Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Review: Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade (July 1, 2014)
  • ISBN: 0425272028
  • Source: Publisher

The end of World War II was a pivotal time in our nation’s history.  Despite the struggle and loss brought on by the War, change was in the air, amid feelings of uncertainty intermingled with hope.  New York City’s Grand Central station was the starting point to so many: soldiers returning from war, wives and family members reuniting with their loved ones, individuals ready to embark upon a new beginning, a fresh start.  Bustling with thousands of people passing through it daily, it is also the site of so many emotions: love, loss, and heartbreak.

In Grand Central, a collection of short stories from some of the hottest author’s of women’s fiction (Alyson Richman, Jenna Blum, Sarah McCoy, Melanie Benjamin, Sarah Jio, Erika Robuck, Kristina McMorris, Amanda Hodgkinson, Pam Jenoff, Karen White), each entry focuses on one of these stories of reunion or, in some cases, separation.  Ten stories in total, all sharing the same space and time. The moment I heard of this collection, months ago, I knew it would be brilliant. I was not at all let down.

Each set of characters we are introduced to come from vastly different backgrounds. Women pilots, abused wives about to reunite with the husband that beat them, young women about to start a fresh new life…seemingly very different but all holding on to one thing in common: hope.

I’m not going to go through and break down each story; I feel readers should go in as blind as possible without any hint as to what is to come. Just know that it is simply brilliant, emotional, and breathtaking. I’m not a fan of touchy-feeling, emotional reads.  Yet Grand Central evoked these very feelings from me, leaving me feeling fulfilled, wanting to know more about each of these young women.

Yet what stands out to me most about this novel was actually unexpected and profound. One evening, my teen son asked what I was reading. I began to tell him; I barely got out more than World War II and Grand Central station. He asked to read part of the book…and he read it all. I was certain he was going to come back to me in a matter of moments, turned off by the female characters or their stories. The following day, I took it from him so I could peruse my notes and write my review. Inside, I found post it notes he’d left me, with comments like “This is so sad” and “I didn’t know about this!” or “I want to talk about this.” I was absolutely sold on this novel the first time I read it, but after reading his comments I reread it, wanting to relive the experience as he did. And we talked, for hours about women pilots, pioneers in that field,  of the Lebensborn Program in which young women were given the opportunity to have children in secret, children who would be whisked away and raised by the SS.  This collection of short stories granted me this opportunity with my son, one I will never forget.

I can continue to rave about this book for hours, honestly. Instead, I will close with my highest of recommendations. Truly, a must read for fans of all types: fans of historical fiction, descendants of those who fought in the War, for individuals looking for a truly dynamic collection of short stories.  This is one you will want to talk about, I guarantee. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Mulholland Books (July 1, 2014)
  • ISBN: 9780316254465
  • Source: Publisher

Hannah’s family has been hiding from a horrific monster that has haunted them for generations. The monster is a shape-shifter, able to take on the appearance of another in a matter of moments. Desperate to seek revenge for an act centuries ago, this monster, referred to as Jakab, haunts the women of Hannah’s family.  The string diaries (journals held together with pieces of string) are passed from one generation to the next, survival guides offering a small beacon of hope in this unending chase.

Beginning in Hungary at the turn of the century and spanning to Oxford of the 1970s and present-day, The String Diaries follows the path of the man who started it all, a wealthy young with the ability to assume the shape and life of anyone around him.  Thwarted in the ways of love, he now tracks down descendants of his first love, forcing her descendants to face his deadly wrath.

Yet when he begins to pursue Hannah and her family, he meets a more challenging match.  After he takes everyone near and dear to Hannah, she refuses to relinquish the last person left in her life: her young daughter, Leah. Hannah and Leah were both raised to be prepared for this inevitable battle.  What makes Hannah different than those before her is her refusal to let this nightmare continue. She will stop at nothing to put an end to this curse, sacrificing everything, including her own life, to guarantee her daughter’s future.

The String Diaries is a truly unique blend of a host of genres, including thriller to horror and the supernatural, all with a taste of historical fiction. I’m a fan of classic horror, and was particularly pleased with the ties to folklore. There’s nothing that frustrates me more than a novel with no backing and was therefore pleased to read of Jakab’s chilling story of origin.

While I had little to no connection to the characters from earlier generations, I did quickly bond with Hannah and her young daughter. They lost so much, yet they faced each day with a new determination to overcome this creature that has haunted their family for generations.  The pain they endure is incapacitating, yet they draw on that, along with their love for one another, in order to persevere.

