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Archive for the ‘reading challenges’ Category

omphalos

Source: Review copy from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: ★★★★☆

“If we accept that history belongs to the dead, then we will always be its slaves. If we write history ourselves, with all its complications and its ambiguities, then we take ownership of it, we accept responsibility.”

(from Omphalos)

Quick summary: Omphalos is an ambitious historical novel by Mark Patton that connects several stories from different time periods to an ancient mound and chapel on the island of Jersey, La Hougue Bie. The novel opens with the story of Al Cohen, an American visiting Jersey to learn about his biological father, a German officer whose letters while stationed on Jersey and in a POW camp in Wales are featured. Patton also tells the stories of a female spy who fled to Jersey from revolutionary France, a Catholic priest and his secretary on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1517, a knight on a pilgrimage of pennance in 1160, and a sorceress in 4,000 B.C.

Why I wanted to read it: I was intrigued by the idea of several stories from different time periods being connected, and of course, I was especially curious about the story set during World War II.

What I liked: Once I got a handle on all the characters, I enjoyed watching their stories unfold and discovering their connections. I also enjoyed reading about so many different time periods in a single novel. Most of all, I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, where Patton separates the facts from the fiction and lists resources for further reading.

What I disliked: There are a lot of characters and story lines, so at times, it was hard to keep it all straight in my head. However, it helped that Patton gave titles to each of these stories and separated them by chapter.

Final thoughts: Omphalos is a fascinating look at thousands of years of history and the connections between events and people over time. The novel covers a lot of ground, from the Nazi occupation of Jersey and espionage during the French Revolution to religious pilgrimages and ancient epic journeys, and is sure to get readers thinking about their family history, as well as their connections to certain places and how generations of people have been there before them.

Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for having me on the tour for Omphalos. To learn more about the book and the author and to follow the tour, click the banner below.

omphalos tour

war challenge with a twist

Book 31 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 29 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Omphalos from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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going after cacciato

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“The point is that war is war no matter how it is perceived.  War has its own reality.  War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows.  These are the things of war.  Any war.”

(from Going After Cacciato, page 197)

Quick summary: Going After Cacciato, winner of the 1979 National Book Award, is one of the most unique war novels I’ve ever read. Tim O’Brien tells the story of a soldier during the Vietnam War who simply decides to leave the war and walk from the jungle all the way to Paris. The novel is told through the point of view of Paul Berlin, one of the soldiers who sets off on the mission to find Cacciato. O’Brien plays with the novel’s timeline, so readers alternate between following Paul Berlin on the journey to fetch Cacciato, going back in time to when Paul Berlin first joined the war and witnessing the horrifying things he saw during those months before Cacciato left the war, and moving forward in time to an observation post on the sea as Paul Berlin spends the long night contemplating what happened with Cacciato.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m a huge fan of Tim O’Brien. His writing is fantastic and thought-provoking. The Things They Carried is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d let Going After Cacciato sit unread on my shelf for too long.

What I liked: I thought the shifts back and forth in time were clever, allowing the layers of detail about the various soldiers and the mission from Quang Ngai to Paris to be pulled back one by one. I also enjoyed the element of fantasy in this novel and how O’Brien kept me guessing about the events of the story until the very end. His writing always packs a punch, with vivid imagery that makes you feel like you are wading through the paddies or sweating through the jungles or marching the dusty trails alongside the characters. He manages to balance weighty discussions about war and its purpose with the reality of what the soldiers endured on a daily basis.

What I disliked: At first, the time shifts were jarring, but after a few chapters, I understood the structure of the novel and was immersed in the story. This definitely is a novel where readers just have to go with the flow and hang on for the ride without knowing what to expect.

Final thoughts: While I didn’t love Going After Cacciato as much as The Things They Carried, I am able to appreciate it as a brilliant war novel. O’Brien explores the blurred boundaries between true and fictional war stories in The Things They Carried, and in Going After Cacciato, he focuses on the line between reality and fantasy. Reading about what these soldiers endured makes it easy to believe that they would want to simply walk away from it all. Going After Cacciato focuses on the evolution of a soldier, the lessons he learns over time, the fear he fights to control, and the coping mechanisms that become necessary to simply survive another day.

war challenge with a twist

Book 30 for the War Challenge With a Twist (Vietnam)

historical fiction challenge

Book 28 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: Going After Cacciato is from my personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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lizzy bennet's diary

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Dearest Diary,

Is he not the rudest and most insufferable of men?  My defence shall be to laugh at him, but the truth is the bee has stung my pride.

(from Lizzy Bennet’s Diary)

Quick summary:  Lizzy Bennet’s Diary is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for younger readers through the diary of Elizabeth Bennet.  Lizzy’s diary follows  the original novel, albeit in simplified form — complete with illustrations, letters glued onto the pages that readers can open up and enjoy, and various mementos she collects along the way.

Why I wanted to read it: I loved Marcia Williams’ war-related, scrapbook-like diaries, Archie’s War: My Scrapbook of the First World War 1914-1918 and My Secret Diary, by Flossie Albright: My History of the Second World War 1939-1945, so when I saw that she had transformed Pride and Prejudice into a diary, I couldn’t resist.

