The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Historical Fiction)

Northern Italy in 1923 is the setting for this story of Maria Vittoria, a young woman about to begin an arranged marriage. We travel with her through the next two decades as Fascism and Mussolini take over the country and “Trust no one” becomes her mantra. World War II brings cruel Nazis and marauding Partisans, hunger, deprivation, and fear. Meanwhile, she is raising five children, enduring an abusive marriage, and doing what she believes she must to feed her family and keep them safe.

In addition to painting a picture of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, this is a tale of a loveless marriage, misplaced pride, religious dominance, and the devaluing of women, not only by their fathers and brothers, but also by their husbands and sons. Maria endures not only political tyranny but also that imposed by the men in her life. Yet, she is a traditionalist willing to impose the same fate on her daughters.

As with any story spanning several decades, children grow up before you have a sense of who they are, things happen in the background, the main characters age, and, unless it’s a three-volume saga, you begin to feel like you’ve missed a lot. I care about Maria’s children because they’re Maria’s children, not because I know them as individuals. In fact, mostly, I don’t like them, based on the little I’ve seen. I dislike her husband, and because I’m judging from a blurry snapshot, it’s hard to tell if he has changed much after all these years.

Still, this is the story of a survivor, a woman who perseveres. It is a tale of the sort of hardships that drove many of our own ancestors to seek a better life in a different country. It is well-written and kept me engaged enough to finish it in two days.

Grandma gives The Madonna of the Mountains four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Madonna of the Mountains will be released on June 12, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

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I Was Anastasia

 I Was Anastasia

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon (Historical Fiction)

In 1917, Czar Nicholas II of Russia was deposed by the Bolshevik revolution and exiled to Siberia with his wife and five children. Within a year, the Red Army executed the entire family and several of their servants, but did not reveal the location of their graves.

In 1920, a young woman named Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia, the youngest of the czar’s four daughters. She said she had survived the attempted assassination, and she had the terrible scars to prove it. For the next fifty years, she would fight in international courts to prove her identity.

Ariel Lawhon has written a book that I found gripping, much of it because of the way she laid out the story. Teen-aged Anastasia tells us about her life as the revolution begins and she and her beloved family are suddenly imprisoned in the royal palace. We hear about the arrogance of their captors and the family’s struggles to adjust as they go from obscene opulence to near poverty. We learn to care about twelve-year-old Alexey, the fragile hemophiliac son and heir to a throne he will never possess, and we watch Anastasia and her beautiful older sisters experience the first loves in their young and soon to be cruelly shortened lives.

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters we meet Anna Anderson in 1970. Fifty years have passed since she began her quest to convince the world that she is Anastasia, and now in her seventies, she is still trying. Then, in a storyline reminiscent of the movie Memento, her tale is told in reverse, with more and more details cleverly revealed with each backward movement in time. Finally, the two narratives, Anastasia’s moving forward and Anna’s moving back, converge in the fateful time period and reveal all.

I admit I have a special interest in Anastasia’s tale. I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when publications were full of articles speculating whether Anna Anderson was the tragic royal survivor or a loathsome impostor. The idea fascinated me, and I never did learn the truth. I approached this book’s take on what happened with great anticipation, and Ariel Lawhon did not disappoint.

Grandma gives I Was Anastasia five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I Was Anastasia will be released on March 27, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

As Bright as Heaven

As Bright As Heaven

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Susan Meissner is an accomplished writer of historical fiction (see A Bridge Across the Ocean). As Bright as Heaven, spanning the years 1918 to 1926, follows a Philadelphia family as it experiences the final months of World War I, the ravages of the wide-spread Spanish flu epidemic, and the long-lasting effects of both events.

We become a close observer of three teen-aged sisters – Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa – each of whom has a distinct personality and voice. Evie, the oldest, is the scholar, practical and level-headed. Maggie, in the middle, is caring and passionate. Willa is willful and possesses a temper; she is no stranger to smashing delicate objects when she doesn’t like the way things are going. Their mother, Pauline, is a quiet woman mourning the recent loss of her infant son from a defective heart, and their father, Thomas, is a hard-working man who is learning his uncle’s trade as a mortician. The unexpected flu deaths of family and friends and the aftermath of war touch them all, and each sister copes in her own way.

The story is narrated in alternating chapters by one of the girls or their mother. The chapters are fairly short, and I found the continuous change in point of view disconcerting at times. While first-person narration seems to be the thing nowadays, this story could easily have been told by an omniscient author in the third person, allowing the reader to feel less thrashed about.

