Monday, October 27, 2014

428 (2014 #56). A Fifty-Year Silence

by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

This memoir held my interest enough to keep me reading it, but not enough that I "couldn't put it down" - I could. It was hard to follow at times.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was trying to figure out why her maternal grandparents split up and never spoke to each other again.  Despite the fact that they are still alive and lucid when she starts wondering about this, it seems she can't ask them about it.  Her grandmother, Anna, always talks in circles around the subject, and her grandfather, Armand, evades it altogether.  I found neither Anna nor Armand to be compelling; I didn't really care about them or what happened to them as Jewish refugees during World War II.  The only interesting part of their story, for me, was their escape into Switzerland.

A bit more interesting was the story of Miranda moving into her grandparents' abandoned, crumbling old house in a small village in France.  I could relate to her obsession with the house, and was pleased to see her fall in love while living there.

The uncorrected proof I received indicated that maps would be included in thefinal  book, which should be helpful both in tracing her grandparents' journeys as well as the author's.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received an advance reading copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Thursday, October 23, 2014

427 (2014 #55). The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

by Lauren Willig,
read by Kate Reading

I was looking in the library for a some historical fiction audiobooks, and this one came up in a catalog search.  It's really a romance and barely any historical fiction, and I didn't learn anything new about history (other than the fact that Napoleon's stepdaughter really had an English language tutor who was a suspected spy and ultimately dismissed), but it was still a fun read.

In the spring of 1803, Amy Balcourt is a 20-year-old half-French, half-British orphan (her father was guillotined, her mother pined away after) living with her aunt and uncle in England.  Her older brother invites her back to France during a truce in the ongoing hostilities between France and England, and Amy sails over with her cousin Jane and a spinster chaperone, Miss Gwen.  Since childhood, Amy has been obsessed with British spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a member of his league, the Purple Gentian, who more or less takes over when the Scarlet Pimpernel is unmasked.  Amy is eager to go to France to find the Purple Gentian, learn who he is, and join his league to revenge her parents' deaths.

The Purple Gentian is really Sir Richard Selwick, 27, who just happens to be sharing Amy's boat to France.  Sparks fly between them, but (naturally) romance blossoms too.  Meanwhile, framing Amy's and Richard's story is the 2003 tale of Eloise, who is working on a dissertation on the mysterious British spy known as the Pink Carnation.  She contacts Selwick's living descendants and finds one who is helpful, the elderly Arabella Selwick-Alderly.  Mrs. Selwick-Alderly shares Amy's correspondence and journals with Eloise, much to the displeasure of her nephew Colin Selwick (and of course there we have another budding romance).

Amy is a rather foolish (and clumsy) amateur spy, and Richard behaves irrationally around her, while Napoleon and various other Bonapartes make cameo appearances throughout the book.  As I said, this book is more romance than historical fiction, and a lot of what happens is silly and implausible (and funny). Good chick-lit beach-read though - like all good romances, there's a bit of steamy sex.

This is the first of what will ultimately be 12 (full) books (there are also a novella and a bonus chapter) in the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig (whose bio sounds a bit like the Eloise character).  I thought it was interesting that the covers for many of the books in the series are based on real paintings - in this case, it's "Lady Holding Flowers in her Petticoat" by Augustus Jules Bouvier.

Kate Reading (real name:  Jennifer Mendenhall) does a fine job with American, British, and French accents and both male and female voices in the audiobook.  I might listen to a few more in the series when I'm looking for something easy and entertaining.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

426 (2014 #54). A Star for Mrs. Blake

by April Smith

This novel is set in 1931, a couple years after the United States passed unusual legislation (for the Depression era) to fund first-class travel by Gold Star Mothers to visit the graves of their sons who died in France in World War I.

The main (and title) character is Cora Blake, a fisheries worker and volunteer librarian in a coastal town in Maine, single mother to an only child, Sammy, who was killed in the war.  She is part of a group of five (somewhat stereotypical) Gold Star Mothers who are accompanied by a nurse and a military escort named Lieutenant Thomas Hammond, a recent West Point graduate and namesake son of a U.S. Army commander.

