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Posts Tagged ‘tlc book tours’

for such a time

Source: Review copy from Bethany House
Rating: ★★★★★

Home . . . Leaving behind the lofty slopes to descend the mountains into Czechoslovakia, Stella looked out at the patchwork swells of white amidst evergreens that swept past the car.  She was reminded of the quilt she’d made, a surprise birthday gift for her uncle.  That was before the Nazis destroyed it along with the rest of their possessions — before they took Morty away.

Lord, why don’t you hear me?  Why have you taken away my joy?

Anger battled her exhaustion with the drowsing lull of the car’s motion.  Home was a place that, even if she lived, would never be the same.

(from For Such a Time, page 27)

Kate Breslin’s debut novel, For Such a Time, is a retelling of the biblical story of Esther set in Czechoslovakia during World War II.  It is the story of 23-year-old Hadassah Benjamin, whose blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to pass as an Aryan, Stella Muller, until an encounter with the Gestapo lands her in Dachau.  Rather than be shot by the firing squad, she is whisked away to Theresienstadt by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt to serve as his secretary.

From the very beginning, Stella and Aric’s relationship is complex.  He is a Nazi, but new to the SS, having served as a Wehrmacht officer until an injury ended his career on the front lines.  He is drawn to Stella and vows to protect her, but his conscience and sense of duty are in constant battle — especially when Stella urges him to help the weak, starving, bedraggled prisoners in the ghetto.  Aric isn’t aware of Stella’s true identity, but she sees the compassion he has for his houseboy, Joseph, an orphan from the ghetto whom Stella treats like a son.  He also goes out of his way to protect her from the lecherous, scheming Captain Hermann.

Their relationship seems doomed from the start, especially when Stella learns that the “paradise ghetto” is a transit camp and that the prisoners await further horrors at Auschwitz, and Aric is tasked with making the camp look like a resort to fool the Red Cross delegation that is soon to arrive.  With danger coming from all directions, Stella and Aric must keep faith in God and each other in order to survive.  But survival isn’t good enough for Stella unless her people can be saved, too.

I think novelists take a risk when they write about the Holocaust.  How do they convey the hopelessness, the horror, the evil, and the magnitude of the Holocaust and, at the same time, approach it from a new angle?  How do they rewrite a part of history and fictionalize the events without dishonoring those who lived it?  In For Such a Time, Breslin changes timelines and facts in order to mirror the events in the biblical story of Esther.  For the most part, I think she was successful.  Breslin does a wonderful job capturing the conflicting emotions and actions of the main characters, and her descriptions of the squalid conditions in the ghetto and the horrible way its inhabitants were treated are believable.  At times I thought Aric and Stella’s romance was a bit overdone, but Breslin enabled me to know and understand them enough that I could believe it.

However, I struggled with how to rate this novel based on the believability of the plot.  I appreciated the author’s note at the end where Breslin clearly separates the fact from the fiction, but in this case, it’s mostly fiction.  But I reminded myself that it is a novel, after all, and a page-turner at that.  Life has been so busy and stressful these last several months, and it’s been hard finding the time and energy to read.  For Such a Time was the first book in a long time that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to read, and for that alone it deserves 5 stars.  It was an enjoyable novel (or as enjoyable as a novel about the Holocaust can be), and it read like a thriller toward the end.  I just got lost in the story and followed the characters through times of despair, hope, bravery, sorrow, and joy.  Even if I couldn’t believe the outcome, I wanted to, and I applaud Breslin for taking a chance and telling a story about hardship and courage, love and faith, and a fight for freedom.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the For Such a Time tour.  To check out the rest of the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 10 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 11 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 4 for the European Reading Challenge (Czechoslovakia)

Disclosure: I received For Such a Time from Bethany House 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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last train to paris

Source: Review copy from Europa Editions
Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve experienced more than thirty killing frosts in my mountains.  And each time, I think of that night on the train.  It’s become a ritual for me.  I now understand that each year, a part of us dies.  Our leaves and flowers are absorbed into the earth.  But our roots are still here, dormant, waiting out the cold time.  Some of us blossom again.  Some do not.

