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Source: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★★

Once you knew–really knew–of the women and children being shot in the woods, of the shower rooms constructed for the sole purpose of killing, how could you not act? But now, here was the obvious reason she had repressed: the cost. If the plan failed, all that she cherished would be lost.

(from The Women in the Castle)

After her husband and best friend are executed for their roles in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, Marianne von Lingenfels acts on her promise to protect the wives and children of their fellow resisters. In 1945, Germany is in shambles, and the Nazi atrocities are being brought to light, forcing ordinary Germans to acknowledge their nation’s defeat and guilt. Amid the ruins, Marianne is able to find her best friend Connie’s family — his wife, Benita, a victim of the Red Army’s occupation of Berlin, and six-year-old son, Martin, who was sent to a Nazi re-education home after the failed plot. She eventually finds Ania and her two sons at a displaced persons camp, and along with her own children, Marianne establishes a new family with these women in the crumbing Bavarian castle that belonged to her aristocratic husband’s family.

Marianne is the leader, focused on honoring the memory of her husband and his co-conspirators and ensuring that the women and children understand exactly what their husbands and fathers died for. Benita, naive peasant girl, was sheltered from her husband’s work in the resistance, which makes her more determined to break free from the past and try to find happiness in the years after the war — a desire that puts her at odds with Marianne’s need to record the history of the German resistance. Ania is quiet and capable, becoming the caretaker of the women in terms of food and necessities, but her secrets eventually catch up to her.

The Women in the Castle is among the best World War II novels I’ve read and definitely will have a place on my Best of 2017 list. Jessica Shattuck uses these women, with their different upbringings and experiences before, during, and immediately after the war, to explore what it means to resist, how to rebuild their country and their lives amid a sense of hopelessness and guilt, and how to balance the need to remember the past and be held accountable for their actions with the need to live again. Shattuck paints a complex portrait of women with admirable strengths and deplorable weaknesses.

The novel moves back and forth in time, adding layer upon layer to each of the women’s stories, unraveling their secrets and surprising readers along the way. I grew attached to these women and found at least some small way to connect to them, which made it easier to understand their reasoning for — but not condone — the choices they made in a tumultuous period in history.

The Women in the Castle is a novel that makes you really stop and think. How does one live with the choices they made during wartime, whether to follow orders and commit atrocities, resist, or ignore the evidence of their nation’s crimes? Is it possible, should it even be possible, to move forward without the weight of these crimes, or their failure to do what was right, hanging over them? When is it okay to say it’s time to stop living in the past and move on?

Shattuck follows these women over decades as they forge new bonds and new lives, are forced to acknowledge their actions and inaction, and realize the war follows them in everything they do. It’s a fascinating study of human nature and the will to survive, both the war and its repercussions. If you plan to read at least one World War II novel this year, I highly recommend The Women in the Castle.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Women in the Castle. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Women in the Castle from William Morrow for review.

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

Everything was black in the moonless night, the blackout rules forcing all the light out of the world. But with a cautious smile, I realized that there are no laws against singing, and I found my voice becoming louder, in defiance of this war.

In defiance of my right to be heard.

(from The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir)

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an impressive World War II homefront novel set in 1940 in the village of Chilbury in Kent, England. Jennifer Ryan tells the story in journal entries and letters from the points of view of Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a woman left alone with her thoughts after her only son goes off to war; Miss Edwina Paltry, the village midwife who takes on shady jobs for the right price as a means of atoning for her past mistakes; Kitty Winthrop, the 13-year-old daughter of the menacing Brigadier who longs to be a singer and is waiting for the dashing RAF pilot Henry to marry her someday; Venetia Winthrop, Kitty’s older sister who uses her beauty to her advantage and sets her sights on a mysterious artist; and Sylvie, a 10-year-old Jewish refugee living with the Winthrops who holds tightly to a secret.

