Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bellagrand (Book Review)

Title: Bellagrand       
Author: Paullina Simons
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, March 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction   Setting: 20th century
Plot:  Bellagrand is a sequel to Sons of Liberty (which is likely a better starting point for new readers than this book) and written as a backstory to Simons’ bestselling trilogy, which begins with The Bronze Horseman.  In Sons of Liberty, blueblood and Harvard educated Harry Barrington met a beautiful Italian immigrant, Gina Attaviano.  They eloped prior to Bellagrand and, disowned by his wealthy Brahmin family and unable to hold a job, Harry continues and escalates his involvement in radical politics while Gina takes on the most menial jobs to support him and her infirm mother.  Gina’s worry about Harry’s incendiary ideas and companions is made worse by her longing for a child.  Ultimately, she and Harry share a bond that survives through passion, betrayal and heartbreak but it isn't a very fun experience for the reader!

Audience: Fans of historical fiction authors such as Adriana Trigiani, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Jennifer Niven,  and Judith Lennox.

What I liked: My favorite parts were those set in Lawrence (I was there just a few weeks ago), where Harry and Gina live as newlyweds with her mother, and in Boston where her brother Salvo works.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the tight knit Italian communities in Boston’s North End and the labor disputes in the Lawrence mills (having represented one of the few modern day leftovers, Polartec, this was especially poignant).  The author played with Boston readers a bit when she has Gina’s brother get a job in the molasses factory in the North End (“No, no, no,” I muttered to myself).  There are intriguing scenes set in Concord, MA, one of my favorite places, where Gina volunteers with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose.

I am partial to historical fiction with Russian settings or characters, such as my all time favorites, Masha and The Youngest Lady in Waiting by Mara Kay.  If you also enjoy this setting, here is a list of historical fiction set in Russia.
What I disliked: Harry was a very unsympathetic character, and Gina enables his behavior by staying with him, which made their story somewhat dark and depressing.  However, most contemporary characters would have expected nothing less of her because marriage was supposed to be forever.  Admittedly, because Gina and Harry were not married in the Catholic church, she was no longer a practicing Catholic and not bound by Catholic doctrine that forbade divorce.  However, the author makes clear that Gina remains influenced by her religious upbringing, which modern readers may not understand.   One thing that surprised me was her crossing herself whenever anyone uttered the words, “Our father,” as I had never heard of that particular Catholic tradition.

About the Author:  Paullina Simons is the author of the acclaimed novels Tully, Red Leaves, Eleven Hours, and The Bronze Horseman. Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, she graduated from the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk), and has lived in Rome, London, and Dallas.  Find out more about Paullina at her website, follow her on Twitter and connect with her on Facebook.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn how this book fits into the story of Alexander Belov - not the Soviet basketball player!   

Bellagrand Tour Stops

Tuesday, March 25th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, March 26th: Always With a Book
Thursday, March 27th: Dwell in Possibility
Monday, March 31st: Becca Rowan
Wednesday, April 2nd: Patricia’s Wisdom
Thursday, April 3rd: Spiced Latte Reads
Monday, April 7th: The Most Happy Reader
Tuesday, April 8th: Italian Brat’s Obsessions
Wednesday, April 9th: Historical Tapestry
Thursday, April 10th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Someone is Watching

My younger sister gets an email from the school library every time her six year old checks out a book.  This would have infuriated me as a child because I liked reading books adults often thought were too old for me.   I remember three specific incidents:  in third grade I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring, and although my mother had read The Hobbit to my middle sister and me I suspected she might think this book was too scary or over my head[1] so I kept it tucked in my desk drawer with a red felt pen I used to write down an occasional vocabulary word.  On Teacher’s Night, Mrs. Freilich[2] exposed my secret to my parents!  I think my mother was amused and my father reclaimed his pen (which were apparently banned at school, although no one had told me) but I certainly never trusted her again.

The next year my parents were duly waiting their turn behind a husband and wife they knew very slightly.  These people were complaining that someone in the class had given their daughter an extremely unsuitable book.   Somehow my mother guessed it was me and waited apprehensively to see what it had been. Then Miss Barnes said audibly, “Maybe Suzanne wasn’t quite ready for The Secret Garden but it is a lovely book she will enjoy some day.”   See, I was just helping her improve her mind!   Miss Barnes and I did not always see eye to eye but she read aloud often and introduced me to some wonderful books:  On to Oregon, The Black Stallion, and The Phantom Tollbooth (this latter became such a favorite I chose it to giveaway in World Book Night last year.
Later, in seventh grade, at a new school where the library contained little new fiction but was full of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and religious-themed books like Miracle at Carville, I discovered Anya Seton and became entranced by her masterpiece, Katherine.   I must not have been very good at concealment because, thinking the book was very racy based on the cover, I hid it under my pillow where my mother, innocently changing the sheets, found it.  I came into my room to find her curled up with John of Gaunt, and she happily told me she had read that book the year she finished high school when it was serialized by the Ladies Home Journal.   The only remonstrations I ever got from her regarding my choice of books was her desire that I would not race through an author too quickly, denying myself the pleasure of anticipating a delightful read. 