What I liked: I loved the adorable drawings, and I loved opening up the letters.  Although other authors have retold Pride and Prejudice in diary form, Lizzy Bennet’s Diary actually looks and feels like a real diary.  I am always delighted by Williams’ creativity and how she makes me want to drop everything and start scavenging for little tokens to glue into a scrapbook or journal.

What I disliked: Lizzy seems almost childlike in these diary entries, going on about clothes, etc.  I missed the intelligent, witty, and stubborn woman portrayed by Austen.  There were times I wondered if this actually was Lydia Bennet’s diary.

Final thoughts: Although I felt that the portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet was a bit off, I appreciate that Williams retold Austen’s novel in a creative way without changing the plot.  Lizzy Bennet’s Diary is a cute way to introduce young readers to the world of Jane Austen, with illustrations that are eye-catching and adorable.

Disclosure: I borrowed Lizzy Bennet’s Diary from the public library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the beautiful american

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

The larger question: do they matter, simple facts?  America was in love with celebrities, the photographers and flappers with their short bobs and sexual daring.  The world was already in love with Lee and all she represented: the new woman, brave and bold, matching men in sexual freedom, and carrying secrets.  They were like their own photographs, full of dark and light, heavy with shadows.

(from The Beautiful American, page 43)

Quick summary: Jeanne Mackin’s The Beautiful American is the story of Nora Tours, an American living in southern France after World War II who journeys to London to find her missing teenage daughter.  Distraught and unsuccessful in her efforts to locate Dahlia, she bumps into an old friend from her days in the expat community in 1920s Paris.  Back in the day, Lee Miller, the famous model and war correspondent, had introduced Nora and her boyfriend, Jamie, a budding photographer, to influential artists, including her lover, Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso.  While spending a weekend with Lee and her husband, Nora recounts her childhood in Poughkeepsie, her early days in Paris and the events that sent her fleeing, how she and her daughter survived the war in Vichy France, and the secret about a tragic event in Lee’s childhood that she has been keeping since she was a young girl.

Why I wanted to read it: I must admit I was drawn to the cover right away, and I can’t resist novels set in England or France that touch upon World War II in some way.

What I liked: Mackin’s writing is simply beautiful, and there’s a haunting quality to the prose as Nora recounts her friendship with Lee and the life she made for herself and Dahlia after Paris.  I had never heard of Lee Miller before reading this book, and I was fascinated by her life, especially her work as a war correspondent who photographed battles and the concentration camps.  Both Lee and Nora were unconventional, but they were also opposites, especially when it came to their views of love and sex.  I was intrigued by both characters, finding things to like and dislike in both of them, but that’s what made them interesting.  Mackin also brings 1920s Paris and post-war Grasse and London to life, and I easily lost myself in the story.

What I disliked: I wish Mackin had told the story through both Nora’s and Lee’s points of view, mainly because I wanted more about Lee’s experiences during the war.  I definitely want to read more about her in the future.

Final thoughts: The Beautiful American is a story about loss and betrayal at a time of much social upheaval.  Mackin puts two strong women at the forefront of this novel, both of whom carry secrets and weaknesses.  Nora’s evolution over the course of the book was fascinating, yet not quite as fascinating as Mackin’s portrayal of Lee Miller.  It’s a novel about relationships that withstand the worst betrayals, the regret that can plague someone who doesn’t fight for what they want, and how motherhood and war put things into perspective.

For more information about the book and the author and to follow the tour, click the banner below.

beautiful american tour

war challenge with a twist

Book 29 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 27 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Beautiful American from NAL for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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past encounters

Source: Review copy from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: ★★★★★

In his previous life they might never have been his friends.  But here — well, they were who he had got to know.  And he needed friends, he realised.  It was difficult to live together and be civil in these conditions.  Here he was, hungry and cold and afraid, and still he was trying to play draughts.  How bloody stupid.

But perhaps this was what civilisation was.  To move pieces round on a board instead of shooting each other.

(from Past Encounters, pages 112-113)

Quick summary: Set in England in 1955, Past Encounters is a novel about a marriage plagued by secrets.  Rhoda Middleton and her husband, Peter, have grown apart emotionally and physically, and when she finds a letter from another woman, she assumes he’s having an affair.  But the truth might even be more disturbing: Helen is the wife of Peter’s best friend, Archie Foster, and while they know about her, Rhoda has never heard Peter mention them once in their 10 years of marriage.  Trying to find out why Peter kept this part of himself a secret from her forces Rhoda to face the secret she has been keeping since 1945, when the film Brief Encounter was being filmed at the Carnforth train station where she worked and volunteered during World War II.  Davina Blake tells the story from Rhoda and Peter’s points of view during the war and in 1955, detailing Peter’s horrific ordeal as a prisoner of war and on The Great March through snow-covered Germany and Rhoda’s life on the home front.

Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read a novel about POWs or the Great March, and I must admit I was drawn to the haunting cover.

