some mindless fun.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Promises, Promises from Sourcebooks for review. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★ (the Minor Works overall)

EPITAPH

Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.

Those sweet lines, as pathetic as beautifull were never read by any one who passed that way, without a shower of tears, which if they should fail of exciting in you, Reader, your mind must be unworthy to peruse them. 

(from Frederic and Elfrida in The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen:  Volume VI:  Minor Works, page 9; Note:  punctuation and spelling are Austen’s)

Part of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia (Volume the First), Frederic and Elfrida is among several very short “novels” believed to have been written between 1787 (when Austen was 12) to 1790.  The work spans about 8 pages with 5 chapters.  Many of the writings in the Juvenila were read aloud by Austen to entertain her family, and I bet they had some laughs with this one.  (I know I did!)

Elfrida and Frederic are cousins who were born on the same day, grew up together, and were very much alike.  It is not surprising that their parents determine they should be married.  Austen skips around to introduce Elfrida’s friend, Charlotte, who is visiting her aunt when she receives a letter from Elfrida requesting that she purchase Elfrida a bonnet.  Charlotte is a very amiable young woman, so of course, she obliges.

When Charlotte returns home and is welcomed back “with the greatest Joy” by Elfrida and Frederic, they take a walk and spy two girls, Jezalinda and Rebecca, the daughters of Mrs. Fitzroy, and a friendship develops.  Here, as the three friends admire Rebecca’s “Wit & Charms,” I am reminded of more well-known Austen characters who hand out compliments and insults almost simultaneously.

“Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror, with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor.”  (page 6)

After the meeting with the Fitzroys, the last few pages breeze by, with a relationship frowned upon then embraced (frowned upon because Mrs. Fitzroy thought the couple too young for matrimony at 36 and 63) and a melodramatic suicide following one character’s acceptance of two marriage proposals seemingly within a “short time” of one another, meaning more like hours or even minutes.  Meanwhile, a wedding date is never set for Elfrida and Frederic, and when time passes and Frederic seems almost lost to her, Elfrida secures her desired outcome through fainting fits.

Obviously, there really is no character development or plot in this short piece, but Austen’s purpose was to entertain, and she succeeded.  The melodrama may have been less hilarious and more tragically romantic had it been spread out over a hundred or so pages, but I just love that these writings are like flash fiction that give readers a sense of the writer (genius) that Austen was to become.  Already, one can see that Austen had a playful and ridiculous sense of humor, and like her later beloved novels, there are romantic disappointments, seemingly unsuitable marriages, painful separations of friends, and disapproving elders.

Frederic and Elfrida, like other writings in the Juvenilia, are perfect when you have only a few minutes of reading time or are in need of something lighthearted and funny.  You won’t find much to ponder in these few pages, and you have to understand that they are like unpolished works from a young girl’s journal, but you won’t want to miss an opportunity to experience Austen as a budding writer.

Disclosure: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works is from my personal library.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“Do power, wealth, and nobility give one the right to determine how an artist paints, or who is allowed to view the painting as the artist created it?”

“Power, yes,” Moses replied without hesitation.  “Yes, power has been known to dictate art.”

“What do you think Masaccio would have to say about that?” she asked.  “The defilement of his work?”

“He would not be pleased,” Moses said.  “An artist is never pleased when his work is compromised.” 

(from The Woman Who Heard Color, page 100)

The Woman Who Heard Color is a beautiful novel about creativity, passion, and a woman who would do anything to prevent the destruction of art.  Hanna Schmid flees the family farm in Bavaria for a more exciting life in Munich in 1900, working as a housekeeper for the Fleischmanns, who own an art gallery.  Hanna admires the artwork constantly moving in and out of the Fleischmann home, and her love for the colorful is intensified by a neurological condition, synesthesia, that enables hear to actually hear color and see music.  There are always artists coming and going at the Fleischmann house, and when serving dinner one evening, Hanna meets Wassily Kandinsky — a man who would one day become “her artist.”

Kelly Jones tells Hanna’s story over a period of decades, beginning with her bonding with Moses Fleischmann over art, their eventual marriage, and their success as art dealers, and following her through the world wars.  Much of the book is set during the Nazi party’s rise to power, setting the stage for what would become World War II.  Through Hanna’s eyes, we see Germany’s economy fall apart, how Hitler’s promises of prosperity garnered him support, and how swiftly Hanna’s life fell apart when the Jewish businesses were targeted.

