Girls on the Line

Girls on the Line

Girls on the Line by Aimie K. Runyan (Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction)

Good historical fiction informs as well as entertains. Girls on the Line does a great job of both as it takes us into the lives of young women who served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I.

While books about World War II abound, not a lot of present-day fiction is set during the Great War. As the author notes, modern-day Europeans are much more aware of the first world war than Americans are. But 100 years ago, Americans — both men and women — were deployed to Europe to fight “the Hun.” Among those individuals were female switchboard operators who volunteered to serve on the front lines connecting the troops with their commanding officers via telephone.

Runyan has done a lot of research, including reading the diaries of women who served in the signal corps. Her story is rich with details as well as nicely developed characters whose fates we become invested in. We see independent young women struggle with the misogyny and paternalism of the era, including the arranged marriages common among high-society families, and we witness the deplorable lack of recognition for the heroism of the “Hello Girls” as the operators were called, when the war ends.

Five stars.

This reviewer received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley for the purpose of an independent review.

Girls on the Line will be released on November 6, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

 

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The Wartime Sisters

The Wartime Sisters

The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman (Historical Fiction)

Another World War II novel, this one set in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the Springfield Armory. The author grew up in the area and has done a thorough job of researching the armory’s history and physical setting. She has read all of the old armory newsletters,  knows how the officers and their families lived, and understands how work in the munitions factories went. Still, I have a hard time thinking of this as historical fiction, for the story that is told could be set anywhere, any time. The armory and World War II simply provide an interesting (and currently popular) environment.

Two sisters have been estranged for most of their lives. Ruth, the serious one, has always resented her younger sister’s beauty and active social life. Everyone notices Millie; Ruth is invisible. They go their separate ways as adults, but then circumstances throw them back together when Millie shows up at Ruth’s door with a two-year-old and a husband who is MIA.

Ruth is happily married. Her husband is an officer stationed at the armory, and she has young twin daughters. Still, she is reserved and unsure of herself in social settings, and when Millie comes back into her life, old resentments flare. She relives every petty conflict and every perceived slight from their youth. Millie, meanwhile, is struggling to make ends meet and to take care of her child. She takes an armory job making triggers. But instead of endearing her to Ruth, their reversed social status only seems to make things worse. Ruth finds Millie a burden she must endure. Millie longs to get away from her bossy older sister.

The blurb for the novel refers to “deep secrets” that each sister carries, but they weren’t that deep nor were they a big surprise. There is some tension, a fleeting moment or two of danger, but any dangerous situations are quickly resolved. In short, there’s not a lot of new stuff here. As for the era, other than some name-dropping and a rare reference to a restaurant or club where Jews are not allowed, we’re not overly aware of the times. The war doesn’t really influence our protagonists’ daily lives beyond the fact that the armory makes arms and there’s a shortage of sensible shoes. The working class goes to work, and the haughty officers’ wives could be high society matrons anywhere.

Three stars.

This reviewer received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

This book will be released on January 22, 2019, and is available for pre-order.

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.