The book starts out slow; nothing significant seems to happen for the first twenty-five percent. Once the flu hits, the pace picks up, and one gets a real sense of what life was like in that dreadful era. The ending is almost too tidy, but the story has enough tragedy that one can simply accept and appreciate the good.

Grandma gives As Bright as Heaven four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree

In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree

In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree by Michael A. McLellan (Historical Fiction)

This engrossing novel immerses the reader in the reality of post-Civil War America, following the intertwining stories of a freed slave, a high-minded West Point cadet, and a strong-willed young woman, each struggling to live his or her life in an era of brutality and greed.

Nothing here is sugar-coated. We experience the terror of newly freed slaves pursued by angry white men filled with hatred. We see the power wielded by wealthy men intent on controlling everyone around them, including their daughters. We witness the mindless slaughter of indigenous people as mercenaries and military seek to incite Indian uprisings in order to justify taking their land. At the same time, we know what a band of renegade Indians has done to white settlers and how their leader treats a female captive. We see the good, the bad, and everything in between as we travel with these multi-sided characters on their quests for freedom from personal oppression.

The result is a book full of believable people who take you along on a journey with no guarantees that things will go well. As in real life, predictability is not an aspect here, and the outcome will keep you thinking about their stories long after the closing has been read.

Grandma gives In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Spider and the Stone

The Spider and the Stone

The Spider and the Stone by Glen Craney (Historical Fiction)

Lovers of castles and keeps, knights, and the lore of Scottish clans will thoroughly enjoy this well-written novel. Covering the years 1296 to 1330, the book brings to life the struggles of disparate and often warring Scottish clans to name a king they can all support while striving to rid Scotland of rule by the English kings Edward I, II, and III. Robert the Bruce, James Douglas (also known as The Black Douglas), and William Wallace (Braveheart) are among the familiar Scots portrayed here. We also meet Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II and sometimes known as the She-Wolf of France, plus a myriad of other characters including Edward II’s male lovers, some interesting clerics, a group of Knights Templar, and Isabelle MacDuff, a Scotswoman who played an important role in the crowning of Robert Bruce and is depicted here as James Douglas’s lover.

Glen Craney makes it clear that he has fictionalized the details and stories of historic characters about whose personal lives little is known. He has done extensive research, nicely displayed in his use of the vernacular and in his descriptions of countryside, castles, and towers. As one does from any good work of historical fiction, I came away with a desire to learn more about the time period – in this case, the wars for Scottish independence, the Plantagenet kings, the Knights Templar, and the Culdees. The book, although long, moves steadily and kept my unflagging interest, much of that driven by Craney’s writing style which fits the era in its elegance. The book includes intricate battle scenes based on real events, minor love scenes, and some gore.

Grandma gives The Spider and the Stone five stars.  5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Revenants: The Odyssey Home

Revenants

Revenants: The Odyssey Home by Scott Kauffman (Historical Fiction)

A revenant is a person who returns after a long absence. In this book, more than one revenant is making the long trip back.

In an Ohio hospital in 1973, an unknown veteran of World War I is secreted away in a hidden room. Meanwhile, a teen-aged candy striper working in that hospital has recently lost her brother in Viet Nam and is now making bad decisions that threaten to derail her future. When she accidentally discovers the hideously injured old soldier, she decides she will get him home to his family before he dies. But no one seems to know who he is or where he comes from, except for one person who has good reason to keep him hidden. In the process of unearthing the soldier’s life story, the girl comes to realize the significance of honoring her brother’s memory by living her own life to the fullest.

This absorbing book takes the reader into the trenches of WWI as well as into the hearts and minds of characters who have lost loved ones in Vietnam or WWI. We witness the pain experienced by siblings, the despair and heartbreak of parents, and the anguish of girlfriends and fiancés who still suffer decades later. We feel the meaningless waste of young people with everything to live for, and we can only try to imagine the hell of being trapped in what remains of a body after horrifying injuries that render one unable to hear, see, walk, or communicate. At the same time, we watch the human spirit fight back, overcome, and go on.

This is not a light or happy book, but it is a book worth reading. While generally well-written, it does have some dialogue without sufficient dialogue tags so that at times it is hard to know who’s speaking. There are several noticeable spots where the final period is missing, and occasionally, a wrong word is used, my favorite being copula (a real word) when the author meant cupola.