Without giving anything away, the only thing I didn’t enjoy was the ending.  At times it felt far-fetched, others it felt too convenient.  All that said, the pros of this truly outstanding, yet simultaneously chilling, debut novel clearly outweighed the negatives. I can’t wait to hear more from this author; I’m thrilled to see a sequel is already in the works. Highly recommended.

Review: A Long Time Gone by Karen White

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Hardcover (June 3, 2014)
  • ISBN: 978-0451240460
  • Source: Publisher

Nine years ago, Vivian Walker left her home in Mississippi, swearing never to return, following the lead of so many Walker women before. When her life takes a turn for the worse and goes spiraling out of control, Vivian finds herself returning to the safety and comfort of her grandmother, Bootsie, admired for her ability to make everything right.  Upon her return, however, she discovered that Bootsie has passed away and her mother has started to fade away, Alzheimer‘s robbing her of her recent memories.

Vivian’s return immediately follows a violent storm that quite literally reveals family secrets buried beneath their home: the remains of a woman, long-dead, are found on the family’s property. It is soon made apparent to Vivian that, in order to rediscover herself and the woman she is meant to be, she must face a past of pain and loss that has devastated her family for generations.

I am a long-time fan of Karen White’s novels, and A Long Time Gone is no exception. Her trademark is to present deeply flawed characters seeking some sort of rediscovery, desperate for atonement and guidance for the battles life has dealt them. Her characters are dynamic and richly drawn, developing gradually and blossoming into completely new and rejuvenated individuals.

A Long Time Gone follows the Walker family, alternating between past and present, to showcase the lives of three generations of women and the battles they are forced to overcome.  Themes of maternal love and family run rich in this novel, surrounded by a setting rich with Southern charm. Additionally, she confronts issues like prohibition and racism in the context of Mississippi’s dark past.

While the page count may seem daunting, any fears of a long and overbearing novel vanish within the first few pages. Readers will be instantly captivated by the beautifully detailed southern setting and a compelling family whose history is rich with mystery and loss.

This is a book meant to be savored on the beach, or curled up in your favorite chair on the patio (as I did). I read it in one sitting, so captivated by the world White created in the Walker family.  This is a novel with characters and a message that are lasting. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson

  • Series: Josephine Tey Mysteries
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Bourbon Street Books (June 10, 2014)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062195456
  • Source: Publisher

Josephine Tey, a well known British mystery author, learns she has inherited a cottage from a godmother she knew very little about. Her godmother, Hester Larkspur, was an actress and good friend to Josephine’s mother. Hester’s message to her goddaughter request that Josephine review her personal papers and decide herself “what stories should be told.”

Josephine’s inheritance doesn’t come without stipulations. First, she must travel to the Suffolk countryside to claim Red Barn Cottage herself. Additionally, another unknown woman, Lucy Kyte, has claim to anything within the cottage she desires. Josephine travels to Suffolk, her mind riddled with endless questions.  Upon her arrival, she learns the cottage has a dark and deadly past.  It was the site of the murder Maria Marten. Her killer was her lover, William Corder.  The murder was so notorious that it was frequently reenacted on the stage, her own godmother in the role of Maria Marten.

The inhabitants of the tighly-knit village offer very little answers, many denying they know anything about the mysterious Lucy Kyte.  It is only by reading Hester’s diary, a fictionalized account of Maria’s life, that Josephine finds out any information about her godmother and her close friend.

As she attempts to restore the cottage to a livable residence for herself and her lover, Josephine can’t help but feel a pervading and dark presence in the home. Instead of discounting it as being haunted as her lover is drawn to do, Josephine instead focuses on finding out answers as to how the living are responsible for the cottage’s dark past.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, The Death of Lucy Kyte is actually the fifth book in a series focusing on Josephine Tey, a true to life mystery writer. As I learned more about Tey herself, I found this novel to be more and more fascinating. I’m one that is drawn to fictionalized retellings of actual events and people, so I was quite intrigued about the character that Upson has created in Josephine.  The author has commented that she grew up in Suffolk, witness to the home that was the scene of this famous murder, her knowledge further adding to the lush and expansive detail that she uses to describe the setting to readers.

This isn’t one of those fast-paced and intense historical mysteries that readers can devour in a matter of hours.  Instead, it is one that is slowly revealed and eloquently detailed. Pages upon pages pass to describe the interior of the cottage, making it possible for the reader to visualize the setting with great detail. The reader’s patience to the slow pacing is wholeheartedly rewarded with a stunning and surprising conclusion.