But the focus of The Woman Who Heard Color is on the art.  Jones moves the story back and forth from the past to the present, where art detective Lauren O’Farrell is seeking answers about Hanna’s involvement with the Nazis.  Through Isabella Fletcher, Hanna’s daughter, Lauren hopes to find out whether Hanna collaborated with the Nazis to steal, sell, and even destroy what Hitler termed “degenerate art.”  At the same time, Isabella longs to tell the truth about her mother, and in doing so, Lauren gets wrapped up in the story of a painting that no one knew survived the war.

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Woman Who Heard Color when I saw the cover.  To be honest, I think it does the book a disservice, making it look like nothing more than a romance novel when romance really isn’t part of this story.  It does little to convey the passion Hanna had for art and all the colors and sounds that defined her life.

Still, I loved The Woman Who Heard Color.  From all of the World War II documentaries I’ve watched, I knew Hitler fancied himself an artist, but I didn’t know too much about his push to preserve “German” art (basically meaning depictions of hard-working Aryans, at least that’s what I got from this book) and rid the country of the art he found useless, meaningless, and obscene.  The history grabbed my attention from the start, but to anyone who knows me and my reading tastes, that’s not much of a surprise.  I also loved Hanna.  She was such a complicated character, always having to balance her love of family with her love of art.  She showed how fearful and difficult it was living under the Nazis and how people were forced to do things against their will for the greater good.

I think Hanna’s story was strong enough to carry the book alone.  When Jones would move back to Isabella and Lauren, I found myself longing to be back with Hanna again.  It’s not that their story wasn’t interesting; it just wasn’t entirely necessary, or at least Lauren didn’t need to be a main character.  Their scenes were few and needed only to bring the story to its conclusion, so I felt that they were not as well developed as Hanna.

The Woman Who Heard Color likely will make my list of favorite reads from this year.  Jones does a great job enabling readers to feel the tension that built up in Germany prior to WWII, and showing the lasting effects on one family made it all the more heartbreaking.  Though the impact of power on art and the passion for preserving creativity are at the forefront, The Woman Who Heard Color is also a story about relationships and how sometimes history conceals the truth.  The Woman Who Heard Color is a must-read for fans of historical fiction set during WWII and for those who are as passionate about art as its main character.

Courtesy of Penguin, I am giving away one copy of The Woman Who Heard Color.  To enter, leave a comment with your e-mail address and tell me why this book interests you.  Because the publisher is shipping the book, this giveaway is open to readers with addresses in the U.S. and Canada only.  You have until 11:59 pm EST on Saturday, December 24, 2011, to enter.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Woman Who Heard Color from Berkley/Penguin for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Mrs. Ryfle released some of her air and batted her eyes at Mother.  “All I’m saying is, they got it better over there than we do.  It ain’t fair they got food and electricity and such when the gov’ment don’t do nothing for us but ‘cept take tax money.”  She released the potted ham back to the shelf.

“You still got your home, Ethel,” Mother said, her voice rising.  “And your way of life.  Let somebody come take that from you, and then you tell me if it’s worth trading for all the corn you can stuff in your greedy mouth.”

I followed her as she stormed the exit.  She was halfway outside when she stopped abruptly and turned.  “And then you also tell me if you’d send your boys off to fight and die for a government that would do that to you.”

(from Camp Nine, page 103)

How fitting that my (delayed) review of Camp Nine appears on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Today is an important day to remember all the men and women who died that day and in the years following in an effort to preserve our nation’s freedom.

In Camp Nine, Vivienne Schiffer brings to light an event in the history of the United States that is often forgotten:  the internment of hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese descent in the months following Pearl Harbor.  Schiffer uses the internment camp in the fictional town of Rook, Arkansas, (which is similar to the real Rohwer Relocation Center that was located in Desha County, Arkansas) to emphasize the plight of these American citizens, some of whom even fought and died in World War II for a country that took away their homes and livelihoods.