The novel opens with a funeral and a note from the vicar indicating that the village choir will be disbanded now that all the male members have gone to war. However, under the guidance of the new choirmistress, Prim, the women of the village form the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, using their voices to both lift up and comfort each other and their fellow villagers during the chaos of war. The women of the choir forge new friendships, uncover secrets, fall in and out of love, and find strength in themselves and each other as the war begins to take its toll.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, but I was immediately intrigued by these women and the life of the village. Some of the women were resistant to the changes brought about by the war, while others viewed the absence of the men as an opportunity to take charge, see the needs that must be fulfilled, and move forward. Where the novel shines is in Ryan’s ability to give each of the women a distinct voice and show their evolution within their diaries and letters. Although some of the plot lines may have been a bit overly dramatic or far-fetched, Ryan made them work, and I was swept up in the gossip and the rivalries of the inhabitants of Chilbury.

I really enjoyed The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, especially for Ryan’s skill in painting a portrait of a society in flux. Even when the bombs begin to fall and the losses begin to pile up, the narrative never gets too heavy and is never devoid of hope. I couldn’t help but love these women and root for them despite their flaws and misguided actions. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a quick and pleasant read, and I found myself wishing there was another installment that showed how these women fared in the latter years of the war.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir from Crown for review.

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Source: Review copy from MIRA
Rating: ★★★★★

I try to move forward again. My toes are numb now, legs leaden. Each step into the sharp wind grows harder. The snow turns to icy sleet, forming a layer on us. The world around us has turned strangely gray at the edges. The child’s eyes are closed, and he is resigned to the fate that has always been his.

(from The Orphan’s Tale)

I’ve long been a fan of Pam Jenoff’s World War II fiction, and her latest novel, The Orphan’s Tale, is among her best. The story is told alternately through the eyes of Noa, a 16-year-old Dutch girl whose relationship with a Nazi soldier leaves her pregnant and alone, and Astrid, an aerialist whose search for her family leads her to Herr Neuhoff, whose circus competed with her family’s and who takes her in when she is forced to flee Berlin. Their paths converge when Noa, stumbling upon a boxcar crammed with Jewish infants, takes a boy who reminds her of her lost child and runs off into a winter storm, where she is found by Peter, a circus clown and Astrid’s lover.

To protect the child, Noa is given the opportunity to train with Astrid on the flying trapeze. She has only a matter of weeks to perfect the act and soon finds herself acclimated to the circus lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Astrid, who has trained since she was a child and views the young girl as a rival. The women each have secrets, but they manage to bond over them and their love for Theo. But as the war comes to a head and the days of the traveling circus seem to be numbered, their futures become increasingly uncertain and their loyalty to one another is put to the ultimate test.

The Orphan’s Tale is the kind of novel that is both impossible and necessary to put down. It’s not often that I cry at the beginning of a book, but the opening scene with the boxcar of infants broke my heart, even more so when I realized it was based in fact. There were so many times that the book took a toll on my emotions. I wanted to keep reading because I needed to know what happened next, but I had to take a moment here and there to process what had occurred. I was unaware of the stories of hidden Jews in the traveling circus, so that aspect of the novel was fascinating, as were the descriptions of the circus acts and lifestyle. I especially loved how Jenoff used the first person point of view and alternated the chapters between Noa and Astrid, allowing me to understand and bond with both characters.

When Noa and Astrid were flying through the air, it was almost possible to forget that the war was going on around them, but Jenoff does a great job ensuring that readers feel the undercurrent of danger at every turn, from the surprise inspections of the circus by the SS to repeated warnings not to perform politically charged routines. Although the war is at the center of the novel, so are the themes of love, friendship, and sacrifice. The book hit me hard at a few poignant spots, and all the ugly crying I did emphasizes Jenoff’s ability to tell a powerful story. The Orphan’s Tale a strong contender for my Best of 2017 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Orphan’s Tale. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Orphan’s Tale from MIRA for review.

