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Archive for the ‘read in 2012’ Category

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

The seeds that grow and inflate the smallest minds into giants, those who believe they can take down anyone with their petty realities, was what she saw full-blown in Pursey.  It mattered not whether his reality was based on prejudice, fear, or just plain ignorance, the end result would be the same, ruined lives.

(from The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, page 106)

In 1895, the news that playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor for “gross indecency” (i.e. homosexuality) rocks the small town of Red River Pass, Nevada.  The town’s gossips are all riled up; after all, it was only a few years ago that rumors about two men from town hugging each other prompted one of them to commit suicide.  Mildred Dunlap, a woman known for her unattractive, manly looks but big heart, prefers to live a quiet life with her cousin, Edra.  When she overhears the vicious comments, she knows these gossips won’t stop until they draw blood.  These women are itching for a fight — and that strikes fear in Mildred’s heart.

The town knows Mildred and Edra are inseparable, related to a tragedy that understandably made Edra afraid to venture far from home and distrustful of people outside her family circle.  What their neighbors don’t know is that Mildred and Edra are more than just cousins and old friends, and Mildred is worried that the flames that have erupted from the news about Wilde’s lifestyle and imprisonment will burn down the world she and Edra built on their love.  Mildred comes up with a plan to take the heat off her and Edra, but will it complicate things even more?

The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap is a very timely novel given the recent victories for same-sex marriage.  Paulette Mahurin has created a strong character in Mildred, but it hurt my heart that people saw her as ugly when her generosity and kindness made her beautiful.  It also made me sad that she had to sink to such depths to protect herself and Edra — and that she felt like it was her only choice.  Mahurin’s tender descriptions of Mildred’s and Edra’s relationship, the ease of their everyday life, and the normality of it, make a great contrast to the ignorant and vicious comments of the local women in the general store and how they treat Mildred based on her appearance.  Watching Mildred strike up a friendship with the widowed Charley Milpass and how he came to see the real Mildred was heartwarming.

Mahurin does a great job setting the scene.  I’ve never read a novel set in the Old West, but she really brings to life a small frontier town, where a trip to the general store to see telegrams of the latest news was the highlight of one’s day.  The supporting characters were surprisingly well developed, with even the villain getting a backstory, and it reminded me of Jane Austen’s Emma in that the town was one’s world.

The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap is a thoughtful novel about hatred and prejudice in many forms and the power of rumors and gossip to ruin one’s life.  It’s about how easily people can be intimidated into following the crowd and how easily we judge people by their looks.  It would make a great book club selection given the numerous layers to the story, from the obvious topic of homosexuality to the themes of love, friendship, and acceptance that are at its core.

About the author:

Paulette Mahurin devotes a lot of her time to animal rescue. All profits from her book are going to the Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center (SPARC), the first and only no-kill shelter in Ventura County, CA, where she lives with her husband and two dogs from a kill-shelter, Max & Bella. Mahurin made the decision to donate all profits after her beloved dog of 15+ years, Tazzie (a rottie from a kill shelter), died. When she went to rescue new dogs, all the sad faces on death row, coupled with her heartache over the loss of her long time best friend, moved her to do more than just rescue dogs; therefore, all profits go to help get animals out of kill-shelters and into their forever homes. Feel free to friend SPARC on Facebook and visit their website.

Book 42 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap from the author for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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

Elsa turned the corner of Schillerstrasse, where all the flower boxes were red and white.  Geraniums.  Just red and white.  She wondered when they would cultivate a black one to celebrate all that they had ruined.

(from A Parachute in the Lime Tree, page 67)

A Parachute in the Lime Tree is a beautifully written novel set in Ireland during World War II.  Annemarie Neary expertly weaves together the stories of three characters: Oskar, a German soldier who abandons the war after the bombing of Belfast with plans to find the Jewish girl he loves, who left Berlin on the Kindertransport; Kitty, a young Irish girl who hides Oskar after she discovers his parachute in the lime trees on her family’s property; and Elsa, a young girl worried about the family she left behind in Berlin whose music is her saving grace.  The war weighs heavy on each of these characters, and Neary paints a realistic portrait of the relationships they forge and the decisions they make in such uncertain times.

