Monthly Archives: May 2011

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road is a strong debut novel from Amanda Hodgkinson about picking up the pieces after World War II. Janusz and Silvana Nowack are newlyweds who barely out of adolesence and with a year old baby, Aurek. When Germany and Russia invade their homeland of Poland, Janusz goes to enlist and tells Silvana to leave Warsaw and go to his parents in the country. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out quite as Janusz planned, and he ends up getting separated from his regiment and going on the run with a couple of other deserters until he can reach France and then England. Silvana has to take to the forest, where she and Aurek hide for six years and become as wild as their surroundings. When the Allies arrive in Poland, Silvana and Aurek are sent to a refugee camp, where, with the help of a social worker, Janusz finds them and brings them to Ipswich, on the coast of England, to start a new life at 22 Britannia Road. Janusz and Silvana quickly learn that it will be impossible to go back to how things were before the war, especially when both of them have secrets from their time apart that they would prefer the other never learn.

This is a story that is at times very difficult to read because the characters can seem callous. I had to keep reminding myself that in wartime, particularly during World War II, the survival instinct governs most decisions, and this made a lot Janusz and Silvana’s actions easier to stomach. The fact that it took so long for Silvana and Aurek to leave behind their habits from the forest also rang very true, especially as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who continue to be affected by the war. Aurek was most interesting to watch as he learned to trust the father he never knew and to feel safe in a home that wasn’t in the wild.

The ups and downs of Janusz and Silvana’s story kept me thoroughly engaged, from their vastly different experiences during World War II to their attempts to build a new life in England. I spent the entire time wondering if they were going to make it and if their secrets, as they were revealed, would destroy them. This became even more important as Aurek grew comfortable with his new life.

Ms. Hodgkinson also captured the various eras and settings of the novel beautifully. I especially loved her depiction of post-war, age-of-austerity England and the difficulties that Janusz encountered in trying to achieve a prosperous life as a foreigner in a country under hard times.

22 Brittania Road was one of those books that I sped through in a matter of hours. It’s a truly incredible read with a very satisfying resolution, and I can’t wait to see more from Ms. Hodgskinson.

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The Winter of the World by Carol Ann Lee

The Winter of the World: A Novel (P.S.)The Winter of the World: A Novel by Carol Ann Lee

World War I is one of my favorite periods for historical fiction. There are so many different points of view for an author to tell a story, and it’s rare that you’ll read the same story twice.

Carol Ann Lee begins The Winter of the World two years after Armistice Day, at the burial of the Unknown Warrior. After this extremely moving scene (which she says she drew from actual footage), we’re taken back to Ypres, where journalist Alex Dyer is writing about the conversion of the battlegrounds of Europe into proper cemeteries. He accompanies a man named Lombardi, who has a gift for drawing out secrets. Over the course of an evening, Alex relates his war experience, his frustration over not being able to fight and not being able to report the truth, and his guilt over the affair he had with his best friend Ted’s wife, Clare. With Lombardi’s help, Alex finds a way to redemption and, possibly, back to love.

There were two things I really loved about this novel. The first was seeing the war from Alex’s point of view. Any history class you take on World War I will touch on censorship and propaganda, and it was great to get a human spin on what was a very difficult situation. There was a particularly powerful scene where the journalists argued over one writer’s story that was spun to make the Germans look like godless monsters and, therefore, inspire fear and hatred at home; it really brought forward the ethical issues that journalists confronted with each story they sent for print.

The second was Ms. Lee’s emotional depiction of the selection, ceremony, and burial of the Unknown Warrior. It transported me right back to the event, and I could visualize very clearly the line of people waiting at Westminster Abbey all night to pay their respects to the man who could have been their son, husband, brother, or friend.

The affair between Clare and Alex is the other major plot of the novel, and the relationship is passionate and volatile, as it should be when two people feel an instant connection but, in order to satisfy that connection, they have to betray someone they both love. It’s as much a part of their war story as their respective experiences in the field and continues to haunt them after they’ve returned home. Ms. Lee leaves their end very slightly ambiguous, but I think it’s pretty clear what they decide to do.

The Winter of the World is a beautifully written World War I story that belongs on the shelf next to your Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, and Anne Perry novels. I highly recommend it.