(from Last Train to Paris, page 174)

Last Train to Paris is a beautifully written novel set mainly in Paris and Berlin in the years leading up to World War II.  Michele Zackheim’s haunting prose tells the story of Rose “R.B.” Manon, a journalist from Nevada who is on the front lines during Hitler’s rise to power and march toward war.  The novel is narrated by 87-year-old Rose as she goes through her notes from that tumultuous time when a trunk she never thought she’d see again arrives on her doorstep.

Zackheim originally set out to write a nonfiction book about a distant cousin who was kidnapped in Paris in 1937, and that storyline is worked into the novel, as Rose covers the case.  The plot isn’t told in a linear fashion, which makes sense when the narrator is an elderly woman thinking back on the moments that defined her and kept her searching for closure for years.  I never had trouble following the story and just sat back and enjoyed the ride as Rose’s past unfolded, from her troubled relationship with her selfish mother to her passionate love affair with a Jewish artist in Berlin forced to work for the Third Reich.

I was fascinated by Zackheim’s portrayal of Paris before and after the Occupation, contrasted with the atmosphere of doom in Berlin before and especially after Kristallnacht — especially as seen through Rose’s eyes.  Rose is half-Jewish, but her American citizenship and press credentials give her a certain level of protection that wasn’t granted to European Jews.  The fact that she is an American and doesn’t identify herself as Jewish, given that her mother’s family history was hidden from her for much of her childhood, Rose views the pre-war breakdown of society as an outsider and feels removed from the antisemitism she witnesses first-hand.

I loved Zackheim’s writing from the very first page.  Her descriptions are rich and vivid without being overly detailed, and she moved between the past and the present so seamlessly that I hardly noticed the transition.  Zackheim also keeps the story in the past for the most part, with the only present-day details being those about the person Rose became and her reflections on life as she nears its end.  The use of hindsight in the narrative packed a heavy punch, showing that the consequences of what happened at the train station in Berlin were just as painful to Rose five decades later.  Rose’s journalistic talents are on display in her observations of the people around her and especially herself, and there were several poignant passages that nearly had me in tears.

Last Train to Paris is a fascinating portrayal of a young woman who spends much of her life feeling small and invisible and finds herself within the enormity and loss of war.  Zackheim perfectly captures the chaos and helplessness as the Nazis take over every facet of society and shows the fragility of relationships forged during such a time.  I felt the excitement, hopelessness, fear, and grief right alongside Rose as she came to terms with the what-ifs and the might-have-beens that accompany such introspection.  It’s a thoughtful novel with undertones of guilt, regret, sadness, and anger that left me both hurting for Rose and satisfied with the ending.

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

war challenge with a twist

Book 1 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 1 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 1 for the European Reading Challenge (France)

Disclosure: I received Last Train to Paris from Europa Editions 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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sense & sensibility

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

Marianne could trust.  She trusted her instincts; she trusted those dear to her; she trusted her emotions and her passions.  She drank deep, you could see that; she squeezed every drop of living out of all the elements that mattered to her.  It made her careless sometimes, of course it did, but it was a wonderfully rich and rapt way to be.

And I, Elinor, said silently to herself, am not rich or rapt in the very slightest.

(from Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility)

Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility is the first book to be released as part of The Austen Project, in which well-known authors have been recruited to put a modern-day spin on the novels of Jane Austen.  I have mixed feelings about this project.  Austen-inspired novels are my guilty pleasure, and I love how Austen’s stories and characters are timeless.  However, I’m not too keen on the use of Austen’s original titles; those are hers and hers alone, and there’s no reason why these modern updates can’t have their own, original titles.  Still, I couldn’t wait to see what these authors would come up with, and so I eagerly delved into Trollope’s rendition of Sense and Sensibility.

Trollope closely follows the original plot: Henry Dashwood dies, and Norland Park is left to his son from a previous marriage.  John Dashwood’s insufferable wife, Fanny, convinces him that his “stepmother,” Belle (who wasn’t officially married to his father in this version), and his half-sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret must move out and that they will be fine on what little money his father left them.  The women take up residence in a faraway cottage belonging to a distant cousin, dependent on the kindness of Sir John Middleton and his gossipy mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings.  Elinor, the sensible Dashwood girl, is the only one to recognize that they need an income, and despite her desire to finish architectural school, she finds a job, while her flighty artist mother and melodramatic musician sister, Marianne, spend much of their time whining about their circumstances and pining for home.