I absolutely loved this book, especially the characters.  They were all believable and brilliantly drawn, and Neary connects them all in a way that never feels forced.  Oskar is endearing in that he’s willing to risk everything for love.  He knows the consequences of desertion, but his inaction back home with regard to Elsa and the treatment of the Jews in Berlin is a heavy burden for him to bear.  Neary portrays him realistically as a non-Nazi German, someone who is appalled at the direction the country is moving but too weak to do anything about it.  Oskar is not a hero at first glance, but it took much bravery to do what he did.

Kitty is endearing in her flaws.  She’s been saddled with the responsibility of caring for her grieving mother, but she’s young and in need of excitement that cannot be had in her country home.  It’s not surprising that she’s attracted to Oskar and agrees to help him, given that he represents the wildness and hint of danger she has been seeking.  Meanwhile, Elsa is the most haunting character.  She has lost so much and is forced to live with strangers in a country that’s not her own, yet she finds a way to fit in and even excel.

Neary does a wonderful job showing how war was hell and how many people didn’t have a happy ending, and though she doesn’t focus too much on the horrible things that happen during wartime, it’s always there so the reader cannot forget the enormity of it all.  The novel also touches on Ireland’s neutrality during World War II, and how even while the country itself may have been neutral, many of its people were not.  A Parachute in the Lime Tree is a story of the desperation inherent in both love and war, and how the lines between each are sometimes blurred.

Book 41 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Parachute in the Lime Tree from the author for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Julia Drake PR
Rating: ★★★★☆

They had passed many days pretending that their status as non-combatants, healers — men without guns — would somehow protect them from the enemy.  Surely, the Germans would respect the red crosses on the tents, trucks, helmets, and armbands.  Instead, during the night they had lost their collective virginity, and the reality of their new world scared the hell out of them.

(from None But the Brave, page 179)

None But the Brave follows a group of American surgeons, medics, and nurses from when they land in France as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, through the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany and even into the post-World War II chaos.  Because Anthony A. Goodman is a general surgeon who served during the Vietnam War, he certainly is qualified to write about the experiences of medical professionals on the front lines, and this makes the book feel more authentic.

The novel is told primarily from three points of view, that of Steve Schneider, a surgeon who follows his friends into the Army as part of a volunteer surgical group, much to the disappointment of his wife; John Hammer, a.k.a. Hamm, a close friend of Steve’s who gives him the idea of joining up; and Meyer Berg, a Jewish doctor tasked with the impossible job of caring for the prisoners of a concentration camp who laments the fact that he did not heed his family’s pleas to leave Germany when he had the chance.  Other prominent characters include Molly Ferrarro, a WAC nurse, and Ted McClintock, an anesthesiologist and ladies’ man.

None But the Brave shows these surgeons, nurses, and medics in action…and in danger, despite their non-combatant status.  Goodman describes in detail the horrific wounds experienced by the GIs and the less than ideal conditions under which surgery was performed.  I didn’t feel that the story was bogged down by medical terminology — I actually found much of it fascinating — but it’s definitely not for readers with weak stomachs.  There’s nothing flowery about the writing, yet there is plenty of description to provide a sense of place and enable readers to bond with the characters on some level.  I think Goodman’s writing style works well for the fast pace, with the field hospitals being set up, broken down, moved, and set up again so many times as the front lines of the fight quickly change.

When Hamm finally makes it to the beach and the enormity of the invasion is understood, as they wade through hundreds and hundreds of bodies and parts of bodies, I nearly cried.  Goodman makes sure readers never forget that many of the fallen GIs were just boys who were never able to reach their potential.  It’s impossible to read this book and not feel deep sadness as well as respect for the brave men and women who served and died.  The fact that most of the casualties handled by the characters remain unnamed emphasizes the impossibility of keeping track of so many injured and dead and how the surgeons needed to keep things impersonal to some extent in order to cope.

There were so many scenes in this book that stood out to me, like the young French boy walking with the American soldiers with such pride, the Nazi collaborators dragged through the streets of Paris upon its liberation, and the first glimpse of the concentration camp and the realization of the evil done there.  Goodman accomplished so much with this novel, and it’s such a worthwhile read, even though it’s mentally draining and downright heartbreaking at times.