While I wouldn’t readily recommend this book to someone new to the series (I actually did a tremendous amount of reading and sampling of the prior books in the series), I do believe readers interested in detailed, character driven literary fiction would be greatly rewarded. Recommended…with stipulations.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing me the opportunity to review this title.  Be sure to check out the other stops in this tour:

Tuesday, June 10th: 5 Minutes For Books

Friday, June 13th: Mystery Playground

Thursday, June 19th: BoundbyWords

Monday, June 23rd: The Written World

Tuesday, June 24th: Wordsmithonia

Thursday, June 26th: Dwell in Possibility

Monday, June 30th: Excellent Library

Tuesday, July 1st: My Bookshelf

Nicola Upson is the author of five Josephine Tey mysteries, including An Expert in Murder, Angel with Two Faces, Two for Sorrow, Fear in the Sunlight, and The Death of Lucy Kyte, as well as two works of nonfiction. She has worked in theater and as a freelance journalist. A recipient of an Escalator Award from the Arts Council England, she splits her time between Cambridge and Cornwall. Visit Nicola at her website, www.nicolaupson.com, and on Facebook.

Review: The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult (May 27, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0399162178
  • Source: Publisher

Vivian Schuyler is a young, vivacious and determined young woman living in 1960s Manhattan. She’s gone against what is expected of her as a budding socialite and has not only graduated from college but has obtained a job at Metropolitan magazine as a fact-checker.  Her life takes on a completely different spin when she receives a strange package from overseas: a trunk belonging to an aunt she never knew, a woman completely wiped from Vivian’s family history.  She becomes obsessed with learning more about her aunt, Violet Schuyler Grant. She is able to obtain a small amount of information from her family: Violet disappeared decades ago, reportedly after killing her husband.

Fifty years ago, Violet wed Dr. Walter Grant when she was young, not because she was in love with him but because he could help her in her position as a physicist in pre-war Germany.  Her role in medicine is completely unheard of, never before has a woman held such a role.  Her marriage to Walter is a farce…unfortunately it takes Violet some time to discover this. While she thinks the marriage is one of benefit to her, in fact it is Walter whose career is saved by this union.  He’s a womanizer, never hiding his conquests from the young Violet.  It isn’t until Violet meets Lionel Richardson, a captain in the British Army, that she is able to see her husband for who he really is…and take action toward finding a better life for herself.

Alternating between Vivian and Violet’s point of view, it’s not hard to see a parallel path followed by these two young women, far ahead of society as related to the roles of women. Both had the self-assured attitude and strong conviction that allowed them to pave the path of so many other women who would follow.  It was as if Vivian were meant to discover this trunk, for it gives her the power and potential for a story that will propel her career.

Williams has once again successfully crafted a story that transports readers back to another time, another place, another way of living. I was immediately captivated by both women, I mean how could you not be? They exhibited a high level of confidence that initially may seem off-putting but ultimately seen as a unique and redeeming quality.

You can’t have a Beatriz Williams novel without a steamy romance!  What I like about the romance in her novels is that they are classic love stories.  Love that transcends time and overcomes all obstacles. Readers of this blog know that I’m not a fan of romance novels, but it is impossible to resist something so genuine as the love stories and struggles as designed by Beatriz Williams.

As with her past books, The Secret Life of Violet Grant is destined to become one of the popular books of summer. It has a beauty and intensity that will captivate you from the beginning, and a intense storyline that will sustain you through the entire novel. Highly, highly recommended.

 

*Note: there are some graphic and violent scenes of a sexual nature.

Review: The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (May 13, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1250041988
  • Source: Publisher

Eleven-year-old Brigid Howley live in the Pennsylvania coal country. The mines in the ground below their home rage with a deadly ferocity.  They are in constant fear of deadly fumes that escape these mines and are often awaken in the middle of the night by a man responsible for checking the gas levels in their home. It becomes a regular and constant part of their lives, expecting an explosion in the vast mines beneath their home to take their home and all of their possessions.

When a sink hole robs them of their home, they are forced to move to the home of her estranged paternal grandparents. Their new home is not any safer than the previous but the family is desperate. Her mother is the only breadwinner in the family; her father, injured years ago in the mines,  is unable to hold down a job for long. Her grandmother is a force to be reckoned with and an argument from years ago causes a rift between Brigid’s mother and Grandmother. Her grandfather, stricken with a black-lung, constantly reminds Brigid of the curse that haunts their family.

Brigid struggles to keep her weakened and tested family together. Her mother long ago lost any faith in Brigid’s father and the tension in the home is overwhelming.  Yet when Brigid discovers a ghastly sight in a bootleg mine shaft,  family secrets come pouring out, true evidence of the curse that plagues this strong, Irish family.  With it become a sudden revelation to the cause of her father’s mining injury and implies his involvement of his brother’s death in the mines years ago.