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the girl from the paradise ballroom

Source: Review copy from Broadway Books
Rating: ★★★★☆

For an instant, as he opened his throat, he feared the sound would be lost in the clatter of the ballroom. Then his own voice soared, swelling through the air like a sirocco. Slowly the faces turned toward him: not only the Italians but the stewards, the British soldiers, the refugees, the Nazis. Little by little the Hitler Youth anthem died away. Antonio was filled with hope, a sense of rightness. This is what I am for, he thought. This is what I was born to do.

(from The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom)

Quick summary: In The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom, a chance meeting between a struggling British dancer, Olivia, and an Italian singer, Antonio, changes their lives forever. When they meet again, Antonio has agreed to take singing lessons from an Austrian refugee, and he learns that his wealthy patron is Olivia’s new husband. They must navigate their attraction to one another as Olivia sees cracks in her marriage and Antonio deals with trouble at home, as his wife begins to mirror his brother’s strong support for Mussolini and the Fascist Party. Set in England before and after World War II, Alison Love paints a portrait of the immigrant experience as fear and chaos erupt during wartime.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m a sucker for a World War II novel with a striking cover!

What I liked: Before The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom, I had never read about the experiences of the Italian community in Britain and how many were swept up in the rise of fascism as an expression of pride in their nationality. Antonio works hard to support his family, helping at his father’s cigarette kiosk during the day and singing in clubs at night. He resists his brother’s push to join the Fascist Party, and he sees the way the refugees fleeing the Nazis are treated and is not surprised that after Mussolini joins the war, the British government begins arresting foreigners in droves. Love does a great job showing how the tensions related to the war built up and then exploded into riots and how this fear lead to the mistreatment of refugees and immigrants. I also liked her portrayal of the strong female characters, especially Filomena, Antonio’s sister, who falls in love with an Englishman despite her family’s plan for an arranged marriage. When everything seems to be going wrong for Filomena, she summons her strength and courage and moves forward.

What I disliked: I had a hard time buying into Antonio and Olivia’s relationship. I just didn’t feel the chemistry between them. There was so much going on in this novel that the historical aspects overshadowed the love story, and that was okay with me because I thought that part of the book was more interesting.

Final thoughts: The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom brings to life the Italian experience in England during World War II. Although I didn’t feel the passion between Antonio and Olivia, I thought they were interesting characters, and I enjoyed reading their stories. Even with their love story taking a back seat for me, there was more than enough depth to this novel to keep me entertained and invested in the characters.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom.

Disclosure: I received The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom from Broadway Books for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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moonlight over paris

Source: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★☆

She would go somewhere…she wasn’t sure where, but it would be somewhere else, somewhere new where no one cared about her disappointments and failures. And she would…she wasn’t sure what she would do, not yet.

But she was certain of one thing. If she survived, she would live.

(from Moonlight Over Paris)

Quick summary: Moonlight Over Paris is the third installment in a series of sorts that takes readers from World War I Europe and beyond, but it is a standalone novel. This time, Jennifer Robson tells the story of Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr, who has been shunned by society in the years since her broken engagement to Lord Cumberland. After nearly dying from scarlet fever, Helena decides that she wants to really live. Nearing 30 and giving up on ever having a husband and family, Helena convinces her parents that a year living in Paris with her aunt Agnes and going to art school is just what she needs. It is 1924, and the bohemian lifestyle and the salons of Paris suit Helena, who is just Ellie Parr to her friends. Things become more complicated when she meets American journalist Sam Howard, who sees her as more than just a wealthy Englishwoman from an aristocratic family. Helena’s life changes just as chaotically as the post-war society, and she is forced to consider who she is and what she wants if she is to be a modern woman.

Why I wanted to read it: I loved Robson’s previous novels, Somewhere in France and After the War Is Over. Both made my “best of” lists in the years they were published!