None But the Brave really brings home the point that one can be scared senseless yet extraordinarily brave.  Goodman shows their loneliness and their exhaustion, along with the huge difference they made.  The sacrifices of these men and women came at a cost, as even those who didn’t pay the ultimate price were changed forever.  The relationships they forged, their coping mechanisms, their grief and sorrow — Goodman portrays them all.  Highly recommended.

Check out this video series by Goodman; the first video explains his inspiration for None But the Brave.

Book 40 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received None But the Brave from Julia Drake PR for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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

I know what this moment is — the moment every mother faces.  This is when my daughter leaves me, when she steps out into the stream, steps into her own life.  And so much about it is wrong:  this setting — the Occupation, the war.  But it still has to happen.

(from The Soldier’s Wife)

In The Soldier’s Wife, Margaret Leroy paints a quiet portrait of life in a small village near St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey during the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands.  This World War II novel tells the story of Vivienne de la Mare, who holds down the fort while her husband is off at war.  She makes a last-minute decision not to evacuate to England, but after the Nazis bomb St. Peter Port and then take over the island with no resistance, she must figure out a way to keep her daughters, Blanche and Millie, and her ailing mother-in-law, Evelyn, safe and fed.

Several German soldiers take up residence next door to the de la Mare’s, and although Evelyn believes it is important to take a stand, Vivienne feels there is little she can do about their presence.  It is not long before Vivienne embarks on a secret affair with one of these soldiers, Gunther Lehmann, but everything changes when prisoners from Eastern Europe are brought to the island as slave labor.  Vivienne cannot reconcile the Gunther she knows in private with the soldier who must know something about the horrible way these prisoners are treated, and when she meets one of these prisoners face-to-face, it further complicates her life under the Occupation.

The Soldier’s Wife really shines in its descriptions of the day-to-day hardships of the Occupation, such as keeping to the curfews imposed by the Germans and improvising and stretching meals.  In Vivienne, Leroy emphasizes the loneliness many wives felt when their husbands were off fighting, and she has created a character who is not flawless but simply does her best to get by.  Leroy also shows how some of the residents struggled to resist the Germans in small ways, while others fraternized with the occupiers, drawing much criticism from their neighbors.  The one character I really felt for was Blanche, Vivienne’s 14-year-old daughter, whose coming of age occurs during the Occupation; what should be a carefree time of hanging out with friends, talking about boys, and worrying about clothes and makeup instead means having to go to work and worrying about the cold and hunger.

However, I wasn’t captivated by the love story.  It felt like it had been done before, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a woman with two kids and a mother-in-law could sneak a man into the house nearly every night without anyone ever hearing them.  Still, I appreciated Leroy’s portrayal of the German soldiers as men who had families back home and weren’t all evil.

The Soldier’s Wife is a beautifully descriptive book that imagines what life might have been like for a lonely wife unhappy with her marriage and overwhelmed with caring for her family in the midst of a war.  The Occupation may have been mostly peaceful, but that doesn’t mean the people of Guernsey didn’t suffer.  Leroy skillfully explores the shades of gray inherent in war, the sacrifices civilians were forced to make, and the ways in which their lives were forever changed.

Book 39 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Soldier’s Wife from Hyperion for review.

© 2012 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: ★★★☆☆

At some time or another, everyone was failed by this world.  Disappointment was the one thing humans had in common.

Taken this way, Ross didn’t feel quite so alone.  Trapped in the whirlpool of what might have been, you might not be able to drag yourself out — but you could be saved by someone else who reached in.

(from Second Glance, page 374)

It’s been a long time since I read a Jodi Picoult novel, mostly because they started to feel the same to me, with a focus on court trials and exploring the gray areas of such hot topics as bullying and organ donation.  Second Glance was a breath of fresh air because the issue of eugenics is important to the story but doesn’t overshadow the ghosts, grief, and a 70-year-old murder mystery.

Second Glance focuses primarily on Ross Wakeman, a man who longs to reconnect with his dead fiancée through death, but when he finds that he can’t die, he becomes a ghost hunter instead.  Unable to connect with Aimee or move on with his life, he visits his sister, Shelby, who struggles to maintain a normal life for her young son, who is afflicted with a genetic disorder that prevents him from being out in the sun.  While in the small town of Comtosook, Vermont, Ross volunteers to investigate the strange happenings on a plot of land slated for development, which the Abenaki tribe claims is an old burial ground.  During the investigation, Ross meets Lia Beaumont, a young woman who makes him feel things he hasn’t felt since Aimee’s death.