Of course, there are romantic entanglements; Elinor has bonded with Fanny’s brother, Ed Ferrars, who is overwhelmed by family obligations to marry well and choose a respectable career, while Marianne falls hopelessly and desperately in love with John “Wills” Willoughby, who sweeps her off her feet (literally and figuratively), and dismisses the kindhearted, generous Colonel Bill Brandon because she finds him old and boring.  When their relationships fall apart, it becomes clear that one has too much sense and the other too much sensibility, and what they both need is a happy medium.

Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility is a quick read, but I missed Austen’s rich characterizations, which perfectly balance the seriousness of characters like Elinor and Colonel Brandon with the exuberance of Sir John (“Jonno” here) and the ridiculousness of Mrs. Jennings and her daughter, Charlotte Palmer, to name a few.  Trollope’s characters are all a little too much, to the point where they become more annoying than humorous.  The stiff dialogue and long-winded sentences, especially at the beginning, made it hard for me to connect with the characters at first, though Trollope does a good job showing how trying it can be to put up with crazy relatives.

There were a few touches that I enjoyed, particularly Bill Brandon’s use of Delaford as a rehabilitation home for drug addicts, but I wish the book felt more modern.  There were plenty of mentions of fast cars, iPods, texting, and even humiliating YouTube videos, but they didn’t always work when placed alongside more outdated beliefs.  Lucy Steele was still hunting for a man with money, Belle and Marianne had no problem mooching off Jonno and Mrs. J instead of finding jobs, and even Elinor’s argument that happiness shouldn’t depend on a man doesn’t hold up when she spends the entire novel pining for Ed.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I didn’t enjoy Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility because I did.  Her portrayal of Margaret as a sullen 13-year-old who lost her father and was torn away from her friends when the family relocated was spot on, and Colonel Brandon was a more attractive hero in this version — so much so that I actually was rooting for him and Elinor to fall in love at one point.  His relationship with Marianne was much more realistic in Trollope’s version, as I’ve always wondered about how quickly Marianne attaches herself to him in the original novel.  Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility was fast-paced and fun overall, and I appreciate that Trollope strove to stay true to Austen.  I just wonder if Sense and Sensibility might simply be more difficult to adapt to the present day, though I haven’t read any other modern-day re-tellings for comparison.  (If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility tour. To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received Sense & Sensibility from Harper for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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letters from skye

Source: Review copy from Ballantine Books
Rating: ★★★★★

You can’t believe anything said in wartime.  Emotions are as fleeting as a quiet night.

(from Letters From Skye)

Letters From Skye is a sweet love story set during both the First and Second World Wars and told entirely through letters.  The book centers on the correspondence between Elspeth Dunn, a poet who has never ventured beyond her home on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, and David Graham, a college student from Illinois.  A fan letter from David sparks a friendship that blossoms into love, but there are roadblocks to their happiness, including David’s decision to serve as an ambulance driver in France during World War I.

The novel alternates between Elspeth and David’s letters and those sent by Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, in 1940.  Her mother has always been tight-lipped about her past, but Margaret didn’t realize the extent of her secrets until Elspeth disappears following a bombing raid on their Edinburgh home and Margaret’s announcement that she is engaged to an RAF pilot.  Elspeth knows the dangers of giving your heart away during the chaos of war, and the memories of the first war come flooding back.  Margaret begins a correspondence with her long lost uncle, Finlay, in order to learn the truth about her mother.

Despite being overly sentimental at times, I couldn’t help but love this book.  I loved the characters, from the conflicted and passionate Elspeth and the fearless and sweet Davey to the curious and feisty Margaret.  Jessica Brockmole manages through letters to not only create believable characters, but she also paints a beautiful picture of the landscape of Skye and evokes the worry and desperation that become so commonplace during wartime.  I was invested in the story from the first letter, and Brockmole’s pacing was so good, I was on the edge of my seat even when I was pretty sure how it would all play out.