In an afterword, author April Smith revealed that Hammond was a real person, and many details in the story come from his diary.  Smith is good friends with actor Nicholas Hammond (who, by the way, played Friedrich, one of the Von Trapp children, in The Sound of Music movie), and he gave her the diary "in the hope that I might tell the story of his father,..[but]...the diary is barely a dozen incomplete pages," according to one interview.

Therefore, Smith had to do a lot of research - 25 years worth, according to another interview.  She spent time at the National Archives going through files about the 1930s Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages, traveling to all the locations in the book (including Paris, Verdun, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery), and interviewing residents there who had lived through the Great Depression (including a 104-year-old librarian in Maine), as well as Gold Star Mothers in a retirement home in Southern California.

The result of all this research is a story with an excellent feel for place and time, particularly with the descriptions of the battlefields near Verdun and Meuse-Argonne.  Smith also does a noteworthy job with some touchy topics, such as discrimination against black Gold Star Mothers (who traveled separately and in less style), and governmental and military rules and regulations (and b.s.), particularly with what happens to Lily, the nurse.

I felt Cora and Thomas were well-drawn characters, but the other characters were not as well-developed.  The budding romance between Cora and American journalist Griffin Reed, a World War I vet who wears a metal mask on his battle-damaged face (I immediately picture him as looking like Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire) did not ring true for me - I felt the age difference would be too great.  Interestingly, Reed is living with an American  "socialite" artist who makes the masks who was loosely modeled on real mask-maker Anna Coleman Ladd.

The ending is a bit confusing, in terms of what happens to Reed, and because of a surprise he engineers (that, in my mind, does not add to the story).  Smith, best known for her mystery thrillers and for being a writer and producer TV shows like the Cagney and Lacey police drama, must have felt a need to include the secret and a (unnecessary) death.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would recommend, because of the pieces of history it illuminates.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I won this advance reader edition in a summer reading program sponsored by my local public library.  I'll hang on to the book for a while and eventually pass it on to someone else to enjoy.]

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

425 (2014 #53). The Romanov Bride

by Robert Alexander,
read by Gabrielle de Cuir and Stefan Rudnicki

The title of this book is a little misleading.  It implies that the book is only about the Grand Duchess Elizavyeta Feodorovna (Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, 1864-1918), granddaugher of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and older sister to Tsaritsa Alexandra, wife of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II.

"Ella," as she was known within her family (Nicholas and Alexandra were "Nicky" and "Alicky"), alternates chapters with a fictional character named Pavel.  He is a peasant who has come to Saint Petersburg with his bride in 1904.  She is killed in a originally-peaceful protest, and Pavel, wanting revenge, becomes a revolutionary.

In this way the reader sees both sides of this 1904-1918 period of unrest in Russia.  Pavel moves to Moscow and is involved in the assassination of Ella's husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in 1905.  In 1908, the childless Ella sells off much of her wealth, becomes a Russian Orthodox nun, and founds the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow.  They do good works caring for the sick and poor, but eventually Ella is arrested and eventually killed.  Pavel, having witnessed some of her good works, requests to be one of her guards, and is involved in her death.  The story is framed with Pavel imprisoned in Siberia in 1936, awaiting his own death, and telling his story to an imprisoned priest.

It was quite interesting to learn in author Robert Alexander's afterword that Ella was canonized as New Martyr Saint Elizabeth by the Russian Orthodox church in 1981 and 1992.  I had not heard of the Grand Duchess before reading this book, which uses the facts of her life as its base.

I'd be interested in reading Alexander's (real name Robert D. Zimmerman) other two books in his House of Romanov trilogy - or even better, listening to the audiobooks.  Polish-born Stefan Rudnicki has a wonderful deep, gravelly voice that was perfect for the peasant Pavel, while veteran narrator and director Gabrielle de Cuir brings her personal distinction and flare for languages to the voice of Ella (who could speak English, German, French, and Russian).

The beautiful image on the cover of the audiobook (at the top of this post) is a painting of the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna by Friedrich August von Kaulbach.  The hardbound book cover (pictured above) features a photograph of her from the Russian State Archive, which was probably taken at the same time as other photographs dated July 1887.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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