The novel is told from the point of view of Chess Morton, a young girl whose family’s land is sold to the government and becomes Camp Nine.  The book opens in 1965 with an adult Chess waiting to meet with a friend from the camp, then goes back in time to 1942 when the camp was established.  Chess is a very observant girl; she is aware of the tension between her grandparents and her mother, who is in charge of the land that was held by her late husband and clashes with her father-in-law about the sale of land that was supposed to belong to Chess.  Her mother, Carrie, is a feisty woman, the daughter of Italian immigrant farmers, and she doesn’t care that people are talking about her visits to Camp Nine, where she teaches art to the internees.  Chess notices how her mother changes for the better when she has something to do with her time and energy — and when she reunites with a man from her past, an officer at the camp.

Despite being a fairly short novel, there is a lot going on in Camp Nine.  Schiffer describes the workings of the internment camp and its residents, focusing mainly on the Matsui family and their ties to Chess and Carrie.  She shows how the answers given by the internees to two questions about their allegiance to the United States could tear apart families, sending fathers to prison and sons off to war.  Although the internees appear to be treated fairly well, Schiffer doesn’t let readers forget that they were relocated against their will and likely would have no home to return to after the war.  Family relationships and racial tensions in the Arkansas Delta also are touched upon, and showing them through Chess’ eyes helps tone down the heavier issues.

Camp Nine is a quiet book, more like a snapshot of one town and one family during a troubling time in the nation’s history and how one young girl perceives the world and the people around her, learning what it means to call a place home.  The novel is poignant and beautifully written, and I felt like I really knew the characters and grew to love them, especially Chess and her mother, over the course of the story.  However, there were times when I felt that events were being told more than shown, particularly with regard to Chess’ feelings for Henry Matsui, who is an important secondary character though he doesn’t make much of an appearance in the narrative.  Not being witness to their interactions made it difficult for me to truly understand how Chess felt about him.  Still, this is only a minor complaint as I thought the novel flowed beautifully for the most part.

Camp Nine is one of those books that doesn’t hit you hard in the gut but still affects you emotionally.  Schiffer gives readers a lot to ponder and a sympathetic narrator whose observations are honest and endearing.  Whenever I had to put down the book, I found that I kept thinking about the characters and all they went through.  If you haven’t read much about the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II, Camp Nine is a great place to start.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for Camp Nine. To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Camp Nine from The University of Arkansas Press for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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[This review originally appeared on Savvy Verse & Wit on March 18, 2011]

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser won the Pulitzer Prize for Delights & Shadows, which was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2004. Kooser’s poetry is what one would call “accessible” because it doesn’t take much deciphering or pondering to get at least a surface understanding, though some of his poems go much deeper.

Delights & Shadows is a collection of quiet poems touching upon such themes as memory, aging, death, and nature. Kooser obviously spends a lot of time observing his surroundings, and many of his poems bring ordinary objects or simple moments to life. When Kooser looks at the world, he sees things that many of us would miss, and the descriptions of what he sees are fascinating. In “Tattoo,” Kooser describes an old man browsing a yard sale and contemplates his past after he sees a tough-guy tattoo on his arm. In “A Rainy Morning,” he compares a woman pushing herself in a wheelchair to a pianist, writing “So expertly she plays the chords/of this difficult music she has mastered” (page 15).

Kooser manages to say so much in just a line or two. In “Father,” remembering his father’s illness, he writes “you have been gone for twenty years,/and I am glad for all of us, although/I miss you every day” (page 36). In “Horse,” he calls a horse “the 19th century” (page 56), which calls to mind civilization’s past dependence on the animal. Other poems compare a pegboard to ancient cave drawings, describe the moment in which a bike rider pedals off, and use a spiral notebook to conjure memories of the past.

Delights & Shadows also includes a couple of narrative poems, poems that tell a story in verse. In “Pearl,” Kooser talks about visiting his mother’s childhood playmate to tell her that his mother has died. My favorite poem in the collection is “The Beaded Purse,” about a man taking home the coffin containing the body of his daughter, who’d left home to pursue an acting career and hadn’t been home in years.

Kooser is a master of quiet observation and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. In Delights & Shadows, he describes the delights in these simple things, as well as the shadows of the past that these objects and observations conjure up.