I usually prefer a little more history and depth in wartime romances, but Letters From Skye made up for it with relatable, endearing characters, family secrets, and of course, the lost art of letter writing.  Brockmole emphasizes the difficult choices made during wartime and shows how a simple letter can bind people together forever and turn someone’s world upside down in a single moment.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on Letters From Skye tour. To follow the tour, click here.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 25 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Letters From Skye from Ballantine Books for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the gods of heavently punishment

Source: Review copy from W.W. Norton & Company
Rating:★★★★★

What kind of a people, she wondered, does what was done that day and then has no concept of the enormity of their act?

(from The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, page 339)

On the surface, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a novel about the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 during World War II and a handful of people from different walks of life who are impacted by the war.  But it goes so much deeper than that.  Jennifer Cody Epstein introduces her characters before the war, when life was filled with promise, and lets readers follow them through the darkest days of the war and the period of change afterward.

The novel opens with Cam and Lacy on a ferris wheel at a fair in New York.  Cam is shy and quiet from years of being ridiculed by his father for his stutter, while Lacy is a take-charge kind of woman who sets their relationship in motion.  The hopes and dreams they have are put on hold when war breaks out, and Cam joins the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Epstein has readers sit in the cockpit with Cam as he takes part in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

Epstein also introduces readers to Anton, the architect behind many of Tokyo’s modern structures who is later called on by the U.S. military to help destroy them.  His son, Billy, is a sensitive soul who doesn’t fit in and feels at home only behind a camera.  Hana, a passionate, modern woman who eschews the old Japanese ways, feels abandoned by the men she has loved and is resigned to a loveless, arranged marriage.  Yoshi is torn between her love for her troubled mother and her need to escape the depression that permeates their home — and then the incendiary bombs rain down on Tokyo.

These characters were intriguing and their stories fascinating on their own, but when the pieces fell into place and the connections between them were made known, I was blown away.  Epstein does a wonderful job painting a picture of Tokyo before and after and makes you feel like you are standing beside Yoshi when the bombs drop, feeling the heat, tasting the smoke, getting lost in all the chaos and confusion.  She is a master storyteller, enabling readers to really get to know her characters as they flit in and out of their lives.

Epstein focuses on the contrasts that make war so complex: before vs. after, war vs. murder, orders vs. ethics, victors vs. victims, us vs. them.  With characters that straddle both sides, she explores the gray areas of war and identity.  Billy was born and raised in Japan but isn’t Japanese.  Yoshi speaks Japanese, English, and French, thanks to her mother, Hana, who was educated in England and feels more English than Japanese.  They desire love, acceptance, security, and to know their true selves — and the war makes their search for these essentials more desperate and necessary.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is beautifully written and skillfully constructed.  Epstein moves back and forth between the characters, telling seemingly separate stories, and while readers may not understand where she is taking them, they will be rewarded for their patience in the end.  It’s not an easy book to read given the subject matter, and Epstein doesn’t flinch in her descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by both sides.  No book about war can be wrapped up neatly or painlessly, but Epstein manages to infuse the ending with hope.  Tokyo is a symbol of these characters, who are brought down by their families and the war, and those who manage to survive will be reborn.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tour.  To follow the tour, click here.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 16 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Gods of Heavenly Punishment from W.W. Norton & Company for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the clover house

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

“Most of us don’t even have clear lives in the present.  How much more confused do our stories get when a few years go by?  Or when we hand the stories down?  Our mothers’ stories.  They’ve been told so many times it’s a wonder they can still hold together.”

(from The Clover House)

The Clover House by Henriette Lazaridis Power tells the story of Calliope Notaris Brown, who is 35-years-old, newly engaged, and estranged from her mother for the past five years when she learns that her Uncle Nestor has died and left all of his belongings to her.  For some reason, her mother, who returned to her native Greece after her husband’s death, doesn’t want Callie to make the trip to Patras to go through her uncle’s collections, photos, and documents.  Clio is harsh and distant, and Callie only remembers her mother’s inability to adapt to American life and how she lived in memories and fought with her father, neglecting her in the process.