What I liked: Blake obviously did her research about conditions in the POW camps run by the Germans and the forced marches of prisoners at the end of the war.  I thought the parts of the book told from Peter’s point of view were very well done, and the details Blake provided really made the harsh landscape, the harsh treatment from the guards, and the tensions among the prisoners come to life.  Dividing the narrative between the two time periods also made it possible for me to really get to know the characters, what they endured during the war, and how the secrets they kept from one another took a toll on their marriage.  It was interesting to see how vastly different their wartime experiences were, with Peter experiencing the very worst of humanity but hanging onto his relationship with Rhoda, and Rhoda living a much easier life but finding it hard to manage the tensions within her family, the obvious dislike Peter’s parents had for her, and her confusion over her relationship with Peter, as they hadn’t been seeing each other very long when he went off to war.  Also, the inclusion of Helen and her interactions with both Rhoda and Peter added another layer to the story.

What I disliked: Parts of the novel were long and probably could have been trimmed without affecting the plot, but I really liked Blake’s writing, so the length didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel overall.

Final thoughts: Past Encounters is a beautifully written novel about how the past makes you who you are, how it can haunt you, and how finding peace requires that old ghosts be confronted.  Blake delves deep into her characters so readers can understand the depths of their pain, and her portrayal of Rhoda and Peter’s troubled marriage felt so realistic, given the different paths they took during the war.  It’s a novel not just about secrets but also the effects of war, the many different experiences of war, and how the ways we deal with grief and guilt define us and our relationships.

For more information about the book and to follow the blog tour, click the banner below.

past encounters blog tour

war challenge with a twist

Book 28 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 26 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Past Encounters from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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botticelli's bastard

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

“You can hang me on the wall,” the Count said, “and see what others have to say about me.”

As always, the Count’s expression was frozen in time, forever unchanging.  Even so, Giovanni could imagine the Count’s beaming smile, overly satisfied with himself.

(from Botticelli’s Bastard, page 47)

Quick summary: In Botticelli’s Bastard, Giovanni Fabrizzi, an art restorer carrying on the family business in London, finds an unsigned portrait that appears to be from the Renaissance period in a collection of paintings left to him by his father.  Giovanni is in a rough spot in his life; still grieving the death of his first wife, he is cold and distant to his new wife, Arabella, who is 30 years his junior, and he is frustrated with having to move his studio to a newer, more secure building in a different area of London.  So it’s not surprising that he thinks he might be going crazy when the portrait of Count Marco Lorenzo Pietro de Medici begins talking to him.  But when the Count tells him that his portrait was painted by Botticelli and later stolen by the Nazis during World War II, Giovanni has a mystery on his hands — one that takes a toll on his relationship with his wife and his son, dredges up long buried secrets, and forces him to examine his conscience and do what is right.

Why I wanted to read it: I was curious about the mystery behind the painting and its World War II story.

What I liked: I’m not generally a fan of magical realism, and I had no idea the book involved a talking painting.  At first I was a bit apprehensive, but the relationship and conversations between Giovanni and the Count were my favorite parts of the book.  It was an interesting way to detail the history of the portrait, and the Count’s arrogance, wisdom, and loneliness made him an especially intriguing character.  The book is fast-paced, gives readers a working knowledge of the world of art history and art restoration, and takes them on an adventure with Giovanni as he attempts to discover what happened to the painting during the Nazi occupation of Paris, how it ended up in his family, and who it really belongs to now.

What I disliked: I was a little surprised there was no author’s note at the end detailing his research and separating fact from fiction.  I was especially curious about the book cover image, as it’s meant to be the portrait of the Count.

Final thoughts: Stephen Maitland-Lewis does a great job bringing art to life in Botticelli’s Bastard and blending magical realism with historical and mystery fiction.  Although the novel isn’t overly suspenseful and I wasn’t surprised by how the plot wrapped up, Botticelli’s Bastard was an enjoyable book.  While the horrors of the Holocaust overshadow the story, Maitland-Lewis keeps things from getting too heavy, with the Count providing moments of humor throughout the book.  I settled down with Botticelli’s Bastard and a cup of coffee and spent a delightful afternoon with Giovanni on his journey from present-day London to as far back as the Renaissance era to his family’s experiences during World War II, ending with a momentous decision that has huge ramifications for the art world and his own understanding of what is right and just.

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

war challenge with a twist

Book 27 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 25 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Botticelli’s Bastard from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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going after cacciatoFor the December readalong for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist at War Through the Generations, Serena and I are turning our attention to Vietnam.  Tim O’Brien always comes to mind when I think about books about the Vietnam War, and I can’t wait to finally read the copy of Going After Cacciato that has been sitting on my shelf for too long.

“To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.”

So wrote the New York Times of Tim O’Brien’s now classic novel of Vietnam.  Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, Going After Cacciato captures the peculiar mixture of horror and hallucination that marked this strangest of wars.  In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris.  In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel.  Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.  (publisher’s summary)

Here’s the schedule for the discussions, which will be held on War Through the Generations:

Friday, Dec. 12: Chapters 1-24

Friday, Dec. 19: Chapters 24-the end

We hope you will read along with us, and even if you’ve already read the book, please feel free to join the discussion!

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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