Delights & Shadows was published by Copper Canyon Press, which was founded in 1972 and publishes only poetry. The company’s pressmark is the Chinese character for poetry, which stands for “word” and “temple.”

Disclosure: I borrowed Delights & Shadows from Serena to review for Independent and Small Press Month. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon affiliate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“Jack’s in trouble, Mellie.  I don’t know how or why, but maybe that’s what Bonnie was trying to tell you.”

“But why me?  Why not Rebecca?”

My mother looked at me, her eyes hard.  “Let it go, Mellie.  Whatever it is you’re holding on to that’s preventing you from seeing what everybody else sees so clearly, let it go.”

I thought of Jack, and the way he’d always made me feel as if I were standing at the edge of a cliff, and how unprepared I was for the free fall if I should take a step forward.  And I had no idea what it was that made me cling so hard to solid ground.

(from The Strangers on Montagu Street, page 121 in the ARC; finished version may be different)

The Strangers on Montagu Street is the third book in Karen White’s Tradd Street series, which began with The House on Tradd Street and continued in The Girl on Legare Street.  The series focuses on and is told from the point of view of Melanie Middleton, a Realtor in Charleston, South Carolina, with a need to neatly organize every aspect of her life and the ability to communicate with the dead — a gift she’s still not sure she wants and definitely doesn’t advertise.  To best understand The Strangers on Montagu Street, you probably should read the first two books in the series, and beware that some details from those books may be included in my review of this one.

In The Strangers on Montagu Street, as in the previous books, Melanie refuses to admit her attraction to Jack Trenholm, the true crime writer who helped her unravel the mysteries associated with the house she inherited on Tradd Street and her mother’s home on Legare Street.  Their banter is humorous, but I always want to reach in the book and give Melanie a good shake; you can cut the sexual tension with a knife, and why she refuses to accept her feelings for Jack is beyond me.  Well, this time, the two have more to worry about than their relationship (or lack thereof).  Jack just learned he has a 13-year-old daughter, Nola, who is struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death and is convinced that Jack wants nothing to do with her.  He has no idea how to handle a teenage girl, so he turns to Melanie for help.

Melanie knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by her mother, so she takes Nola into her home, and of course, that means Jack is around more often.  Not only does Melanie have her hands full with a teenager and her career, but she also must juggle her concerns for Jack, whose career is in limbo, and the ghosts in her home that have set their sights on Nola.  Melanie senses the protective spirit of Nola’s mother, Bonnie, but there’s a darker entity connected to the antique dollhouse given to Nola by her grandmother.  The dollhouse is a replica of an old house on Montagu Street, and Melanie, Jack, Nola, and Melanie’s mother befriend the old woman who lives there.  They all must work together to solve the mystery of the woman’s past — which is connected to the disappearance of her brother in 1938 — if the spirits attached to the dollhouse are to find peace.

The Strangers on Montagu Street offers exactly what readers of the Tradd Street series have come to expect:  Melanie’s quirkiness, drama between her and Jack, and plenty of restless spirits.  This is my favorite book in the series so far, mainly because Melanie isn’t as annoying as I’ve found her in the past.  Her character showed a lot of evolution this time around, and even though she is still a bit thick-headed, she really has grown on me.  Jack is one of those hard-to-resist characters, especially when he’s being protective of Nola, and the addition of Nola was a breath of fresh air.  She is very mature and intuitive, brings out the best in Melanie, and is spunky and likable.  I can’t wait to see where White takes her next.

White has become one of my favorite authors in recent years, and like her other novels, The Strangers on Montagu Street is a comfort read.  It’s light and fun, with just the right touch of drama, romance, and Southern culture.  However, I was a bit distressed by the shocker of an ending, mainly because I hate having to wait for the next installment in the series.  Rest assured, though, that the mystery associated with the dollhouse is wrapped up by the end, but White definitely knows how to get readers excited for the next book.  I waited for two years for this book, and I really hope I don’t have to wait that long again!

