Archive for the ‘reading challenges’ Category

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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the race for paris

Source: Review copy from Harper
Rating: ★★★★★

None of our reasons for going to war made sense, and yet they all did.

(from The Race for Paris)

Quick summary: Meg Waite Clayton’s latest novel, The Race for Paris, is set in 1944 as the Allies invade France during World War II. The novel centers on Liv, an Associated Press photographer determined to be one of the first to capture the liberation of Paris, and Jane, a journalist for the Nashville Banner, who accompanies her. Facing blatant sexism, the two go AWOL and accompanied by Fletcher, a British military photographer, head straight for the front and Paris, forced to consider their pasts, their wartime losses, and their ambitions as they seek to make and document history.

Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read about female journalists or photojournalists during the Second World War.

What I liked: I loved this novel from start to finish. It was every bit as exciting as the description, and Clayton really made me feel like I was right alongside Jane, Liv, and Fletcher throughout the action. The quotes from real-life journalists and photographers, both male and female, at the beginning of each chapter show exactly what Jane and Liv were up against — and that Clayton clearly did her homework to make this novel as authentic as possible. I loved that the characters were likable and so human in their vulnerability, saying and doing things they probably wouldn’t have if death hadn’t been lurking in every turn and shadow.

What I disliked: Absolutely nothing!

Final thoughts: The Race for Paris provides a different look at war from the eyes of those who understood the importance of documenting the truth, even if their photos were blurred and their sentences cut by censors. Clayton realistically portrays the challenges faced by women who didn’t want to sit still during the fighting, the dangers faced by the journalists and photographers following and oftentimes riding alongside the soldiers, how women throughout history have made important contributions, and the risks they took in order to do so. The Race for Paris is among the best books I’ve read this year and one I know I will not soon forget.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Race for Paris!

Disclosure: I received The Race for Paris from Harper 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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jars of hope

Source: Review copy from IWPR Group
Rating: ★★★★☆

Irena thought of something her father had told her.  “If you see someone drowning,” he had said, “you must jump in and save them, whether you can swim or not.”

“The children are hurting the most,” she decided.  “I have to give them a helping hand.”

(from Jars of Hope)

Quick summary: Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust is a children’s picture book written by Jennifer Roy and illustrated by Meg Owenson that tells the story of Irena Sendler, a social worker in Poland during World War II who helped smuggle around 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Roy explains how Sendler helped the children escape, how she saved the lists of their names, and how she survived the war herself.

Why I wanted to read it: Several years ago, my daughter and I watched the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, and of course, we were fascinated by her story.  I’m also a fan of Roy’s since reading Yellow Star, her Aunt Sylvia’s Holocaust survival story, and meeting both Roy and her aunt at a book festival a few years ago.

What I liked: I applaud Roy for introducing Sendler to young readers and emphasizing how ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the face of evil.  The book is age-appropriate, showing the danger Sendler and the Jewish families faced without going into much detail.  Owenson’s illustrations are detailed and vibrant, using color to denote the warmth of family and the cold and desolation Sendler faced in prison.  I appreciated the author’s notes at the end that briefly wrap up Sendler’s story and explain Roy’s inspiration for the book.


Jars of Hope, page 10 (Capstone Young Readers)

What I disliked: The book only scratches the surface of Sendler’s story and makes it difficult for readers to feel connected to Sendler, but that is understandable given that it is short and intended for young children.

Final thoughts: Jars of Hope is a beautiful story of courage, love, hope, daring, and survival.  To think that one women had a hand in saving thousands of children during the Holocaust is inspirational and still brings people hope decades later.  It is important to remember people like Irena Sendler, who selflessly gave all they had, sometimes even their lives, to do what was right.  It also is important that children are introduced to these unsung heroes, and Jars of Hope is a book for parents and children to read and discuss together.

Disclosure: I received Jars of Hope from IWPR Group 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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the travels of daniel ascher

Source: Review copy from Other Press
Rating: ★★★☆☆

The plane rose above the clouds, the ocean disappeared.  Perhaps that was what becoming an adult was, emerging from the clouds, leaving behind the sweet half-light of childhood, coming out into the blinding clarity of a truth you haven’t asked to know.

(from The Travels of Daniel Ascher)

Quick summary:  The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, follows Hélène, a 20-year-old archeology student living in her great-uncle Daniel’s Paris apartment.  Hélène remembers Daniel’s antics at family gatherings over the years, acting out the travels that formed the basis of the young adult adventure series he writes under the pen name H.R. Sanders.  Hélène wasn’t as enthralled with Daniel’s stories as the other children and never read The Black Insignia series.  However, when a friend from school discovers that she is related to his favorite author, Hélène grows increasingly interested in her mysterious great-uncle, but all she knows is that he’s really Daniel Ascher and was adopted by her family as a child when his parents were deported during the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II.  Hélène pieces together the fragments of her great-uncle’s life and stumbles upon a secret that could tear her family apart.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m always intrigued by wartime stories and secrets.

What I liked: I liked Daniel for his complexity, and I was fascinated by his ability (or necessity) to navigate different personae.  He was the only character I grew to like over the course of the novel, and the only character I felt was fully developed.

What I disliked: The writing style kept me at arm’s length from the story, particularly the run-on sentences, the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue, and the abrupt ending to the chapters.  Aside from Daniel, I didn’t really care for any of the characters, but in the end, the story was really about him anyway.  I must admit that I struggled at times to finish the book, but in the end, I continued because it was so short (less than 200 pages), and I wanted to know what happened to Daniel.

Final thoughts: Overall, I thought The Travels of Daniel Ascher was interesting, particularly the way the layers of Daniel’s story were peeled back and his secrets were revealed.  I’m not sure if the issues I had with the writing style had anything to do with the translation, and while these issues made finishing the novel a challenge at times, I’m glad I plowed through to the end.  I was satisfied with how Daniel’s story was wrapped up and impressed with how Lévy-Bertherat creatively illustrated the challenges faced by Holocaust survivors, particularly children, in navigating the post-war world on their own.  Daniel’s coping mechanisms were both fascinating and heartbreaking, and even if I didn’t love this novel, Daniel is a character I won’t easily forget.

Disclosure: I received The Travels of Daniel Ascher from Other Press 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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the mapmaker's children

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

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

But who would remember her tomorrow?

(from The Mapmaker’s Children, page 67)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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bianca's vineyard

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

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

(from Bianca’s Vineyard, page 239)

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

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

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

What I disliked: Nothing!

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

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

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

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

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a berlin story

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

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

(from A Berlin Story)

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: A Berlin Story is from my personal library.

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

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