Wednesday, December 1, 2021

#BookReview: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Genre
Biographic Fiction

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
The New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code returns with an unforgettable World War II tale of a quiet bookworm who becomes history's deadliest female sniper. Based on a true story.

In the snowbound city of Kiev, wry and bookish history student Mila Pavlichenko organizes her life around her library job and her young son--but Hitler's invasion of Russia sends her on a different path. Given a rifle and sent to join the fight, Mila must forge herself from studious girl to deadly sniper--a lethal hunter of Nazis known as Lady Death. When news of her three hundredth kill makes her a national heroine, Mila finds herself torn from the bloody battlefields of the eastern front and sent to America on a goodwill tour.

Still reeling from war wounds and devastated by loss, Mila finds herself isolated and lonely in the glittering world of Washington, DC--until an unexpected friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and an even more unexpected connection with a silent fellow sniper offer the possibility of happiness. But when an old enemy from Mila's past joins forces with a deadly new foe lurking in the shadows, Lady Death finds herself battling her own demons and enemy bullets in the deadliest duel of her life.

Based on a true story, The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever. 
REVIEW: 
The epigraph of THE DIAMOND EYE stopped my progress before I even hit the prologue. I was casually familiar with Lyudmila "Mila" Pavlichenko's history as a soldier and sniper but was utterly oblivious to the fact that she was also a single mother, a library researcher, and an envoy to the United States. The revelation took a minute to wrap my head around, but once it settled, I wondered how Quinn would balance all the facets of her subject's life. She's a master of the craft – one I'd follow into the gates of hell were she ever to turn her pen that direction – but this story was huge, and I couldn't begin to imagine how anyone would beat it into the framework of a historical novel.

The answer? A dual timeline set in both 1942 and 1937. My tastes favored the emotional depth of the latter, but I want to note the former grew on me as the novel progressed. Base knowledge of the players involved diffuses some of the suspense in that storyline, but I was still on the edge of my seat when the tension finally boiled over. I can only assume Quinn knew a creative twist necessary, that she had to offer something more to anyone who raised an eyebrow at the situational drama she'd created, but and deliver she did. In truly sparkling fashion.

As a biographical novel, THE DIAMOND EYE naturally favors Mila's military career, but I loved that it never lost track of her humanity. Quinn's deft description of the role Mila played and the equipment she used fascinated me – especially when I took the time to compare her descriptions to the firearms in question – but it was the little nods to Mila's person that captured my imagination. Mila's gentle handling of Marya, her friendship with Vartanov, and her partnership with Kostia. The connection she fostered with Lyonya, her unfiltered maternal love for Slavak, her strained interactions with Alexei, and her dogged determination to submit her dissertation. All of it came together in a distinct and memorable portrait, one that pays fitting homage to a life worthy of recognition beyond the official tally in her service record.

I could go on, could gush my delight at Quinn's interpretation of Eleanor and FDR's marriage, my amusement at her nod to Teddy lost ring, or note the giggle that broke free at the Nina Markova reference she casually slid into the text – but the short of the matter is that THE DIAMOND EYE is worth tracking down. In a market flooded by stories of WWII, Quinn found untapped material and turned it into an impossible to put down page-turner. A novel that chronicles an extraordinary life and speaks to the fortitude required of all who serve on the front lines.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Author
Read: October 20, 2021
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Sunday, November 28, 2021

#BookReview: The Soft Touch of Angels: A Graham Saga Novella by Anna Belfrage

Genre
Historical Family Saga
Time Slip

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
After months of torment, Duncan Melville has had enough and punches one of his bullies in the face. In retribution, he is set upon by the tormentor’s much older brother…

There are few things that upset Alex as much as seeing a member of her family hurting. So when her ten-year-old grandson is severely injured she decides the only thing to do is to take him home, never mind that Duncan’s biological mother, Sarah, will likely throw a fit.

Sarah does throw a fit. She wants the living reminder of the terrible events that led to his unfortunate conception gone, immediately. Alex refuses. Duncan is a child—a child of her blood—and she will not fail him.

The Christmas spirit in the Graham home is seriously threatened as unhealed wounds break open. Caught in the middle is Duncan, a boy who doesn’t quite know where he belongs—or with whom. 
REVIEW: 
I don't remember when I added THE SOFT TOUCH OF ANGELS to my library, but I couldn't help cracking it open over the holiday weekend. I've favored The Graham Saga for several years and the temptation to step into their world again, even for a brief period, proved too much to resist.

At only one hundred and thirty-one pages, THE SOFT TOUCH OF ANGELS is a quick read. Set shortly after THERE IS ALWAYS A TOMORROW, the novella builds on the events chronicled in REVENGE AND RETRIBUTION and affords a lovely segue to the series companion, THE WHIRLPOOLS OF TIME. To date, THE SOFT TOUCH OF ANGELS boasts the most modest page count in The Graham Saga, but I would caution newcomers from treating it as a series teaser or sample. Belfrage offers enough detail for unfamiliar eyes to enjoy her work, but the artistry and multigenerational depth of this story would be impossible to recognize without the foundational background of the full-length novels.

Belfrage weaves some truly beautiful moments into the tapestry of the Graham holiday, moments of both reckoning and recognition that pay homage to some of the most significant events of the series. Threads colored by Michael's quiet strength and Mrs. Parsons's playful banter warm the spirit, but my imagination was sparked by how the author balanced these moments against the more challenging realities of the family's collective experience. The shadow of Rachel Cooke, the complex legacy of the attack suffered by Sarah, and the realization of the person she's become its wake create a powerful portrait of compassion, courage, personal growth, and familial fortitude.