What I liked: Robson is a fantastic writer with the ability to place readers in whatever historical period she writes about. In Moonlight Over Paris, she makes the Lost Generation come to life, and readers get to meet the Hemingways, Sylvia Beach, and Gertrude Stein, among others. Most of all, I love how Robson focuses on the changes to society in the World War I and post-war era, particularly in regards to women. One of the most memorable parts of the novel is the conversation between Helena and her aunt, in which her aunt tells her that she has a choice as a modern woman; she can stay friends with a man or become his lover, but the most important thing is that she chooses happiness. I really liked Helena in that she just wanted to be normal, not a “Lady,” and while part of that was about escaping the gossip back in London, she wasn’t above cleaning out a dirty space to make an art studio.

What I disliked: While I enjoyed following Helena as she forged a new life, there were a few spots in the novel where I wondered when the pace was going to pick up.

Final thoughts: Moonlight Over Paris is a beautifully written novel about art, love, and learning how to truly live for oneself. Robson has created an intriguing character in Helena, a woman who lived by society’s rules for too long, and her spirit nearly paid the price. I’m looking forward to seeing what Robson writes next!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for Moonlight Over Paris. To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received Moonlight Over Paris from William Morrow for review.

© 2016 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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after the war is over

Source: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★★

Charlotte’s thoughts were never far from Edward. The brother and friend they loved, the man who had been returned to them, but whose soul, she feared, still walked among the dead, the millions of dead, who haunted the battlefields and charnel houses of Flanders and France.

(from After the War Is Over)

Quick summary: After the War Is Over is the sequel to Somewhere in France, which focused on Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford (Lilly), who turned her back on her family’s wealth and status to become an ambulance driver in France during the Great War. Jennifer Robson’s latest novel tells the story of Lilly’s close friend and former governess, Charlotte Brown, an Oxford educated woman who works in the constituency office of Eleanor Rathbone in Liverpool. Charlotte’s story focuses on her desire to speak for the families left hungry and homeless after the war due to their inability to find work and her need to overcome her feelings for Lilly’s brother, Edward, who has just assumed his role as Earl of Cumberland following his father’s death. The novel takes readers back in time to the beginning of her relationship with Edward and her work during the war as a nurse at a hospital for officers with shell shock. Charlotte is the only one who can help Edward, who is still suffering the effects of the war, and she must do so knowing that class differences will forever keep them apart.

Why I wanted to read it: Somewhere in France made the list of best books I read in 2014, so I just had to continue the story. There will be a third book as well, according to the author interview at the back of the book, and I can’t wait!

What I liked: I absolutely adore Robson’s writing, which is infused with so much emotion and detail without being flowery, so readers really get a sense of what England was like in the year after the armistice. World War I ushered in so many changes in terms of gender and social class, and Charlotte embodies these. She works hard to put her education to use in a meaningful job, but that same education makes some of the people who come to her office wary of accepting her help. At the same time, she is merely a vicar’s daughter from Somerset and not high enough up the social ladder to be a suitable wife for the man she loves. Robson perfectly captures the discontent among the working class and the lingering effects of the war. I also was glad to catch up with Lilly and Robbie, the main characters of the first book, and was delighted to encounter some references to Jane Austen within these pages.

What I disliked: Nothing! I loved this book from start to finish, and I nearly read the whole thing in one sitting.

Final thoughts: After the War Is Over is a powerful novel about a country recovering from a devastating war, as seen through the eyes of a woman ahead of her time. It’s more than just a romance novel and more than just a novel about war. Robson emphasizes the struggles faced by women as they sought more for themselves than just a husband and family, but most of all, she writes about the hope people like Charlotte possessed amid so much loss and grief and change. Like Charlotte says to Edward, “There’s no use feeling sorry for yourself or fretting about the past. You need to make the most of the life that has been given to you.” This may be only the third book I’ve read so far this year, but it’s definitely a contender for my Best of 2015 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for After the War Is Over. To learn more about the book and follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received After the War Is Over from William Morrow 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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