Picoult weaves together Ross and Shelby’s stories with that of a 102-year-old Abenaki leader; a geneticist and her young daughter, who is frightened by the ghosts she sees everywhere; a nursing home resident on the cusp of death whose past comes back to haunt him; and a policeman intent on solving the 1932 murder of a young mother.  This young woman narrates the most interesting section of the book.  Set during 1932, it brings to life a little known piece of history about the Vermont eugenics movement, in which the state’s sterilization law was used to get rid of undesirable characteristics in certain families believed to be too much in need of the social welfare system (criminals and those plagued by mental illness, among others), with the goal of wiping out future generations so that these characteristics aren’t passed down.  Picoult contrasts this failed “experiment” (which apparently became the foundation of the Nazi eugenics program) with the work Meredith does as a geneticist in screening embryos for certain conditions so that parents can make more informed decisions about the children they bring into the world.

Second Glance is a book that requires a lot of patience from the reader.  Picoult introduces numerous characters in the first 30 or so pages, and it’s difficult to keep track of them at first.  But as the story progressed and the characters’ connections became clear, I found it easier to follow and harder to put the book down.  However, what kept me from loving the book was the fact that once I put two and two together, it started to feel slow in getting to the ending that I’d already seen coming.

Yet, there are so many things that make the novel worth reading, from the historical fiction elements about the Abenaki and the eugenics program to the wonderfully flawed characters and their struggle to overcome the various obstacles that have made them nearly give up on life and love.  Picoult even handles the ghost story in a tender way that makes it seem plausible.  Readers shouldn’t pick up Second Glance expecting it to be just like other Picoult novels, such as Nineteen Minutes, My Sister’s Keeper, or Change of Heart.  This one requires more from the reader due to the intricate and sometimes convoluted plot, but I think that’s what I liked best about it.  It’s worth the struggle at the beginning to see how everything falls into place by the end.

My one and only book for The Jodi Picoult Project

Disclosure: Second Glance is from my personal library.

© 2012 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: ★★★★☆

“What you think you gone change with this?  What law you want to reform so it say you got to be nice to your maid?”

“Now hold on,” I say.  “I’m not trying to change any laws here.  I’m just talking about attitudes and–“

“You know what’ll happen if people catch us?  Forget the time I accidentally use the wrong changing room at McRae’s women’s wear.  I’d have guns pointing at my house.”

(from The Help, page 164)

The Help, my book club’s October pick, is a multifaceted novel about race and class in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s.  Kathryn Stockett tells the story of black maids and the white women for whom they work through the eyes of three women: Skeeter, the daughter of a white cotton farmer who returns from college to find she no longer fits in because she’d rather be a writer than a wife and mother; Aibileen, a black maid who works for one of Skeeter’s best friends, Elizabeth, and spends much of her time showering Elizabeth’s neglected daughter with love and affection; and Minny, a black maid whose outspoken ways and the Terrible Awful Thing she did to Hilly, another friend of Skeeter’s, makes it nearly impossible for her to find another job in the town.

Skeeter, longing to know why Constantine, the maid who was like a mother to her, left without explanation, wants to interview some of the town’s black maids about what it’s like working for their white employers.  She begins to notice how her friends treat their maids, and like the reader, doesn’t understand why the woman you trust to raise your children, make all your meals, do the laundry, and polish the silver needs a bathroom in the garage to prevent the spread of “colored diseases.”  But there is so much she doesn’t understand, and while Aibileen and Minny may have a lot to say about their jobs, they have reason to fear the consequences.  After all, blacks are still being lynched for speaking out.

While much of the book is about the daily routines of the maids and their interactions with their white employers, Stockett also touches on class differences among whites and contrasts the relationships children have with their parents to the relationships they have with their maids.  Her characters are well developed, and she does a good job emphasizing the complexity of race relations and how even those who believe things should change feel they can’t do anything about it, whether out of fear of being ostracized, fear for their lives, or because of their political aspirations.

