The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Absolutist by John Boyne

Summary from the publisher:
It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will–from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain.

I went into The Absolutist armed only with the knowledge that it was a WWI story that would likely explore a friendship between two soldiers that developed into something more. By the end, I was an emotional wreck. This is an incredibly visceral book that takes you deep into the trenches in a way that you’ve never experienced before, then poignantly captures the year immediately following the war, when everyone was still coming to terms with the enormity of loss. And all the while, the question: what truly defines a coward?

The stand-out here is John Boyne’s utterly transporting writing. He sets the scene so perfectly that you can easily visualize the small town in Norwich where the Bancrofts live, the spartan training grounds at Aldershot, and the filth of the trenches in France. The scenes in France were especially good, and a particularly memorable moment for me was one harrowing charge where a young recruit became paralyzed with fear right before going over the top, to the point where those behind him had to shove him bodily into no man’s land. It’s a completely unvarnished look at a devastating war, and it made complete sense for Tristan to constantly wondered how he was still alive. But then the soldiers interact with one another like the boys they are, and you can’t help but laugh at a welcome moment of lightness.

I also loved the way Boyne explored what it meant to be a conscientious objector during this war. I didn’t know that there were varying degrees of objectors, from those who refused to fight but still wanted to do something for the war effort, to those who refused to do anything at all, a.k.a. absolutists, and while I was familiar with the way these men were treated at home, I was unaware of how they were treated in the army, and while it was unsurprising, it was still horrifying.

Finally, Boyne unravels Tristan’s story at a perfect pace as he moves between Norwich in 1919 and the war years, so that by the time the darkest secrets are revealed, you’ve gotten to know and understand him, and even though his actions are horrible, you can see what drove him to make his choice and why it will torment him for the rest of his life.

The Absolutist is an incredible novel of war and loss that will resonate with you long after you’ve finished it. If you love history and WWI, this is definitely for you.

Thanks Jen and the folks at Other Press for my copy! I can’t wait for tomorrow’s discussion at Linus’s Blanket.

And, by the way, aforementioned Jen is the new mother of twins! Happy birthday, Margaret and Elizabeth!

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Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Summary from the publisher:
Catherine Bailey has been enjoying the single life long enough to know a catch when she sees one. Gorgeous, charismatic and spontaneous, Lee seems almost too perfect to be true. And her friends clearly agree, as each in turn falls under his spell.

But what begins as flattering attentiveness and passionate sex turns into raging jealousy, and Catherine soon learns there is a darker side to Lee. His increasingly erratic, controlling behavior becomes frightening, but no one believes her when she shares her fears. Increasingly isolated and driven into the darkest corner of her world, a desperate Catherine plans a meticulous escape.

Four years later, Lee is behind bars and Catherine—now Cathy—compulsively checks the locks and doors in her apartment, trusting no one. But when an attractive upstairs neighbor, Stuart, comes into her life, Cathy dares to hope that happiness and love may still be possible . . . until she receives a phone call informing her of Lee’s impending release. Soon after, Cathy thinks she catches a glimpse of the former best friend who testified against her in the trial; she begins to return home to find objects subtly rearranged in her apartment, one of Lee’s old tricks. Convinced she is back in her former lover’s sights, Cathy prepares to wrestle with the demons of her past for the last time.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something this frightening. From the very first page, my heart started pounding. When Cathy met Stuart about a quarter of the way in, I was so mistrustful that I couldn’t believe he was a genuinely nice human being. By the end, I couldn’t walk by a door without thinking of Cathy going through her checking. This book had officially crawled under my skin and invaded my life, and I loved it.

The credit here goes to Elizabeth Haynes, who makes an astonishing debut with a book that truly merits the genre of thriller. She expertly built the tension as she moved back and forth between 2004, when Cathy was in the relationship with Lee, and 2007, when Cathy learned of Lee’s release from prison just as she was beginning to move past everything. Both situations reach their height in tandem, and it was incredible to see the contrast between the beaten down Cathy of 2004 and the warrior Cathy of 2007, and the common thread of strength in both.

