The Subway Girls

The Subway Girls

The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall (Historical Fiction)

The lives and career ambitions of two young women — one in 1949 and one in 2018 — intersect in this timely novel that seeks to show how much and how little has changed for women over a span of almost seventy years.

From 1941 to 1976, the New York City subway system held a beauty contest called Miss Subways. Placards featuring the individual winners adorned the subway trains, each young woman getting her fleeting moment of glamor and fame for a month. For Charlotte in 1949, the contest offered an escape from her father’s heavy-handed control of her future, as well as a possible break into the male world of advertising as a career. In 2018, Olivia faces cutthroat male co-workers in her New York City advertising firm as she makes a last-ditch effort to land an important contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

We follow each young woman in her own era in alternating chapters. Although there are a few surprises, I found much of it predictable and some of the coincidences a bit much. I felt like Olivia made some poor choices for a supposedly savvy businesswoman, and the conclusion was less than satisfying. Still, it is an interesting read for the historical aspects and a look at life in NYC, both post-World War II and present day.

Grandma gives The Subway Girls three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley with a request for an honest review.

The Subway Girls will be released on July 10, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

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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.

 

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.