The Girl (age 12) and I enjoyed The Help overall, but we both thought it dragged at times, and it took us awhile to get used to the dialect Stockett uses for the black maids.  It seems like a story that could have happened at that time, but I think it’s important to remember (and I pointed this out to The Girl while we read) that the book is written by a white author — and even though she’s from the South and had a black maid, she can never truly know what it’s like to be in their shoes.  But it is fiction, after all.

The Help was a hit with the book club.  It certainly provided numerous talking points, even beyond the obvious race, class, and point-of-view issues.  We discussed everything from the two-hour-long hair treatment Skeeter endured to how much we hated Hilly, and we gobbled up the numerous Southern dishes one of the members laid out for the occasion.  (Check out Serena’s in-depth book club wrap-up here)

The Help is a book that really gets you thinking, especially about how we treat one another.  Each of the characters affected me in some way, and I think Hilly is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever come across.  It’s not a book you easily forget, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.

Disclosure: The Help is from my personal library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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

She didn’t understand how quickly a life can fray.  How a single thread come undone can cause the unraveling of everything else around it.

But that was not the worst of the dream.  The worst of it was this: I woke wanting the same thing I had wanted back then.  I woke wanting Maman.  I woke wanting to touch that lace.  And I knew if I had to do it all over again, I would do the very same thing.  The worst was knowing I could not have done anything other than what I did.

(from The Ruins of Lace)

Lace is beautiful and intricate, and when King Louis XIII of France banned foreign and domestic lace in 1636, it became highly prized and dangerous.  In The Ruins of Lace, Iris Anthony focuses on the brutal conditions under which lace was created, how it was smuggled from Flanders to France, and how greed for lace padded the pockets of some and led to the downfall of others.

Set in France and Flanders in 1636, The Ruins of Lace is told from the alternating viewpoints of seven distinct narrators: Katharina Martens, a lace maker in a Flemish convent who has gone blind from more than two decades of working in the dark and will be cast out if she can no longer produce lace; her sister, Heilwich Martens, who has worked long and hard to save enough money to buy Katharina’s freedom and will do anything to prevent her being thrown out of the convent and forced into prostitution; Denis Boulanger, a soldier whose very life might depend on being able to spot the lace smugglers crossing the border from Flanders; a dog used to smuggle lace over the French border; Lizette Lefort, whose desire to touch beautiful lace cuffs caused her family to lose everything and whose guilt caused her to withdraw from life; the Count of Montreau, who cares about nothing but securing his title and enough money to cover his excesses; and Alexandre Lefort, a young man sent on an impossible journey to obtain the lace that will save the woman he loves.

I was pulled into the novel from the very first page because I couldn’t believe that lace was ever banned and that something so delicate had the power to destroy lives.  Anthony is a talented storyteller whose beautiful writing brings a little known part of history to life.  She does a superb job juggling so many characters, and structuring the novel so that the narrators change every chapter and cycle through in the same order makes it easy to keep track of the different voices.

Despite the myriad narrators, The Ruins of Lace boils down to just two stories — Katharina’s and Lizette’s — and the other characters are just vehicles to bring about the resolution.  From the beginning, it’s obvious how their stories will be connected, but the journey is what counts.  Anthony appears to have done her homework in detailing the heartbreaking conditions under which Katharina works, not knowing when she will have outlived her usefulness and be tossed aside without a penny to her name.  The lace even becomes a character whose presence is felt during every tense moment of the smuggling scenes.  And though I wasn’t crazy about the dog’s narration, it’s sad to think about the 40,000 dogs killed over 15 years as they tried to move lace into France and the constant abuse they endured as they were trained to do so.

The Ruins of Lace was heavier than I expected for a book about lace, but I couldn’t put it down and finished it in a day.  Although the ending felt a big rushed and certain plot elements felt contrived, it’s a decent novel that should be read for the intriguing characters and the fascinating history behind the story.

Book 37 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Ruins of Lace from Sourcebooks for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Bantam
Rating: ★★★★★

“You grew up in America, after all — exactly what do you know about British aristocracy?”

“Not much beyond the historical, I’m afraid,” Maggie said.