If the tension wasn’t enough, the subject matter made the story even more powerful. As I read, all I could think of was that this would be one of my worst nightmares: to be in a mentally and physically abusive relationship with a controlling psychopath who has managed to turn all of my friends against me, leaving me completely alone. Cathy’s situation is very real, yet in a departure from similar stories, she points out something that really struck me: before Lee, she regarded battered women with scorn for not leaving at the first sign of abuse, but in hindsight, it’s not at all that simple, because part of you wants to hold on to the tender moments, and part of you is afraid of what will happen if you try to leave.

The psychological elements were also extremely fascinating. It’s clear that the author did a lot of research into how OCD develops, why the habits persist, and the various forms of therapy; it all resulted in a very authentic recovery for Cathy, complete with backslides and anxiety attacks, not to mention the fact that she’s not necessarily cured of her disorder, rather she’s found an effective way to manage it.

Into the Darkest Corner is easily up there with Gone Girl as one of the best thrillers of summer, if not the year. Thanks to the fabulous Maggie from Lemuria Books for recommending it to me, and to the equally fabulous folks at Harper Books for sending me an ARC!

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Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Summary from the publisher:
London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

I nearly skipped in delight when I found a copy of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in the lovely gift bag that Random House gave out at the BEA Power Reader breakfast. As a British history student who spent a lot of time studying WWII and Churchill, I was intrigued by a novel narrated from the point of view of his secretary. Someone who was so close to him in the early days of the war was sure to provide very personal insight into what was going on at 10 Downing Street. I also love war stories set on the home front, because those left behind faced an entirely different uncertainty, and it’s incredible to see people band together. And as if all the historical details weren’t enough, there’s the added element of a feisty heroine with a hidden past.

So, with my high expectations, did Mr. Churchill’s Secretary deliver?

Oh, yes. On all scores.

Maggie Hope is a wonderful addition to the “strong women in wartime” cannon. She is whip-smart, brave, and unafraid of voicing her opinions, yet all the while she’s believable and trustworthy, and you want to follow her into her adventures. I loved seeing 10 Downing Street from her perspective and watching her and Churchill gain a mutual respect for one another, and her attempts to understand Churchill’s lingo during her first weeks were particularly hilarious.

This book is so grounded in the period that you can practically hear the air raid sirens and sense the tension in the air as London waits for the Germans to finally drop that first bomb. And that tension exists inside Downing Street as well. So many of my favorite scenes occurred in those halls: Churchill collapsing into his chair with his head in his hands after he dictates the “This was their finest hour” speech to Maggie, Churchill and his aides watching London burn after the very first bombing, the radio broadcasts to boost morale that moved Maggie to tears, the feverish atmosphere in MI-Five as they tried to keep tabs on German sleeper spies and the IRA. Mixed in with the fear, though, are vibrant glimpses of London nightlife, where Maggie and her young friends, most of whom are involved in war work, try to forget, if only for a while.

The most pleasant surprise was the mystery, which unfurled with the occasional misdirections, and just when I thought I had it all figured out, there was one last twist that had my heart racing as I frantically tore through the pages. Really well done!

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a strong debut with something for everyone: history, mystery, romance. I look forward to seeing what Maggie gets up to next in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.

Susan MacNeal, you definitely do not need to buy me that cocktail.

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Summary from the publisher:
Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she’d found. Will she pay any price to keep it?

I’ve been vacillating over whether to write a review of this or not, because it’s been a long time since I’ve been so lukewarm about a book that everyone else seems to be raving about. I wanted to love it! I’ve been fascinated by shipwrecks since I was young and grew up at the height of Titanic mania (both the musical and the film came out while I was in middle school), so when I heard about this, I was sure this would be right up my street and was sad when it didn’t grab me like I’d hoped it would.

To be fair, I can see why people enjoy The Lifeboat, because it is well-written and grounded in the time period, and it’s a fascinating examination of human behavior. I found myself wondering what I would do if I found myself in a lifeboat filled past capacity and with no hope of imminent rescue. This was survival of the fittest at its most brutal, and for me, the truly successful parts of the book were when these genteel people finally cracked.

My problem was that I never connected with Grace, the narrator. I think it was the author’s intention for her to be slightly passive, as if she’d removed herself from events and put them firmly in the past so that she could continue to survive and move on, but that passivity kept me at a distance and prevented these fraught situations, both in the lifeboat and in the courtroom, from reaching their height. I can see how this will work for some, and there was a moment where Grace’s detachment was more chilling than frustrating, but overall, it left me cold.