Check out my reviews of other Karen White books:

The House on Tradd Street
The Girl on Legare Street
The Lost Hours
On Folly Beach
Falling Home
The Beach Trees

Courtesy of Joan Schulhafer Publishing & Media Consulting, I am giving away the first two books in the series, The House on Tradd Street and The Girl on Legare Street, to one lucky winner. To enter, please leave a comment with your e-mail address and tell me what intrigues you about this series. Because Joan Schulhafer Publishing & Media Consulting is shipping the books, this giveaway is open only to readers with addresses in the U.S. and Canada. The winner will be chosen randomly from comments received by 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, December 4, 2011.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Strangers on Montagu Street from Joan Schulhafer Publishing & Media Consulting for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Mother hunches by the kerosene lamp mending the boys’ socks.  She’s taken on extra nursing jobs to make ends meet.  I am so glad you escaped, she says to me.

(from The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, page 57)

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a graphic novel of sorts, featuring vintage photos, ads, postcards, and memorabilia from the 1920s collected and put together by author Caroline Preston.  Preston uses these items to tell the story of a fictional character, an aspiring writer named Frances “Frankie” Pratt, who is given a scrapbook from her mother as a high school graduation present and types a page a day on her deceased father’s old typewriter.  Frankie’s scrapbook introduces readers to her family and friends in Cornish, New Hampshire, beginning in 1920 and follows her to Vassar College, Greenwich Village, and Paris over the next eight years.

I read this book in a matter of hours, but I know I will revisit it again to admire the photos, clippings, and trinkets preserved in its pages.  Frankie’s story is an adventure of an ambitious, vivacious young woman with all the world in front of her, and Preston does a great job shaping her story to fit the mementos in the scrapbook.  It’s not a profound story, but the scrapbook makes it impressive and unique.

I was amazed at how much I was able to learn about the characters from the few words Frankie writes and sticks to the pages.  Frankie’s mother struggles to support the family, but she finds a way to send her daughter to a prestigious school, opening up a world of opportunities to Frankie.  Preston takes readers on Frankie’s journey through failed romances, an overseas voyage made exciting by a “spinster adventuress” and exiled Russian princes, and the literary scene in Paris, and she even shows Frankie’s evolution from a carefree school girl to a young woman with responsibilities — all in little scrapbook snippets.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a fantastic “novel in pictures” that you must see in person to fully appreciate.  The pages are bright and colorful, and even though I wish there had been some variations in texture, I absolutely loved it.  Frankie Pratt is a strong heroine with modern sensibilities, one of those characters I’d love to have as a real-life friend.  Couple her charming coming-of-age story with a beautiful and fascinating scrapbook, and you have a delightful read that will keep your eyes glued to the pages.

Watch the book trailer and read about how Preston created a “scrapbook novel.”

Disclosure: I won The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt in a blog giveaway. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I shook my head violently.  “No, that wasn’t the emperor’s plan.  He sent me with you to –“

“To get you out of the way.  You were a dangerous girl to have in Rome where Isis worshippers invoked you as their champion.  A dangerous girl to have in the East where your parents still have allies and friends.  A daughter of Antony was too dangerous to keep in Rome, a daughter of Cleopatra too dangerous in the East.  So he sent you here, to Mauretania, to the other side of the world.”

Distraught, I brought my hands to my face and Juba’s hard expression crumbled, as if he regretted saying these things to me.  Tears spilled over my lashes.  “I don’t understand.  The emperor promised mercy for Egypt.  Mercy for Helios.  The emperor promised me.  He gave me his vow.”

Juba reached for my chin, cupping it tenderly.  “Oh, my poor Selene, you actually thought you could save him.” 

(from Song of the Nile, pages 88-89)

Song of the Nile is the second book in Stephanie Dray’s trilogy about Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony, and it picks up right where Lily of the Nile leaves off.  Selene is just 14 years old when Emperor Octavian marries her off to Juba, deposed Prince of Numidia and her former tutor.  He has pronounced them king and queen of Mauretania, but Selene doesn’t plan to sit quietly by her husband’s side.  Getting Octavian to name her Queen of Egypt and give her back her birthright is the only thing on her mind.

Juba and Selene’s marriage is rocky from the beginning; whatever tender feelings she had for him disappeared as soon as she found out that he participated in the war that led to her parents’ suicides.  Juba appears to actually care for Selene, but the emperor’s obsession with making Selene his very own Cleopatra, her fixation on Egypt, and her concern for her missing twin, Helios, all stand in the way of them finding happiness as husband and wife.

