Saturday, May 20, 2017

744 (2017 #42). Goodnight from London

by Jennifer Robson

I really enjoyed this World War II fiction by Jennifer Robson.  Ruby Sutton is an American orphan working for a weekly publication in New York City, who is given the opportunity to go to London as a shared correspondent with another weekly there.

The reader is with Ruby on her trip across the Atlantic in a cargo ship in late June 1940, through the Blitz, and even into France and Paris for its liberation in August 1944, all the way to the end of the war.  As the cover photo implies, there's a little bit of romance for Ruby too, with the enigmatic British officer Bennett.

The blurb on the back of the book stated that it was "inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author's own grandmother," but my advance reader edition was missing the acknowledgements/afterword that might have had that information.  I was quite curious about it, so I searched for an answer.

Robson clarified in an interview and in a Facebook post:

"My late grandmother, Nikki Moir, was a newspaperwoman, and it was her experiences as a young woman in a male-dominated newsroom that acted as the starting point for Goodnight From London. My heroine, Ruby Sutton, is entirely a product of my imagination – she isn’t at all similar to my grandmother – but I wouldn’t have found Ruby without the inspiration of my gran and her career." "...it was in learning about the obstacles and challenges Nikki faced in her work as a journalist from the 1930s onward that I was inspired to create Ruby.  It really was as simple as asking myself, 'what would it have been like for a young woman journalist in the Second World War?' Ruby is my answer, but Nikki was my inspiration."

The book is well-researched and has believable characters.  Robson has written other fiction set during and after World War I - I'll be sure to read those too.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Friday, May 19, 2017

743 (2017 #41). The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


by Lisa See

A bit different from some of Lisa See's other fiction set in China, in that this one takes place in the years 1988 to 2015.  Li-yan, a member of the Akha ethnic minority in the mountainous Yunnan Province in China, is ten years old when the story starts.  The reader learns a lot about Akha customs and beliefs, as well as about tea, especially pu'er, a valuable type of fermented tea.

At 17, Li-yan has a daughter out of wedlock, taboo in her culture, and abandons the baby at an orphanage.  When she later marries the father, they try to reclaim the baby, who of course has been adopted by an American couple, who name her Haley.  Haley's story becomes a theme in the book.  At times, I found parts of Haley's story jarring when it interrupts that of Li-yan, who also sees big changes in her life.  Furthermore, the book's ending feels abrupt and rather predictable.

All in all, I didn't like this book as much as I've liked others by Lisa See, perhaps only because the first two parts of the book (through 1995) read like historical fiction, due to the rural settings.  Part three quickly jumps ahead to 2004 and more modern times in China and elsewhere.  Nevertheless, I'm still glad I read this book.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Sunday, May 14, 2017

742 (2017 #40). The Accidental Empress


by Allison Pataki,
read by Madeleine Maby


This historical fiction is about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi," someone I knew little about before reading this book.  It covers the first half of her life, to her coronation in Hungary, with the sequel Sisi: Empress on Her Own (which I plan to read) covering the second half.

Sisi is a very interesting character.  Her older sister Helene was intended to be the bride of their first cousin, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, but when both girls traveled to Austria with their mother, Franz fell in love with Sisi. Hence the title of the book.

Author Alison Pataki presents Sisi as initially being just as much in love, but becoming overwhelmed by her domineering and controlling mother-in-law and aunt, Archduchess Sophie, as well as by court protocol.  Of course, the story is told from Sisi's point of view, but the reader can see that, despite the environment, some of Sisi's choices are not good ones.

Actress Madeleine Maby does a fine job narrating the book - her voice is perfect for Sisi, and she does very well with all the other characters as well.  I very much appreciated the lengthy Q&A with the author at the end of the book (read by the narrator), which clarified what was fiction and what was true.  Pataki's acknowledgments list the books she used in her research.  Little details, such as descriptions of the castles and palaces and surrounding countryside, as well as examples of Sisi's poetry and a mention of the waltz commissioned in her honor, add to the atmosphere.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Saturday, May 06, 2017

741 (2017 #39). Mistress of Rome


by Kate Quinn

I really enjoyed Kate Quinn's soon-to-be-released The Alice Network, so I decided to try one of her other books.  My local library had this one, Mistress of Rome, the first of (so far) four in her Empress of Rome Saga.

Nearly the entire story takes place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, from 81 to 96 A.D.  Thea, the main character, is a 14-year-old Judean slave at the beginning to another 14-year-old, the vain and selfish Lepida Pollia.  The both fall for the gladiator Arius, a slave from Briton, but Lepida just wants to bed him - Thea actually falls in love.  When Lepida learns of their affair, she sells Thea to a brothel far away. Eventually, Thea catches the eye of the emperor and becomes his mistress, thinking Arius dead.  But of course he's not...

I found this story rather exciting (although a little sickening, with all the gladiatorial bouts).  Thea is a complex character, as is Arius and some of the minor characters, while Lepida is just plain hateful.