A devastating and emotional coming of age novel , The Hollow Ground beautifully and so expertly captures a genuine part of our country’s history. The fires that raged in the Pennsylvania country still rage, a constant reminder of the past.  Set in the 1960s, this novel eloquently blends a historical account of our nation with one young girl’s journey to come to terms with her family’s haunted past.  The characters so richly developed that readers won’t have  a difficult time connecting, enduring the struggles and challenges they are faced. The setting is expertly detailed, making it easy to become immersed in this truly tremendous novel.

To say this novel is a page-turner is an understatement. I was captivated from the first page, taking every minute I could spare to retreat back to Brigid’s world. Growing up outside coal country myself (albeit, a far more modernized setting) ti wasn’t difficult for me to become invested in this story. A must read for both fans of historical fiction and mystery, The Hollow Ground has an intensity that will continue to burn within me like the abandoned coal mines that played such an integral role in our nation’s history. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (May 1, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1594631964
  • Source: Publisher

Martin Strauss is a confabulist, an individual who creates alternative retellings of memories in attempt to recreate lost memories. Martin has just recently come to terms with this condition and, with guilt, now looks back on an incident that forever altered his life.

In 1926, Strauss punched Harry Houdini in the abdomen. Just a few days later, Houdini died due to a burst appendix. Strauss felt such great remorse for this incident that he now reminisces to the time where he killed Houdini not once, but twice.  The story he weaves is a creative one.  Starting with Houdini’s start as an illusionist (known then by his given name of Ehrich Weiss), Strauss walks the reader through a particularly interesting and unique tale surrounding Houdini’s life after he became an icon, including a stint in espionage and his dedication to disproving those individuals who claimed they were able to communicate with with the deceased.

At the surface, it all seems quite implausible. Yet, the story that the author constructs, shared by an admittedly unreliable narrator, is so well formatted that it is nearly believable. With all forms of magic, the audience is left wondering what to believe. The same rings true with this novel.

Galloway spends an extensive part of the novel creating and developing the character of Harry Houdini. The reader follows him as he discovers, and becomes skilled in, the illusions that would fascinate his followers.  What makes this novel excel is how Galloway used fact and weaved into a new reality far more creative (no offense) than the original.

Perfect for fans of historical fiction/thrillers with a tinge of mystery, The Confabulist an incredibly engaging novel about the world’s greatest illusionist. Highly recommended.

Review: The Girl Who Came Home: A Novel of the Titanic by Hazel Gaynor

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; First Edition edition (April 1, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0062316869
  • Source: Publisher

Fourteen individuals from a small Irish village left their loved ones behind as they embarked on a journey to New York City via the RMS Titanic. A new, better life was awaiting each of them upon their arrival.  One of these individuals is Maggie Murphy, a seventeen year old woman who is bittersweet about leaving her home and her beau, Seamus.  When disaster hits, Maggie is one of the two survivors from this small Irish village.

When she awakens in New York City, without any knowledge of how she gets there. Maggie attempts to banish all thoughts and memories of what happened that horrible night  the Titanic  struck an iceberg. Her friends and loved ones were separated from her in the rush to evacuate. She is haunted screams of victims, the vision of those less fortunate than her, frozen in the frigid ocean waters.

Seventy years later: Chicago. Grace Butler has returned home to help care for her mother after her father’s sudden death. In doing so, she’s given up her hopes of a future in journalism, at least temporarily. When she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity to write for a major paper, Grace must come up with a unique feature story that will impress the editors. Thanks to her great grandmother, Maggie, she gets that story.

Reluctant to discuss her past all these years, Maggie opens up to her niece and shares with her stories and journal articles of what transpired upon the Titanic, both before and after the disaster.  In doing so, both women, reflect upon how few chances we each get in life, and how important to savor each day as if it is your last.

Novels surrounding the horrific events that transpired around the sinking of the Titanic are certainly not unique, especially after the centennial anniversary just a few years ago. Yet with The Girl Who Came Home, Gaynor gives us a unique perspective, a fictionalized account based on actual individuals.

While this title didn’t grab my attention immediately, after a few patient moments of reading I became captivated, unable to tear my attention away from the story of Maggie and others who thought they were embarking upon journey leading to a happy and successful life.

That’s not to say this is a dark and dreary story; it is actually quite the opposite. While the story of what transpired on the Titanic  is devastating, what comes next for the survivors (even decades down the road), is wholly hopeful and heartwarming.