Callie, curious as to what her mother is hiding, leaves Boston amid an argument with her fiancé, Jonah, who wants a level of emotional commitment that she just isn’t ready to give despite having agreed to be his wife.  She arrives in Patras during Carnival, a boisterous time of parades, seductive dances, and treasure hunts in the days leading up to Lent.  It’s a carefree time, but Callie has a lot on her mind, between weeding through her uncle’s things in search of whatever might explain her mother’s inability to mother her and fighting her attraction to a man she met on the bus from the airport on his way to celebrate Carnival with his girlfriend and friends.

As Callie digs through Nestor’s belongings, she must piece together random artifacts and bits of information dating back to the Italian and German occupation of Greece during World War II.  Her cousin, Aliki, believes the past should stay in the past, and her aunts, Sophia and Thalia, bicker about what Callie should know and what is best kept secret.  Callie isn’t sure how much of her mother’s past has affected their relationship over the years, and with Clio being so guarded, it remains uncertain whether they will ever come to an understanding.

The Clover House is set mainly in Patras in 2000 and told from Callie’s point of view.  I liked Callie, though I found it hard to relate to her.  Because she’s introduced long after her father’s death and years since she last saw her mother, readers never see the family interact, making it difficult to understand exactly why her childhood makes it hard for her to forge relationships.  I was riveted by the chapters set during the occupation of Greece, which reveal layer by layer Clio’s shame and guilt.  I would have loved more chapters about Clio and the Notaris family, delving deeper into why the events of the war made it impossible for Clio to have a relationship with her daughter.  I wasn’t exactly sure why the secret was so secret and so destructive given the other things the family had dealt with during the war.

Where the novel really shines is in the descriptions of Carnival, the customs and the costumes, the food and the parades, and especially the Bourbouli dances — where women wear masks and black robes that conceal their identities and possess all the power in choosing a partner.  Powers’ writing is beautiful, bringing Greece and its turbulent history to life.  Overall, I found The Clover House hard to put down, as I was captivated by the setting.  I wish there had been more chapters set in the past, more of a focus on Clio during her coming-of-age amidst the war, but I was intrigued by these characters and their troubles from the start and not at all disappointed when I turned the final page.  The Clover House shows how war brings about both shame and honor, how secrets meant to protect have the power to destroy, and how we shouldn’t let the past dictate our future.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on The Clover House tour. To follow the tour, click here.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 11 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Clover House from Ballantine Books for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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a future arrived

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

He thought suddenly of Abingdon Pryory, that summer evening after dinner…Lord Stanmore rising to give a toast.  Dear friends and gentle hearts.  The words ran through his head like a litany as the taxi crawled through the traffic toward the railway station.  Dear friendsgentle hearts…words so meaningless in this time — in this place.

(from A Future Arrived, page 193)

A Future Arrived, first published in 1985, is the last book in Phillip Rock’s trilogy about the Greville family of the English manor house Abingdon Pryor during World War I and World War II.  I loved the first two books, The Passing Bells and Circles of Time, and given my attachment to the characters, I couldn’t help but love this one as well.  A Future Arrived spans the years 1930 to 1940, focusing on Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of another world war.  Rock once again focuses on Martin Rilke, world famous journalist and nephew of Hanna Greville, the Countess of Stanmore, with other beloved characters from the first two books making appearances.

However, two decades have passed since WWI and the events of the first novel, and the children of the men and women who came of age then take their place in the spotlight.  Martin Rilke’s brother-in-law, Albert Thaxton, wants to be a journalist and follow in his footsteps, and the chaotic events prior to and including WWII offer plenty of opportunities.  The Wood-Lacy twins, Jennifer and Victoria, as different as night and day, and their younger sister, Kate, along with Alexandra Greville’s son, Colin, and Charles Greville’s former student, Derek Ramsey, like their parents before them, are forced to learn about life and love in the midst of war.

A Future Arrived was a difficult book to put down, but at the same time, I didn’t want to rush through it because I knew I was going to have a hard time letting these characters go.  Although I longed for more time with the characters I’d grown to love since the first book, I understood the need for the torch to be passed and to view the wartime struggles from the eyes of the characters at the forefront.  At the same time, Rock also shows how those who remember the Great War deal with the prospect of another, and he continues to shine a light on social class, sexuality, and the role of women, which changed so much in response to WWI.  The scope of this trilogy is so big, so ambitious, yet focusing on one family navigating the changes brought by two wars makes it manageable.