Grandma gives Revenants: The Odyssey Home four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

On Writing: Guest Post by C.J. Bentley, author of “The Shield”

I write notes down anywhere and everywhere but mainly whilst traveling, something I do a lot of. Airports are a great source for people watching and for ideas forming; I have always kept a small pad in my handbag for jotting ideas down at random.  I am on to my fifth pad and it is interesting looking back through them to see what I have written in the past.  The idea for ‘The Shield’ was my first jotting in my first note book from many years ago.

I write at home in Dubai, mostly sitting at the table in the dining room, high backed chairs to support my back with my laptop on the table along with a cup of coffee and an occasional snack of banana, or cut up apple.  Sometimes I can write for a good few hours, the time just flies by.  I don’t plan the way a story grows when I write.  I research the period and what happened in that time, a background to the sixties, the music and the news of the period are noted in the book to add substance to the writing.

I look through my research before I start to write but what happens to the main characters evolves from my brain onto the laptop screen via my typing.  When I read it back to myself it is a really exciting process.  I think of each writing session as a journey of discovery, for myself as well as the reader.

I started to write these adventure books for my grandson as I couldn’t find anything to read to him that didn’t feature vampires, zombies and farts, not good bedtime reading but it wasn’t until I found myself living in Doha and for the first time in my life found I had the time to do it.  In Doha I sat at my husband’s desk in his study where his computer was installed.  It has a large screen and after sitting and writing for a few hours I amazed myself when I saw how many thousand words I had written.  My laptop doesn’t have a word count or if it has I haven’t discovered it yet.  The study where my husband’s desk stood was furthest away from the hot sun it was cool which is a bonus in Qatar.

As I write this post I am in France, I have escaped the heat of summer in Dubai as I do each year to briefly live in this beautiful area of France, the Limousine.  It is hot but not uncomfortably so and I am sat at the table outside in the garden with the large lime green, rectangular umbrella casting its shade over me.  A pot of coffee is at my elbow with my favourite mug and a spoon, milk I keep in the fridge so have to travel inside to the kitchen to add to my coffee.  It would curdle if left out in this sunshine.  I sit for hours at this table when in writing mode.  This is my very favourite place to write because of the quiet.  No noise other than the birdsong keeps me company, apart from now when my sister, who is currently watching tennis on the television, is staying with me.   I have a background noise of the ball bouncing on the grass court at Wimbledon and my sister’s exclamations at the amazing tennis rallies.  No idea who is playing but it sounds like a good match.

I try not to eat snacks whilst writing, I have a good breakfast and then sometimes only a bowl of cherries, my most favourite fruit, French cherries are wonderful, I often eat my own weight in them when I arrive each summer.  I then don’t eat until late afternoon, thus consuming only two meals a day, enough when sitting at the table writing not using physical energy only brain energy.

My long suffering husband in Dubai is quite used to me jumping out of bed early morning to write my ideas down in my notebook as they come to me.  I tend to get them in that half-awake time between sleep and being fully awake.  The first time I did this he came plodding after me, half awake, wondering what on earth was the matter was I ill, did I need anything and when he found that it was me having a creative idea he returned to bed grumbling that his wife was slightly potty.

CJBentley_AuthorPhoto2About the author: Originally heralding from the North of England, C.J Bentley has traveled extensively and enjoyed living in a variety of countries across the world from Dubai to Doha, Qatar and now the countryside in the South of France. A background in teaching and childcare she has always enjoyed creating adventure short stories. However, it was when she became a grandma and with her grandchildren growing up that she discovered that books seemed to contain only stories of vampires, zombies and farts that she decided seriously to take matters into her own hands and put pen to paper which today she calls The Finder Series.

Website – https://www.cjbentleyonline.co.uk/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/CJBentleyAuthor/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/CJBentleyAuthor

The Shield Cover

The Shield

People lose their belongings. That is a fact of life. It can happen by accident, but sometimes it can happen when you put them in a very safe place and forget where that safe place is. Not many people are good at finding them again.

A young, gutsy girl with a kind heart, who’s searching for her own identity growing up in the 1960s, just happens to be very good at finding things. Can she be the one to help return whatever is lost – anywhere and at any time – to its original owner?

With the help of a beautiful yet mysterious wise woman and a chivalrous knight she does just that. She finds and returns his shield, lost in battle, which unbeknown to her holds a secret that is important to his king, the safety of the kingdom, and the life of the daughter of his best friend.

The Shield is the first story in The Finder Series, taking our heroine on extraordinary journeys back in time. Her first adventure takes place in Medieval England in 1340 where she meets King Edward III, his wife, Philippa, and their son who will later become the Black Prince.

For our review of The Shield go here.