When they arrive in Mauretania, Selene demands that she be allowed to attend council meetings and inserts herself into political matters.  The local tribesman don’t always see eye-to-eye, and they don’t appreciate the Romans trampling all over their property, stealing their grain, and trying to change their way of life.  Selene really comes into her own as queen, understanding the importance of helping the people and earning their love.  She learns to master the magical powers granted to her through Isis for the good of her people, and she makes an effort to learn what is important to them.  She and Juba undertake improvements that not only enable Rome to reap the benefits of a new port city but also help the people of Mauretania.

However, the emperor always lurks in the background.  Selene finds herself at his beck and call, and she tries to use the power she has over him to her advantage.  However, her willingness to do whatever it takes to become Queen of Egypt could destroy her.  In telling Selene’s story in the first person, Dray does a great job probing the depths of her grief and despair.  There is darkness in Selene, and her past hurts and her ambition prevent her from enjoying the blessings that life has given her.  At times, it’s hard to like Selene, but when I thought about all that she endured and how her every movement was watched and even controlled by the emperor, I was able to understand her more.  She embarks on a relationship that our society wouldn’t accept, but it wasn’t unusual for her time or culture, and Dray presents it in a way that seems believable and even sacred.

To fully enjoy and appreciate Song of the Nile, it’s best to start with Lily of the Nile, which was an excellent beginning to this captivating trilogy.  So much of Selene’s history is unknown, but Dray fills in the missing gaps in a logical manner, and she brings to life the ancient world and gives a voice to an intriguing, strong young woman.  Song of the Nile is a coming-of-age story of sorts, in which Selene must use her wits, beauty, and heritage to secure her future.  Along the way, she finds out what it means to love and the true meaning of home.  I am anxiously awaiting the final book in the trilogy!

Disclosure: I received a copy of Song of the Nile from the author and Berkley/Penguin for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the French women were down to eighty.  A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed.  In the filth and cold and danger of Birkenau, almost anything was fatal.  The ones still alive were the stronger women, those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been lucky.  Without the help of the others, they knew that many more of them would already be dead.  One Sunday, when the sky was blue and the women were allowed to rest, Charlotte remembered other spring Sundays, walking by the Seine under the chestnut trees.  ‘None of us,’ she thought, ‘none of us will return.’

(from A Train in Winter, page 218 in the ARC; finished version may be different)

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France is biographer Caroline Moorehead’s attempt to piece together the stories of the 230 women of the French Resistance who were arrested by the Gestapo and the French police during the country’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II.  These women were transported to Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland, in January 1943, and only 49 would come out alive.  When Moorehead began researching and writing this book, seven of the women were still alive, and she talked to those whose health allowed it.  She also tracked down relatives of some of the women who perished in the camp to tell their stories as well.

These women joined the Resistance for different reasons.  Some did not like how the Germans were shipping France’s raw materials back home, leaving them hungry and cold.  Others protested the treatment of the Jews, whether French citizens or refugees, or the Nazi crackdown on intellectuals.  Some simply did not want to see their country defeated.  They came from different backgrounds; some were students and farmers, one was a dentist.  Some were married and saw their husbands beaten and executed by the Germans, and some were mothers forced to send their children to live with their parents or foster families so they could carry on with their Resistance work.  Some helped Jews and others escape into the Free Zone, helped Allied airmen, or hid other resisters.  Others printed or distributed anti-Fascist tracts, were members of the Communist Party, or helped derail trains, while some were wrongly accused of Resistance activities.  Regardless of their differences, they were joined in their hatred of the Germans, their desire to free France from the Nazis, and later, to survive the torture and inhumane conditions of prison and the extermination camp.

A Train in Winter is a very detailed account of the French Resistance from the moment the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940 and how the French police collaborated with their occupiers to the horrors these women endured in Birkenau and beyond.  Moorehead obviously performed much research, but the way the information is presented, especially at the beginning, is a bit dry.  She states facts so that it reads almost like a textbook, and so many names are mentioned that it’s hard to keep track of them all.  In some cases, there are no transitions from one paragraph to the next, so it seems like you’re abruptly leaving one person’s story and moving to another.  A lot of French words are included in the text without translation, and that sometimes made it difficult to fully grasp the matter being discussed.  Moreover, the beginning focuses on the Occupation itself and how it affected the Communist Party and created pockets of resistance, and I found that these parts dragged because I wanted to read about the women and their involvement in the Resistance.