“All right, impromptu quiz — what do you say when you meet the King and Queen?”

Maggie gave David a wry look.  Frain had forgotten about royal etiquette lessons.  “Hello?”

David smacked himself on the head.  “Oh, my dear Eliza Doolittle — we have a long night ahead of us.”

(from Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, page 52)

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is the second Maggie Hope Mystery, set in World War II London.  There are no spoilers in my review of this book, but proceed with caution if you haven’t read the first book, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.

In Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, Maggie Hope is no longer a typist for Winston Churchill.  She has proven that her intelligence, math and problem-solving skills, and ability to handle herself in dangerous situations make her an asset to the war effort, and she is now a spy with MI-5.  The Nazis have a plan to put the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, back on the throne once they invade England.  Because this plan may involve kidnapping Princess Elizabeth so she cannot become queen, Maggie is assigned to Windsor Castle, where princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are living to avoid the bombs falling on London.

Maggie is a bit disappointed that she will be serving as a math tutor while undercover, rather than being dropped into France or Germany, but she soon finds that danger lurks on the castle grounds.  A lady-in-waiting is murdered, and decrypted German code is found in one of her books.  While Maggie sorts out the mystery, she also must figure out how to build a relationship with her father, deal with not knowing whether the man she loves is alive, and contend with her feelings for a co-worker.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s novels may be set during a time of fear and devastation, but they are delightful and riveting.  Maggie navigates grief and danger with grace, and I just love how she is not afraid to speak her mind, particularly when it involves men in positions of authority who don’t value or respect women.  As in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Maggie is feisty and strong, but this time around, she also shows her sensitive side, and the way she fumbles her way through Camp Spook makes her feel real.

MacNeal certainly has a talent for developing characters, even those based on real people.  I loved getting to know Princess Elizabeth, a.k.a. Lilibet, as a 14-year-old girl.  Readers get to see her embarking on a romance with Prince Philip, learning the responsibilities she will have one day as queen, standing strong during wartime, playing with her beloved corgis, and even arguing with her little sister.

MacNeal also brings Windsor Castle to life.  Paintings and books may have been put in storage, blackout curtains may have been hung from every window, and the dungeon may have been transformed into a bomb shelter, but the castle is still imposing and rich with history.  Readers get lost in its vastness right alongside Maggie, and the inner workings of the castle, from the relationships among the servants to the princesses’ daily schedule, are fascinating.

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is a light mystery, but MacNeal’s love for London and the World War II era are evident throughout.  This is the kind of book you read for the history, the strong female lead, and for the page-turning excitement.  I am hooked on this series and am anxiously waiting for the third book, His Majesty’s Hope, due out in the spring.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy tour.  To follow the tour, click here.

Book 36 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Princess Elizabeth’s Spy from Bantam for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Bantam
Rating: ★★★★★

Learning all the sick and twisted details of the war, Maggie was starting to hate, hate with a ferocity she never knew she had within her.  Could I kill a Nazi?  she thought.  Before, she would have said no.  Or maybe — but only if she was in a kill-or-be-killed situation.  But now she felt she could do it easily, with a song in her heart if it meant getting even.

(from Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, page 78)

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first book in a new series set during World War II that follows Maggie Hope, a young mathematician who was born in Britain but grew up in America.  Maggie puts off grad school to handle the sale of her grandmother’s home, but when war breaks out and the home doesn’t sell, she decides to stay and takes a job as a typist at No. 10 Downing Street, the headquarters of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

As one would imagine, there’s a lot going on in London in the early days of World War II, and Susan Elia MacNeal does an excellent job bringing the city to life.  There are fears about the Germans bombing the city or even invading England.  There are IRA bombings, fascist groups, and sleeper agents wreaking havoc in London.  Meanwhile, Maggie battles against the sexism that keeps her from using her skills as a code breaker and searches for the truth about her parents, who died when she was a baby.