[1] My mother would not have been totally wrong.  I had read Carolyn Haywood’s book, Primrose Day, the previous year, which features an English girl named Merry (and inspired my interest in evacuation stories).  As a result, I thought Tolkien’s hobbit Merry was a female hobbit.  There were plenty of male possessive pronouns but I airily dismissed those as typos and wondered about a possible romance between Merry and Pippin for some time.   I paused in my reading when Gandalf fell in the Mines of Moira and did not return to the Lord of the Rings until I turned 11 or 12.

[2] She already had a conflict of interest issue that had been unaddressed.  She had previously taught the other first grade section and one of her students, Laura Rabinowitz, who later attended Brown, was a flower girl at her wedding.  Fourteen months later, Mrs. Freilich began to teach third grade and Laura was in our class!  Favoritism resulted.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Accident (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: The Accident
Author: Chris Pavone
Publication Information: Crown Publishers, Hardcover, 2014
Genre: Suspense 
Plot: When New York literary agent Isabel Reed receives the manuscript of a potentially bestselling book, it causes incredible danger for anyone who reads it because it reveals a damaging secret of a powerful media mogul.  For Isabel, in addition to fearing for her life and those she has involved, an added element is that she guesses the identity of the anonymous author.  A CIA operative is leading a covert operation extending from Copenhagen to the US to prevent the manuscript from ever being published, and he will let nothing stop him from burying the true story of the long-ago accident.

Audience: Fans of DavidBaldacci, Owen Laukkanen, and Joseph Finder.

What I liked: I had read reviews of Pavone’s first book, The Expats, and kept meaning to pick it up.   I was pleased to get the opportunity to read his second book, which is set in the back-biting media world of the 21st century and is getting just as much praise.   Having worked for NYC publishers for 17 years, I particularly enjoyed the publishing setting, which was perfectly drawn and set the book apart from ordinary thrillers  – my two favorite parts were 1) when the Subsidiary Rights Director helped herself to the anonymous manuscript and 2) the description of an editor’s joy when his lunch date cancels.  As the action picked up, interrupted by flashbacks to the fatal night of the accident, even the slightest characters played an important part in a startling resolution.  I look forward to sharing this with my Book Group, as it is a very different genre from our usual fiction.  And I plan to go back to The Expats to read about my favorite character, Kate.

Later:  I listened to The Expats on CD while painting my guest room in early 2015 and thought it was a million times better than The Accident.

What I disliked:  I found the pace slow, especially at the beginning, when seemingly unconnected elements were being set up for the reader.  I also found the author’s use of the present tense somewhat distracting, although it was probably meant to add to the sense of urgency.

Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to see what other bloggers have been saying about The Accident:

Chris Pavone’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, March 3rd:  No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, March 3rd:  Drey’s Library
Monday, March 3rd:  Why Girls are Weird
Wednesday, March 5th:  A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, March 6th:  Bookish Ardour
Friday, March 7th:  She Treads Softly
Monday, March 10th:  Joyfully Retired
Tuesday, March 11th:  Bound by Words
Tuesday, March 11th:  Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Tuesday, March 11th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Wednesday, March 12th:  Book Dilettante
Friday, March 14th:  River City Reading
Tuesday, March 18th:  Bookchickdi
Wednesday, March 19th:  Book-alicious Mama
Thursday, March 20th:  Chaotic Compendiums
Friday, March 21st:  Not in Jersey
Monday, March 24th:  A Bookworm’s World
Tuesday, March 25th:  Reading Reality
Wednesday, March 26th:  Bibliotica
Thursday, March 27th:  Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, March 28th:  Patricia’s Wisdom

Giveaway:  I have a book to give away (US only) – if interested, post a comment telling me your favorite suspense writer, and I will pick a winner in April.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time (Book Review)

Publication Information: LightEye Editions, paperback, December 2013  
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 12th century Europe
Plot:  William Beaumont, a fulling miller’s son, is an ambitious but unsophisticated young man, whose dream is to study medicine at a university.  When he catches sight of Alicia Bearham, niece to the nobility, he falls madly in love.  Surprisingly, Alicia returns his feelings, and even more improbably, her family – far from warning him to keep his distance – invites him to accompany them on a pilgrimage to Spain.  Her family is unfortunately connected to one of the men who murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and must expiate its guilt (although Henry II, who instigated the crime – “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” - escapes significant punishment) in order to regain its reputation.  William and his companions experience many adventures and dangers in France and Spain before returning to England.

Audience: Fans of Judith Merkle Riley; armchair travelers; those planning or dreaming of a pilgrimage.