Quinn works in a lot of real historical figures into her novel, although given the era and the lack of unbiased information from primary sources of the period, she can take a lot of liberties with the characters - so who knows, for example,  if Domitian was as cruel as she paints him to be.  She does mention five histories she used as references.

No matter.  I was entertained, and I plan to read the rest of the books in the series.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Sunday, April 30, 2017

739 & 740 (2017 #37-38). Two Books about Edinburgh, Scotland



My niece is attending the University of Edinburgh, and brought me these two books when she was home for Christmas.  Michael Fry's Edinburgh: A History of the City, felt somewhat disorganized, going back and forth in time.  Its 388 pages are in eight chapters, seven of which are headed by quotes about the city from famous Scots. It has 18 pages of footnotes and a 13-page index.

Picturing Scotland: Edinburgh has over 120 full-color photographs, with captions or sometimes a paragraph of description, of sites in this beautiful and historic city and surrounding areas.  I felt like I'd been mailed over a hundred postcards.




© Amanda Pape - 2017

Saturday, April 29, 2017

738 (2017 #36). The Alice Network

by Kate Quinn

This was a fascinating story, based on the real-life "Alice Network" of mostly-female spies centered in Lille, France, on the border with Belgium, during World War I.

This book has two story lines, one set during World War I and the other in 1947.  Eve Gardiner is the character that ties them together.  She begins 1915 as a 22-year-old file clerk England, recruited to spy in France during the war because she can also speak French and German - with a stammer in all languages that makes people overlook her and assume she is stupid.

The 1947 Eve is a broken woman with gnarled hands, contacted by pregnant 19-year-old American Charlotte "Charlie" St. Clair, who runs away from her French mother (while en route to Switzerland for an abortion).  Charlie is trying to find her French cousin Rose, last seen working in 1943 in a restaurant in Limoges, France, called Le Lethe, owned by a Monsieur Rene.

That hits close to home for Eve - whose cover while working as a spy involved working in a restaurant in Lille, also called Le Lethe, and also owned by a Monsieur Rene - the evil Rene Bordelon, a Frenchman collaborating with the Germans.

The tale goes back and forth in time and between narrators.  Along the way, the reader the real-life head of the Alice Network, Louise de Bettignies, aka Alice Dubois, aka "Lili" (among many code names) in this book.

Kate Quinn does a masterful job weaving this (and other) real-life character(s), places, and incidents into the story.  I had a hard time putting this exciting book down, but the short alternating chapters make it easy to take a break if needed.  I will definitely be reading more by this author.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Saturday, April 22, 2017

737 (2017 #35). The Marriage of Opposites


by Alice Hoffman,
read by Gloria Reuben, Tina Benko, and Santino Fontana

This is a fictionalized account of the life of the mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.  It's a little bit of a fictionalized biography of the early life of the artist as well.

Author Alice Hoffman stays true to the basic facts about the artist's family.  His mother, Rachel Manzana PomiĆ©, was born to Jewish parents of French, Spanish, and Portuguese heritage, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas (then part of the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Island) in 1795.  She married a widower with three children 21 years her senior, Isaac Petit, and had four children with him before his death in 1824.

Isaac's nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, seven years younger than Rachel, came to the island as his uncle's executor, and the two fell in love.  The close-knit Jewish community on the island frowned upon a marriage between a nephew and aunt by marriage, and it was not for many years (and four sons) later that their private marriage ceremony was finally recognized.

One of those sons was Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro (he changed the spelling later), born in 1830.  He was sent to boarding school in Paris at age 11, where he began to explore his artistic talents.  He returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father's business, but continued to work on his art, and went to Venezuela at age 21 and then on to Paris at age 25, in 1855.  His parents followed shortly after, and Rachel never went back to St. Thomas, even after Frederic's death in 1865, which is about when the book ends.

Hoffman fleshed out her characters quite a bit beyond that, making Rachel in particular an intriguing woman. It's interesting to see how she tries to control her son Camille, just the way her mother tried to control her, with similar results.  Hoffman also invented the characters on St. Thomas who are the Pizzarro's employees and friends there.  There's an interesting subplot involving a family servant, Jestine, who is like a sister to Rachel.  These secondary characters are interesting and add a lot to the story.

Hoffman also researched (as noted from the titles in her bibliography) the history of St. Thomas' buildings and Jewish community, as well as birds and folktales of the West Indies.  The folktales are a major part of the story, and Hoffman's descriptions of the island of St. Thomas and the town of Charlotte Amalie make me want to visit them.

The audiobook readers make this book even better.  Actress Tina Benko narrates the chapters told in Rachel's first person viewpoint.  She has a rich, deep, throaty voice, just what I might imagine the real Rachel to have.  Actor Santino Fontana reads the chapters told in Camille's first person voice (there aren't as many).  Actress Gloria Reuben is wonderful as the narrator of all the other chapters, putting lots of emotion into her voice and adding to the magical realism of the story. Perhaps it is because, as she states, her parents are also from the Caribbean and of mixed heritage.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]