Once I started Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I couldn’t put it down.  I absolutely loved Maggie.  She’s smart, feisty, and insecure at times, and she’s totally someone you’d want as a best friend.  I was reminded me of the Maisie Dobbs series, but Maggie is more kick-ass and this story had much more action.  I loved the variety of characters and personalities and how MacNeal threw them all together, and her portrayal of Churchill was thoroughly entertaining.  Moreover, I thought the various plot lines were exciting and enjoyed how MacNeal connected them all, even though the big twist was obvious to me early on.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary really shines in MacNeal’s portrayal of wartime London and how the people tried to keep their spirits up amidst so much destruction.  Even though Maggie seemed a bit ahead of the times (and managed to enjoy the nightlife despite being so busy at work), I appreciate a gutsy, intelligent heroine and can’t wait to continue the series.

Book 35 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Mr. Churchill’s Secretary from Bantam for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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

‘I think every woman has that within her which would set her free, if only she could act on her inner feelings and be true to herself.’

(from Searching for Captain Wentworth, page 272)

Have you ever wished you could meet a long-dead favorite author and maybe even see firsthand the people and events that inspired your favorite novel?  In Searching for Captain Wentworth, Jane Odiwe’s heroine, Sophie Elliot, gets the opportunity to meet and even befriend Jane Austen through her ancestor, Sophia.

Needing time away to mend her broken heart and determined to begin the novel she’s always wanted to write, Sophie heads to her great-aunt’s house in Bath, which has been in the family for generations.  When she observes her dashing and mysterious downstairs neighbor, Josh, drop an old glove, Sophie has good intentions of returning it to him.  But this is no ordinary glove; Sophie soon determines that it allows her to travel back to 1802 and see Regency Bath through the eyes of Sophia.

Sophie, unsure each time she travels through time when or whether she’ll return to the present day, finds life in the Elliot home unbearable at times.  Sophia’s father seems only to care about the family’s connections, and her arrogant sister, Emma, rests all her hopes on marrying Mr. Glanville and is none too happy about Sophia getting in the way.  If you love Jane Austen’s Persuasion as much as I do, you won’t have any problem identifying the similarities to Anne, Sir Walter, and Elizabeth Elliot.

The one thing that makes life tolerable for Sophie/Sophia is hanging out with the Elliot’s neighbors, the Austens, particularly the sisters Jane and Cassandra.  Sophie is a fan of Austen’s novels and getting to know the real Jane and especially learning whether or not she had a true love make the temptation of the time-traveling glove too hard for her to resist.  And of course, there is Jane’s charming brother, Charles, who is home from the Navy and touches Sophie’s heart in a way no other man ever has.  Meanwhile, in the present, Sophie and Josh navigate a flirtation that is both sweet and awkward…and complicated by the fact that Sophie can’t bring herself to give back the glove.

Given my love for Persuasion, it’s not surprising that I adored Searching for Captain Wentworth.  I certainly could understand how Sophie was torn between two worlds.  Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Jane Austen?  Odiwe’s Jane is as feisty, witty, and funny as we expect her to be.  And because Sophie is so likeable and so real, especially her desire to start a new life and get over her past disappointments in romance and her career, I couldn’t help but root for her to find happiness in whatever century she chose.

But Searching for Captain Wentworth isn’t just about time travel and romance.  Odiwe does a great job showing what women in the Regency era had to endure, from being pushed into marriage and constantly reminded of their familial obligations to a feeling of being trapped by society and how their time was never their own.  It made me feel sorry for Sophia, who wasn’t as lucky as Sophie in being able to escape her world with a magical glove.

Odiwe makes Jane Austen come to life, and her love for Austen and her novels shines on every page.  Searching for Captain Wentworth is a believable imagining of who and what could have inspired Austen to pen Persuasion, and I was impressed by Odiwe’s ability to persuade me to believe the unbelievable.  I turned the last page thinking how much fun it would be to get my hands on that glove, even if I’d never be able to fake my way through a Regency dance despite having watched the movie adaptations of Austen’s novels countless times.  You don’t need to have read Persuasion to enjoy this novel, and since Odiwe is one of my favorite authors in the Austenesque genre, I think it’s the perfect book for a day curled up with a blanket and a hot cup of tea.

Book 7 for Explore the Many Genres of Jane Austen Challenge (Jane Austen as a fictional character)

I was saddened to learn that Shanna from Existing’s Tricky lost her battle with cancer in April. To honor her memory and her love of books, I am determined to complete her challenge. May she rest in peace.

Disclosure: I received Searching for Captain Wentworth from the author for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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