This was an extremely quick read, so I don’t regret sticking with it, but I am glad to move on to the next book. If you like something that’s heavy on the psychology, though, this could very well be for you.

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The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

Summary from the publisher:
Only a few years before becoming a famous actress and an icon for her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita to make it big in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle is a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip. She has no idea what she’s in for: Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous blunt bangs and black bob, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will change their lives forever. For Cora, New York holds the promise of discovery that might prove an answer to the question at the center of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in a strange and bustling city, she embarks on her own mission. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, it liberates her in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of the summer, Cora’s eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

I was so excited to receive this book at a BEA event. I’m not a Louise Brooks aficionado by any means—I haven’t seen her films or read her autobiography—but her image is iconic, and I was really intrigued by what her first trip to New York was like. The author won me over even further when she read a hilarious passage where Cora, the eponymous chaperone, tried to explain the importance of maintaining a spotless reputation, complete with metaphors about unwrapped candy. There was no hope for it, I had to dig in right away.

I think what I enjoyed most about The Chaperone was watching the country change through Cora’s eyes. The action begins in 1922, where older women were still wearing corsets and worrying about showing ankles while the younger generation was rolling down their stockings and raising their hems above the knee, and continues all the way through the 1970s. The passage of time really gave Cora an incredible character arc, and I loved watching her evolve from a very proper, conservative, almost priggish Midwestern wife to someone who was able to stand up at a ladies’ luncheon and say that she thought it was fine for pharmacists to sell birth control.

The catalyst for Cora’s change in attitude is Louise, a charge who is as infuriating as she’s fascinating, and whose devil-may-care life keeps Cora on edge, but also teaches her that not everything is so black and white. The scene where the two meet after Louise is forced to move back home was my particular favorite, because the tables were turned and Cora was able to finally offer some advice to Louise that she could take.

The book is mostly Cora’s story, but we do learn a bit about Louise. I was amazed that she survived her childhood, after being brushed off by her resentful mother and absent father and then molested by a neighbor. And experiencing these revelations from Cora’s perspective really helped humanize Louise. It explained a lot about her and made me want to learn more.

The Chaperone is a fantastically written and vividly detailed historical novel, not to mention a very fast read. I highly recommend it.

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BEA 2012, a.k.a. Book Prom!

If you follow the book world, you’ll know that this week was Book Expo America, a.k.a. Book Prom. It’s one of the biggest (if not the biggest) annual gatherings of publishers, librarians, book sellers, authors, bloggers and, this year, regular readers. I missed BEA 2011 and had to content myself with reading the recaps and hearing about the madness second hand from my co-workers.

I didn’t think I’d get to go this year, either, so imagine my surprise and delight when I was offered a pass to run around the Javits for a few hours. Since I had some events planned for Wednesday morning, I decided that would be my day to go and started arranging meetings with bloggers that I’ve gotten to know on Twitter over this past year and getting excited.

I figured I’d have a relatively calm week, particularly because I was only going for the one day, but by Sunday, it was clear that I was going to be as happily busy as everyone else.

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Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

I don’t remember when I first heard about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s childhood in Prague during World War II. I feel like I read it somewhere or heard my parents discussing it and filed the information away for later. When I spotted her new memoir, Prague Winter, on the take shelf at work (one of the fun perks of a career in publishing), I gave a squeak of excitement and promptly rescued it. Questions immediately flooded my brain: What was her childhood like? Did she or any members of her family live in Prague during the Nazi occupation? What memories did she have of the time? Did she lose anybody in the war? I couldn’t wait to start, even as part of me wondered if the writing would be too dry for me to become fully involved.

I’ll respond to that last bit first: this was, honestly, one of the most compelling works of non-fiction that I’ve read in a long time. Albright has a wonderfully engaging voice that grabs you from the very first page and holds your attention throughout. She presents both the historical aspects and her personal remembrances in a down-to-earth fashion that’s extremely easy to read and absorb. Non-fiction tends to be slower going for me, and I marveled at how quickly I flew through the pages.

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