The Girl Who Came Home is a must-read for fans interested in the story of the Titanic, as well as readers seeking a unique spin an event forever etched in history. Highly, highly recommended.

 

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing me opportunity to participate in this tour. Please be sure to check out the other stops in the tour!

 

Review: The Island of Doves by Kelly O’Connor McNees

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade (April 1, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0425264580
  • Source: Publisher

Susannah Fraser was promised a happy life with her husband, living in one of Buffalo’s finest homes. Instead, her home is a prison filled with physical and mental abuse. While all of her material needs are met, the life she is leading is a mere shadow of the life she’d hoped for. Susannah assumed that the abuse went on unnoticed. but when she is approached by a woman with promises of help and escape, Susannah can’t say no.

The journey to safety isn’t an easy one. She must leave everything she owns behind and travel by steamboat to the remote Mackinac Island. There, she meets Magdelaine Fonteneau, a woman who has made quite a life for herself as a fur trader. Magdelaine has offered her services to help women like Susannah escape abusive marriages. She calls each of these women doves; Susannah is the first of three to successfully make the journey. Magdelaine’s past is riddled with pain and loss and the unexpected friendship that forms between the two women allows them both to see the hope that life has to offer.

While the storyline in The Island of Doves is not a unique one, the strong and engaging characters are what make this novel an engaging one. Both Susannah and Magdelaine come from vastly different backgrounds but that doesn’t stop the two women from connecting and forging a strong friendship. Susannah thought herself to be helpless, so used to having others do things for her that she feared she was unable to forge a life alone. In turn, while Magdelaine has formed a strong and caring relationship for the young girls she teaches on the island, she has yet to be able to form such a close bond with her own son. So used to having those she loves taken from her, she pushes him away, afraid to lose yet another loved one. This isn’t intentional; it isn’t until Susannah points out her behavior that Magdelaine reflects upon the choices she’s made in life.

All in all, McNees has created a wonderfully addictive and heartfelt read in The Island of Doves. Her books are of a genre I typically do not read, yet I find myself looking forward to each and every book she publishes. Highly rewarding, highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Publisher: Tantor Media; Unabridged,MP3 – Unabridged CD edition (February 20, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1452667896
  • Source: Personal copy

When Elise Darliss’ mother falls victim to the pox, Elise flees her home on a farm and seeks employment as a maid at the castle. It doesn’t take long for her to rise up the ranks from chambermaid to a private maid to the queen herself. The castle quickly becomes more of a home than her place of birth ever did, and for good reason. Growing up, she felt her life so separate and far from that of the castle. As she grows older she matures into a fine, respected lady, a far cry from the life she had before. She forms friendships and bonds with individuals in the highest echelons of the royal family, learning that her life in the castle is one that is earned and deserved.

The reader (or listener, in my case) follows Elise through her life in the castle. War, disease, and power struggles fail to hold Elise back when it comes to protecting those that she loves. Rose, the daughter of King Ranolf and Queen Lenore, becomes Elise’s sole passion in life. Her youth, her vitality, and her innocence are the sparks to warm Elise’s heart.  When Rose’s fate is threatened by the King’s evil aunt, Millicent, protecting her life and securing her future becomes Elise’s obsession.

Blackwell’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty adds great depth and intrigue to the story we all grew up hearing.  Gone are the stories of magic and spells, replaced with horrific tales of power hungry individuals willing to do anything to obtain their spot on the throne.  The growing role and importance of women in places of power added a uplifting, modern spin to this age-old tale.

As I’ve stated many a time before, I’m typically not a fan of retellings. With that said, I have made it a mission of mine to step outside my comfort zone and embrace these retellings as they seem to be appearing quite rapidly. Some have been met with success, others with a less than desired outcome. In the case of While Beauty Slept, however, I was thoroughly impressed with the changes Blackwell made to the story. She added a modern, mysterious spin that had my attention from the start.

Adding to this experience was the dynamic narration by Wanda McCaddon. Elise starts out as a young, uncertain chambermaid and evolves into a well-respected lady of the court. This is directly reflected in the tone of McCaddon’s narration, the listener sensing the growing maturity and self-confidence in her voice. Additionally, McCaddon’s narration would change with Elise’s age, reflecting the change that comes to one’s voice with the passing of time and age.

Although  While Beauty Slept is portrayed as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I personally viewed it as a wholly unique and original story with bits of homage to the classic fairy tale. Readers apprehensive about reading or listening to a fairy tale need not worry. For me, this novel had more characteristics of a historical fiction/thriller than a fairy tale. While the premise captured my attention from the start, it was the vividly drawn characters and unique storyline that captured my attention. Highly, highly recommended.