If I had one complaint about this book it would be that it seemed to cover too much time, too quickly.  There were two books to get to know the other characters, but this is the only book that really focuses on the children and grandchildren, so the shift from their pre-teen years to their twenties occurs pretty fast.  In fact, the first third or so of the book is set in 1930, with a single chapter to bring readers up to speed before Book 2, which begins in 1938.  Yet, I loved the characters and the book anyway.

The period between the world wars was a tumultuous time, and Rock brilliantly captures the chaos in A Future Arrived.  Of course, I couldn’t keep myself from crying as I ended this trilogy.  These are characters I will not forget and stories that will linger in my mind for a long time.  These are books that have made it on my list of favorites and my shelf of definite re-reads.  They exemplify what I love the most about historical fiction and why I find this period in history so fascinating.  This last installment was 450 pages, but it could easily have been longer and I wouldn’t have minded one bit.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on The Passing Bells trilogy tour. To follow the tour, click here.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 5 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Future Arrived from William Morrow for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the passing bells

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

The wind, tugging at the windows, rattling them in their frames, howled and shrieked under the eaves, reminding him of the demented sound of shells.  He pressed his face into the soft hollow between her breasts as she clasped him tightly, as if to shield him on this first day of the year from all the days to follow.

(from The Passing Bells, page 390)

The Passing Bells, first published in 1978, is the first in a trilogy by the late Phillip Rock that follows the Greville family from 1914 into the 1930s.  This first installment, which spans the years 1914 to 1920, is a pretty ambitious undertaking, following several people connected to one family as their lives are upended by the Great War.  But Rock enables readers to get to know and understand the inner workings of each of his characters over the course of 516 pages, and when I turned the last page, I was glad I didn’t have to say goodbye to them all just yet.

In the summer of 1914, the Grevilles are living a carefree life at Abingdon Priory, preparing for Alexandra’s debutante season in London.  Alexandra is excited about the teas and dances, the dresses, and the prospect of choosing a husband from her mother Hanna’s carefully compiled list of eligible bachelors.  Her father, Anthony, the Earl of Stanmore, lives for his horses and waits for the day when his heir, Charles, realizes he cannot marry Lydia Foxe, a childhood friend from an untitled family whose money comes from a string of tea shops.  Lydia has one eye on Charles and all he will inherit and the other eye on Fenton Wood-Lacy, the son of a knighted architect and a close friend of the Grevilles who must marry for money to maintain his upscale lifestyle as an officer in the Coldstream Guards.  The Grevilles’ lives are momentarily disrupted by the arrival of Martin Rilke, Hanna’s nephew from Chicago, a journalist with plans to tour Europe on his meager savings and work on his novel, and he’s fascinated by one of the Grevilles’ maids, Ivy Thaxton, who fumbles at her new job but appears destined for more than a life of service.

When World War I breaks out, there is this sense of excitement, and everyone expects the war to be over in a matter of months.  The Grevilles don’t realize the war marks the beginning of the end of their way of life.  Charles, Fenton, and Fenton’s brother, Roger, go off to war; Alexandra, in her stunning, tailored uniforms, joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment; Martin writes from the front lines; and Ivy and most of the other servants at Abingdon Priory leave to join the war effort. Lord Stanmore watches his estate fall into disrepair without the order and organization of his servants, which is symbolic of the weakening of the British social class structure brought about by the war.  The war empowered women, as evidenced by Lydia’s political scheming and Alexandra’s wartime romance, and it forever changed the idealistic soldiers who went into the trenches as exuberant boys and, if they were lucky to survive, emerged as old men who had seen too much of the dark side of human nature.

Rock accomplished so much in The Passing Bells.  The first 100 pages or so introduces all the characters and the ways in which they are connected, and I thought the novel was going to be heavy on the romance.  But when war breaks out, the book takes on a different tone, and the characters start moving in different directions.  Rock ultimately covers the war on many fronts.  He follows the male characters into the trenches and shows how hundreds of thousands of men died because of politics and bad decisions made by high-ranking officials who were out of touch with what was happening on the battlefield.  He shows how young journalists committed to telling the truth as it happened where thwarted at every turn.  But most of all, Rock shows how the war changed everyone, from women who went from caring only about clothes and dancing to caring for men who had their faces blown off and men who went from caring about social status and reputation to caring only about disseminating the truth.