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Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai GirlsShanghai Girls by Lisa See

This book was difficult for me to read, not because it was boring or slow moving, but rather because so many sad and awful things happen that my heart was constantly in my throat. That’s not to say that Shanghai Girls is simply a depressing, slit your wrists at the end kind of story; it’s a truly moving tale of two sisters who stay together in times of greatest adversity.

Pearl and May couldn’t be more different: Pearl is smart and capable, while May is stunningly beautiful and full of vitality. Pearl grows up feeling overshadowed by May, who is clearly their parents’ favorite, but despite all of that, she and her sister always make up their differences and are the best of friends.

It is 1937, and Shanghai is a bustling city. Pearl and May spend their days resting up for their evenings out on the town posing for artists, swilling champagne and dancing the night away, and gossipping at cafés while others debate politics. Their lives suddenly and horribly change when their father reveals that he’s gambled away all of their money and that he’s sold them in marriage to pay off the debt. The girls agree to marry and save the family honor, but when the patriarch of their new family announces that they’re all going to America, Pearl brazenly throws away their boat tickets and refuses to leave Shanghai.

Shortly thereafter, more tragedy strikes with the onset of the second Sino-Japanese War. Glittering Shanghai turns into a dangerous place where bombs fall almost every day, some dropped by the incompetent Chinese airforce. Pearl and May’s mother reveals that she retrieved their boat tickets from the trash and that they all must escape to Hong Kong. An awful incident on the journey changes everything, and May and Pearl make the journey to America after all.

As detainees on Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West, May reveals that she’s pregnant. She and Pearl live in harsh conditions until the baby is born, and May gives the child to Pearl to raise. Once freed from the island and reunited with their husbands, Pearl and May now have to face the prejudices that come with being Chinese in the America of the 1940s as they attempt to build new lives for themselves in San Fransisco’s Chinatown.

Ms. See crafted a truly beautiful story that exposed both the horrible difficulties of immigration and the love and pride that these immigrants felt for their home country. The dream of most of these people is to make enough money for them to return to China and live a rich life there; they are truly sojourners, here temporarily and always with their minds on home. This makes it all the more tragic when their dreams are shattered by the descent of the Bamboo Curtain with China’s Communist government.

The relationship between Pearl and May is both heartwarming and frustrating all at once, particularly when all the big revelations come at the end. Both characters are flawed and not completely winning, but they go through so much and support each other completely, and it’s clear that in the end, despite all that Chinese tradition says about the roles of older and younger siblings, there are no rules for which sister is supposed to look out for the other.

The book ends a little abruptly in anticipation of its sequel, Dreams of Joy, so I was vaguely dissatisfied by how things were left. All in all, though, this was a very engrossing and educational read, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

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The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh

The Attenbury EmeraldsThe Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh

I am ashamed to say that I’ve never read a Dorothy Sayers mystery before.

I know!

But I promise that after reading The Attenbury Emeralds, I will fix that, and fast.

The Attenbury Emeralds begins with the (natural) death of old Lord Attenbury, which inspires Lord Peter Wimsey to recount his very first case to his wife, the mystery writer Harriet Vane. With the help of his loyal right hand man, Bunter, Peter tells the story of a weekend engagement party at the Attenbury’s where a jewel in the family’s heirloom emerald necklace went missing–a jewel that once belonged to a maharajah, whose envoy happened to visit the Attenbury house to assess and purchase the emerald only hours before it vanished! Peter goes on to explain how he uncovered the real culprit and returned the emerald to its rightful owners, and to recall further incidents where the emerald caused trouble for the Attenbury children.

Soon enough, the famous emeralds surface in the present day: the new Lord Attenbury comes to the Wimsey home in a state of high agitation. There is a dispute over the provenance of the emerald in the family’s bank vault, and the new Lord Attenbury desperately needs to sell the emerald to cover the death tax. Things come full circle as Lord Peter, Harriet, and Bunter return to the original investigation to help a friend and, they soon learn, to stop a murderer.

