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As I walked slowly home in the wet darkness I tried desperately to warm the cold thing that coiled inside me.  I clutched the envelope that held the two hundred pounds.  I had wanted this prize more than anything else in the world, but I had not realized the price I would have to pay for it.  I was special now — set apart from family, friends, and neighbors by status and envy.  I realized that tonight I had not just won a title, a tiara, and money.  The real prize was my discovery of the raw power of beauty.

(from The Linen Queen, page 37 in the ARC)

Set in Northern Ireland during World War II, The Linen Queen is the story of Sheila McGee, a young woman helping to support her mentally unstable mother and desperately seeking a way out of her life.  Sheila has worked in the Queensbrook Mill as a spinner since she was 14, and when the novel opens in 1941, she is 18 and finally eligible to compete in the Linen Queen pageant.  Unfortunately, Sheila has a reputation for being a flirt, and much to the chagrin of the self-righteous Mrs. McAteer, sister of the mill’s owner, she wins the title of Linen Queen and the two hundred pounds in prize money that she believes is her ticket out of the village.

However, the war has come to Northern Ireland, and Sheila’s life is forever changed after the Belfast Blitz.  The aunt and uncle with whom Sheila and her mother live take in a young evacuee, Grainne, for the extra money.  Her best friend, Gavin, expresses feelings for her that she’s not ready to acknowledge, and his connections to the Irish Republican Army strain their relationship.  Moreover, American troops move into the area, and Sheila and her friends are caught up in all the excitement.  She goes out dancing, drinking, and flirting — behavior that could cost her the Linen Queen title and her job given that Mrs. McAteer and her daughter, Mary, always have their eyes on her.  Then Sheila meets Captain Joel Solomon, a Jewish-American army officer, forging a strong bond with him and at the same time thinking that he can whisk her away from her troubles.

In The Linen Queen, Patricia Falvey writes about tensions in Ireland between those who support the British and those who do not, the struggles of the poor mill workers, the Catholic Church and its harsh stance when it comes to women with less-than-favorable reputations, and life during World War II amid bombing raids and rationing.  But more than anything, Falvey writes about the transformative power of relationships, with Sheila’s troubled relationship with her mother, her compassion for Grainne, and her love for both Joel and Gavin helping her shed the selfishness that has defined her and allowing her to see her true value.

Sheila is not an easy character to like.  She’s self-centered and whines a lot about her troubles.  However, I could understand her actions, given that she feels abandoned by everyone she loves, from her father, who sails away and never returns, to her friends, who snub her when she wins the Linen Queen competition.  Falvey did a good job showing Sheila’s evolution from the beginning of the novel through D-Day, as she deals with love and loss.

I enjoyed Falvey’s writing style and found it difficult to put the book down, but I couldn’t help noticing the clichés, particularly with the Irish characters.  It seems that every book I’ve read that is set in Ireland has a host of characters who are poor, drunk, or Catholics on the moral high horse.  It didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book, but it made me wonder if there are other novels out there that show a different side of the Irish experience.

The Linen Queen has a little something for everyone.  It’s a love story and a war story, a story of heartache and loss, and a story of relationships and growth.  I enjoyed reading about Irish superstitions and ghosts, and Falvey beautifully describes life on the Irish coast.  I highly recommended it fans of historical fiction set in Ireland and those interested in life during wartime.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group, I am giving away a copy of The Linen Queen.  To enter, simply leave a comment with your e-mail address telling me what interests you about this book and/or your favorite book set in Ireland.  Because the publisher is shipping the book, this giveaway is open to U.S. and Canada addresses only, no P.O. boxes.  This giveaway ends Sunday, March 20, 2011, at 11:59 pm EST.

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

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Linen Queen from Hachette 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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