An atypical holiday read; THE SOFT TOUCH OF ANGLES proved delightful and thought-provoking, the kind of read that both satisfies the heart and lingers in your mind's eye long after the final page.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: November 28, 2021
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Thursday, September 16, 2021

#BookReview: The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abe

Genre
Biographical Historical Fiction

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
Perfect for fans of Jennifer Chiaverini and Marie Benedict, this riveting novel takes you inside the scandalous courtship and catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic of the most famous couple of their time—John Jacob Astor and Madeleine Force. Told in rich detail, this novel of sweeping historical fiction will stay with readers long after turning the last page.

Madeleine Talmage Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor. Madeleine is beautiful, intelligent, and solidly upper-class, but the Astors are in a league apart. Jack’s mother was the Mrs. Astor, American royalty and New York’s most formidable socialite. Jack is dashing and industrious—a hero of the Spanish-American war, an inventor, and a canny businessman. Despite their twenty-nine-year age difference, and the scandal of Jack’s recent divorce, Madeleine falls headlong into love—and becomes the press’s favorite target.

On their extended honeymoon in Egypt, the newlyweds finally find a measure of peace from photographers and journalists. Madeleine feels truly alive for the first time—and is happily pregnant. The couple plans to return home in the spring of 1912, aboard an opulent new ocean liner. When the ship hits an iceberg close to midnight on April 14th, there is no immediate panic. The swift, state-of-the-art RMS Titanic seems unsinkable. As Jack helps Madeleine into a lifeboat, he assures her that he’ll see her soon in New York…

Four months later, at the Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansion, a widowed Madeleine gives birth to their son. In the wake of the disaster, the press has elevated her to the status of virtuous, tragic heroine. But Madeleine’s most important decision still lies ahead: whether to accept the role assigned to her, or carve out her own remarkable path… 
REVIEW: 
Am I the only one who hears Kate Winslet's voice in their head every time they look at Shana Abe's THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR? As with most adaptations, the Astors enjoy a cameo role in Titanic (1997). Few, if any, have placed the couple center stage, and I think that reality is what drew me to Abe's work. This lens was set in an angle I'd never seen, and I was excited at the potential of fresh perspective. 

According to Goodreads, most of my peers enjoyed everything about this book, and I think that wonderful. I genuinely love seeing readers find books that speak to them, but my experience with THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR was tempered by a desire for it to have gone further than it does. Without putting too fine a point on it, I'd hoped for something comparable to Alcott's THE DRESSMAKER, a story that spoke to the survivor experience and the advocacy roles adopted by Madeleine and her contemporaries. Abe's story, however, ends amid the solemnity of funeral processions and black silk. 

I realized this story wouldn't touch on Madeleine's interest in women's suffrage or the support she lent the "twilight sleep" campaign before I'd finished the prologue, but I was surprised at the ardency of the romance Abe presented her readers. Tickled though I was by the thought of genuine affection between Madeleine and Jack, I was thrown by how easily the two came together. Like Sissi in Pataki's THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS, Madeleine wasn't the girl on whom her parents initially pinned their ambitions, and, like Consuelo in Harper's AMERICAN DUCHESS, there's reason to believe Madeleine's heart belonged to another before Jack entered her life. I give Abe credit for depicting the social stigma that characterized the couple's marriage, but the historical record offers more dramatic potential than her novel affords, and I can't understand her hesitance to take advantage of that.

Critical though my opinion may seem, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR to anyone interested in the infamous ocean liner. Abe's decadent descriptions of period decor, fashion, and jewelry are without rival, but I'm just not sure this title the best choice for those searching for profound thematic motifs or complex matters of the heart.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 15, 2021
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Sunday, September 12, 2021

#BookReview: Lost in Darkness by Michelle Griep

Genre
Historical Christian Fiction

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
Enchanting Regency-Era Gothic Romance Intertwined with Inspiration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
 
Travel writer Amelia Balfour’s dream of touring Egypt is halted when she receives news of a revolutionary new surgery for her grotesquely disfigured brother. This could change everything, and it does. . .in the worst possible way.
 
Surgeon Graham Lambert has suspicions about the doctor he’s gone into practice with, but he can’t stop him from operating on Amelia’s brother. Will he be too late to prevent the man’s death? Or to reveal his true feelings for Amelia before she sails to Cairo?
REVIEW: 
I was less than ten pages into Michelle Griep's LOST IN DARKNESS when I realized I had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. I have nothing against the genre, but I'd been so distracted at the idea of what this book could be that I failed to identify it as Christian fiction. This fact naturally caused me to question whether or not I'm qualified to review anything more complex than a napkin ring, but that's a topic for another day. 

I came to Griep's work hoping for something akin to Kessel's PRIDE AND PROMETHEUS. This expectation wasn't entirely unreasonable as both novels play on the themes and ideas of Shelley's masterpiece, but the comparison proved analogous to that of apples and oranges, so I took a step back and thought again. Moments in this novel, particularly those where Griep's heroine shares her stage with the famed author, brought Ambrose's CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET to mind, but in terms of content, I think this piece shelves best alongside Daines' IT STARTED IN BUDAPEST.  

That said, my struggle with LOST IN DARKNESS wasn't limited to poorly placed assumptions. I appreciated the melancholic notes Griep struck with Colin, but Amalia, Graham, and Dr. Peckwood proved too static for my tastes. I also felt that despite the emotional aesthetic of the final act, the gothic elements of the story took too long to develop. 

When all is said and done, I'm not sure LOST IN DARKNESS has enough meat on the bone to appeal to secular readers, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to genre enthusiasts. Though I didn't care one way or the other for the religious content of this book, I feel very strongly that I'd have enjoyed it a great deal more if I'd been emotionally invested in its themes and motifs.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 9, 2021
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