I loved so many things about this book. I think it goes without saying that the characters are all extremely well written, interesting, and complex. I really have to go back to the beginning to fully understand all of them, but even from The Attenbury Emeralds, I was able to learn a lot and immediately wanted more! The mystery itself was intriguing without getting too twisted up; Harriet actually has a moment where she explains her method for crafting a successful mystery novel, and it exactly reflects how Dorothy Sayers and Ms. Paton Walsh constructed this one. My absolute favorite thing about it, though, was watching the characters struggle with the break down of the class system after World War II, something which comes into the foray when the Wimsey family has to cope with an unexpected and life changing tragedy. It was interesting to see the contrast between the adults, who grew up with the very distinct separation of upstairs vs. downstairs, and the children, for whom all of that was much less important. And it reminded me of Gosford Park and Upstairs/Downstairs, so to have that visual made the whole story even more vivid for me.

The Attenbury Emeralds is one of those books you read on a particularly atmospheric day that calls for a transporting journey to the past. I can’t wait to follow these characters’ adventures from the beginning.

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Exciting news!

We interrupt the review goodness for some exciting news! I am thrilled to announce that I will be interning in the marketing department at the incredible Dutton Books this summer!

I’m still jumping up and down and squee-ing like a little girl!

I can’t say how grateful I am for this opportunity. I look forward to learning a ton and working my buns off.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

Finding EmilieFinding Emilie by Laurel Corona

It is 1749, and brilliant and scandalous scientist and mathematician Emilie du Châtelet dies suddenly, and only a week after giving birth. Her daughter, Lili, is sent away to be raised by Julie de Bercy and the strict Baronne Lomont. Finding Emilie is told through Lili’s eyes, and as she navigates through a changing society during the era of the Enlightenment, she discovers her mother’s rich intellectual and philosophical legacy and uses it to take hold of her own life.

Finding Emilie is my favorite kind of historical fiction novel. Laurel Corona explains in her introduction that her aim as a historical fiction writer is to answer the question of “What might have happened?” while keeping as true to the period as possible, and she does exactly that. The oppression Emilie and Lili felt as intelligent and questioning thinkers in an era where women were expected to be little more than sparkling ornaments was palpable, and I loved the various foils that Ms. Corona created, both human (Lili and her foster sister Delphine, who conformed a bit more to society’s expectations) and atmospheric (the rigid atmosphere of the convent vs. the enlightened discussions at Julie de Bercy’s salon, the darkness of Baronne Lomont’s home vs. the freedom at the Jardin de Roi). The ideas and discoveries of the Enlightenment are introduced into the narrative by the philosophers and scientists themselves, which serves the dual purpose of teaching the reader something new while giving the lesson great context and color. I also liked that Ms. Corona tempered the moments of reversal with the characters’ various gains so that I got the feeling of suspense without getting frustrated by a constant storm of bad news.

Lili reminded me a bit of Harry Potter at points. Like Harry, Lili had a brilliant and famous parent who died tragically but left a network of supportive people behind who loved her, first because she was Emilie’s child but then because of the bright and sensitive person she became in her own right. Also like Harry, Lili had to lose her safety nets (and cruelly) before she could come to terms with her past and live her life. And like Harry, I was fully invested in Lili’s story and rooted for her every step of the way.

I enjoyed every second of Finding Emilie, from the opening sentences to the supplemental fairy tale/satire at the back, and I highly recommend it.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost LightGhost Light by Joseph O’Connor

I had a really hard time getting through this book. The abstract had me all excited to read the story of John Millington Synge and the woman he was engaged to at the time of his death, but that felt more like the secondary plot of Ghost Light.

The story is told through the eyes of Synge’s fiancée, Molly Allgood, a.k.a. Maire O’Neill. We follow her through a drunken day in London, and every so often she breaks through her alcoholic haze and gives us glimpses into her past. We see her as an up-and-coming actress and then as the grande dame of the Abbey Theatre. We see her tempestuous relationship with Synge, from a secretive beginning, to a heady honeymoon period in Wicklow, to a messy break-up after Synge refuses to marry her, to a melancholy end with Synge’s death and Molly’s deterrioration to drunken penury.

What made Ghost Light a difficult read was that the narrative kept jumping from the second person to the first person, and the parts of the narrative that were told in the second person were particularly jarring. I can see how the confusion might be a useful device in conveying Molly’s state of mind, but it ultimately prevented me from getting truly involved in the story. However, much of the book is beautifully written, and Joseph O’Connor has a way with words and in conveying the atmosphere of Dublin and Wicklow (places I’ve visited and loved). I definitely want to read his other work.

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