My Impressions:  I was attracted to this book by the cover, which has a Pre-Raphaelite look despite its 12th century setting, and the author’s obvious passion for pilgrimages.  I was reminded of a book called Mount Joy by Daisy Newman I read many years ago about a young woman who leaves a college like Radcliffe to go on pilgrimage (until I looked it up on Goodreads moments ago I didn’t recall she also traveled to Santiago de Compostela).  In fact, I was surprised to read that pilgrims still travel to Santiago de Compostela in huge numbers (250,000 in 2010); I had thought there were more obvious destinations such as Rome and the Holy Land.

I did feel strongly the manuscript needed an editor.  The anachronistic language was very jarring and could easily have been avoided (“Hey, Will, are you alright?” “Still fancy her, do you?” “Is this why you’ve been so insecure about us?” and so on.  The concept of a medical “internship” may have existed in the 12th century but not by that name, and at one point I swear the characters went to lunch!).  William was more interesting when passionate about healing than when infatuated with Alicia.  Their rhapsodic utterances to each other were repetitive.

However, Sylvia Nilsen is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her subject.  She has been the editor for a travel guide publisher and her company, amaWalkersCamino, takes small groups of pilgrims on the Camino Frances pilgrimage route in Spain.  She also walked from Paris to Spain to do the research for this book.  For more information on Sylvia Nilsen, please visit her website.  You can also find her on Facebook.
Source:  I received this book from the HistoricalFiction Virtual Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and see what other bloggers had to say about this book.  

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, February 24
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Spotlight & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection

Tuesday, February 25
Interview at Flashlight Commentary

Thursday, February 27
Spotlight & Giveaway at Kinx’s Book Nook

Friday, February 28
Guest Post at A Bookish Libraria

Monday, March 3
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Guest Post at Mina’s Bookshelf

Tuesday, March 4
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee

Wednesday, March 5
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book

Thursday, March 6
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book

Friday, March 7
Review at Reading the Ages

Monday, March 10
Review & Guest Post at Just One More Chapter

Tuesday, March 11
Review at The Most Happy Reader

Wednesday, March 12
Spotlight & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time

Thursday, March 13
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Friday, March 14
Interview at Layered Pages

Monday, March 17
Review at Book Nerd

Tuesday, March 18
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books

Wednesday, March 19
Guest Post at Kelsey’s Book Corner

Thursday, March 20
Review at From L.A. to LA

Friday, March 21
Spotlight at Passages to the Past

Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Stillwater (Book Review & Giveaway)

Title: Stillwater
Author: Nicole Helget
Publication Information: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 2014, ISBN 0547898207
Genre: Historical Fiction      
Setting: 19th century Minnesota

Plot: Clement and Angel are twins left at a small orphanage in the frontier town of Stillwater, Minnesota.   Angel, adopted by a wealthy local couple, is the victim of Munchausen by proxy syndrome, while her brother, Clement, left cruelly behind at the orphanage, is cared for by the headmistress nun and an elderly Indian, Big Waters.  Stillwater Home for Orphans is also an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and even as a child Clement becomes involved in the transport of this precious commodity – human lives.   Davis, the son of one unfortunate runaway slave, is taken in by the kindhearted women in Stillwater’s brothel, The Red Swan (their antics provide some humorous relief to the dark depiction of frontier life).  As the three children grow up, their lives remain connected although Angel’s marriage causes heartbreak to Davis, causing him to enlist with Clement in the Stillwater Guard of the First Minnesota (shades of Emily Webster’s grandfather!).  Depiction of life in the Union Army makes even the turmoil of Stillwater seem like a picnic.

Audience:  Fans of Cold Mountain/Charles Frazier; March/Geraldine Brooks; The Last Full Measure/The Life and Death of the First MinnesotaVolunteers/Richard Moe; Marie Blythe/Howard Frank Mosher.

My ImpressionsHelget is an accomplished writer, and this book caught my eye when I noticed that she had received her B.A. and M.F.A. from Mankato State (Mankato is also the real life home of MaudHart Lovelace, author of the beloved Betsy-Tacy books).  However, I found the book both readable and very dark, full of lonely and mistreated characters with nothing to look forward to.  At times, that prevented me from enjoying her prose as much as I had hoped. In addition, the author’s back and forth from present day to flashback was confusing.  I was intrigued by the background concerning Minnesota moving from being a territory to a state, a part of Minnesota’s history with which I am unfamiliar.  
Source: Thank you to the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours which provided me with this book in return for an honest review.  I urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and see what various bloggers had to say about this book:   

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, February 24
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Guest Post & Giveaway at La Vanity Victorienne

Tuesday, February 25
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book

Wednesday, February 26
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book

Thursday, February 27
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection

Friday, February 28
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

Monday, March 3
Review at Lost in Books

Tuesday, March 4
Review at Confessions of a Book Hoarder

For one lucky reader, I have a book to give away (US/Canada only) – please post a message if you are interested, and I will pick a winner later in March.

Author: Nicole Helget shares her thoughts on writing and her influences on  her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.