The Passing Bells is truly an epic novel of the “war to end all wars” that shows how the war ushered in change on all levels.  Rock’s characters were so tenderly crafted and so wonderfully complex that I could understand them all even when I didn’t like them.  Their relationships and entanglements felt true to the chaos of the time, and the battle scenes had just the right amount of description to emphasize the horror and the confusion without going overboard on the violence or the military maneuvering.  I was worried about the novel being long and plodding, but I breezed through it and can’t wait to follow the characters through the next two books.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on The Passing Bells trilogy tour. To follow the tour, click here.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 1 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Passing Bells from William Morrow for review.

© 2013 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 Harper
Rating: ★★★★★

Though we may try to tilt the universe with prayers and spells, medicines, and every precaution, in the end the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust.  What can be done but to face this mystery squarely and go on?

(from The Mirrored World, page 86)

Having loved The Madonnas of Leningrad, I couldn’t wait to read Debra Dean’s latest novel, The Mirrored World, based on the story of St. Xenia, the Holy Fool of St. Petersburg, Russia.  Dean’s writing is beautiful and reminds me why I love to read historical fiction.

The Mirrored World is narrated by Daria, Xenia’s younger cousin, as an old woman looking back on her life.  The novel opens in 1736 during the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, and Xenia, her older sister Nadya, and their mother move in with Daria’s family after being displaced by a fire.  The three girls grow up together, and Daria and Xenia are as close as sisters.  The family is well-to-do, and the girls hobknob with royalty and are expected to marry well.

While Nadya honors the family with perfect poise and manners and submits to an arranged marriage to a much older man, Daria is plain and clumsy and not likely to make a match.  Rather than leave St. Petersburg to live with her parents, Xenia insists that Daria live with her and her husband, Andrei, a court singer with whom she fell passionately in love at first sight, the idea being that the couple will introduce Daria to some eligible young men.

Xenia has always been a little different, a dreamer of sorts, but she also has visions.  She predicted her sister’s marriage…and the tragedy that tears her world apart and causes her to withdraw from the world.  When Xenia is helpless in bed, Daria takes care of her.  When Xenia emerges from her room and begins giving away all of her possessions to the poor — including the clothes off her back — and leaves them nearly penniless, Daria does her best to pick up the pieces.

I absolutely loved The Mirrored World, and Dean’s writing drew me into 18th century St. Petersburg from the first page.  I’ve never read about the Russian royals, so I was intrigued by Empress Anna, especially the stories about the Ice Palace and the Metamorphoses Ball.  Dean made the court, with all its scandals, intrigues, and lively people, come to life.  I started reading this book on my morning commute, and before I knew it, I was more than halfway through — and really upset that I had to wait until my lunch break to pick it up again.

Although I grew to care about Daria and felt like I really got to know her, I wish the focus would have been more on Xenia.  She nearly disappears from the pages at the exact moment when her story becomes most interesting.  However, I understand why Dean made Daria the narrator, as readers see Xenia through the eyes of someone who both saw her flaws and truly loved her.  Also, I’m sure reading the story from Xenia’s point of view would have been very confusing and disjointed when she starts going mad.  I also thought the book ended too soon, and not simply because I wasn’t ready to let the characters go.

The Mirrored World is a book I’ve thought a lot about since finishing it.  While Xenia goes to extremes in terms of serving the poor, her story really gives you something to think about in terms of how tied we are to our possessions.  Xenia’s story lends some mystery to the novel, but it also touches upon the themes of family, duty, and especially love.  Both Daria and Xenia find deep, passionate love, which affects them both in different ways.  Serving God is central to a story about a saint, but the book isn’t about religion.  The Mirrored World shows how the path to sainthood is never easy, but it certainly is fascinating.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for The Mirrored World. To follow the tour, click here.

Book 32 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Mirrored World from Harper 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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