Still, Moorehead successfully shows how these women were courageous and strong — not only for standing up to the Nazis but for not bowing to the pressure for women to have a family at a time when the government blamed the country’s defeat on women going to university and work and having fewer children.  Once Moorehead began introducing the women who would be followed throughout the book, I couldn’t put it down.  I found A Train in Winter fascinating because I hadn’t read about these women before, and they got me thinking about how I would have reacted if I had been in their shoes.  I would like to think I would have been brave enough to resist, but I can’t imagine enduring what they did in the camps.

A Train in Winter shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things and how even in the most horrible of circumstances, people can find the strength to stand up for themselves and what they believe is right.  These woman banded together to support and care for one another even when they were sure they would not survive, and of course, many didn’t; those who did were never the same, healthwise or otherwise.  They continued to perform acts of sabotage when and where they could, sang the Marseillaise (France’s national anthem) in front of their captors, and were symbols of solidarity and patriotism even while they were starving and sick.  The book features photographs (though I wish the ARC included the captions) and a list of all 230 women and their fates.  I applaud Moorehead for seeking out the survivors to tell their stories before it was too late, and A Train in Winter is a fitting tribute to these brave women.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for A Train in Winter.  To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Train in Winter from HarperCollins for review purposes. I am an IndieBound associate and an Amazon affiliate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this book!  I’ve been enjoying the cake disasters posted on the Cake Wrecks blog for about a year now, having seen it mentioned by Mary Alice on Charm City Cakes.  The subtitle best describes this book — “When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong.”  Jen Yates started the Cake Wrecks blog in 2008 after receiving a forwarded e-mail with the picture featured on the book’s cover, and the site has grown more popular over the years as readers submit pictures of wrecks they have received from bakeries and those spotted while strolling through the grocery store.

I’m always tempted to snap a photo when I see a cake wreck, but I don’t want to offend the bakers who normally are standing right there.  However, I should have taken a photo of the wreck that was Serena’s baby shower cake before I had it fixed!  It was a fairly large sheet cake, and somehow they just couldn’t fit “Best Wishes Serena and Cris” without the “and Cris” going up and off the side of the cake.  I was too upset to think about taking a photo, and after I complained, I felt bad even though my complaint was justified.  Well, with Cake Wrecks, I don’t have to feel guilty about laughing and cringing at the cake decorating horrors gracing its pages.

Yates includes some favorites from the blog, but much of the book is never-before-seen wreckage.  The photos feature ridiculous spelling mistakes, explosions of frosting that look like bathroom accidents, and cakes that make you question the intelligence of the decorators.  (These two aren’t in the book, but they illustrate my point perfectly.)  Yates’ humorous commentary is sometimes funnier than the cakes.

There are chapters on the horrors of cupcake cakes, wedding cake disasters, and even some hilarious-but-not-exactly-family-friendly cakes.  Yates pokes fun at the latest trends in baby shower cakes, with huge baby bumps (sometimes with feet poking through), baby butts, and the creepiest baby face ever immortalized in sugar.  She tells the stories behind some of the cake wrecks, and even if these stories don’t make you think twice about what you say to the baker when you’re ordering a cake, they’ll surely make you laugh out loud.

My poor husband witnessed me and The Girl laughing so hard we cried while reading this book, and I kept making him pause the movie he was watching to look at the photos.  He was only mildly annoyed, as several times he laughed right along with us.  From carrot-riding babies with mohawks to The Girl’s personal favorite Darth Vader baby shower cake (which is pretty cool when you read about the Darth Vader bridal shower cake that became a family joke), Cake Wrecks (and the blog) will provide hours of entertainment.  The Girl and I can’t wait to get our hands on Yates’ newest book, Wreck the Halls.  Watch the trailer for a sneak peek of the hilarious holiday wreckage!

Disclosure: I borrowed Cake Wrecks from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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