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review 2017-07-13 12:13
For lovers of historical fiction and the French Resistance, a novel based on a true episode of cruelty and destruction that should never be forgotten.
Wolfsangel - Liza Perrat

This is the third book by Liza Perrat I have read, and it won’t be the last one. After The Silent Kookaburra set in Australia in the 1970s, I read the first book in the Bone Angel Series, Spirit of Lost Angels. (Read the review here). This is a series that follows the women of a French rural family through the generations, with big jumps in time. The name comes from a little bone angel talisman these women wear and inherit down the female line, together with a skill and talent for nursing (including knowledge of herbs and natural remedies) and midwifery. While Spirit of Lost Angels is set around the time of the French Revolution, this book follows the main character, Célestine (Céleste) through the difficult years of the German occupation of France during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

The book is again narrated by its protagonist, a young girl, eager to prove herself and to lead an interesting life away from her seemingly uncaring and cold mother, in the first person. I know some readers do not like first person narrations although they bring an immediacy and closeness to the proceedings, and help us understand better the main character (well, to the point she understands herself). This device also means that we share in the point of view and opinions of Céleste and we are as surprised by events as she is, as we do not have any more information than she does. I am fascinated by narrators, and although Céleste is not an unreliable narrator by design (she does tell things and events as she experiences them), her rushed and unthinking behaviour at times, her quick reactions, and her youth make her not the most objective of people at times. Of course, if readers cannot manage to connect with Céleste at some level, the novel will be harder to read, but she is a likeable character. She is young, impulsive, and enthusiastic. She is eager to help and will often do it without thinking about the consequences and risks she might be taking. She helps a Jewish family very early on, hiding them on the farm, even when she is convinced her mother will not be happy. She wants to help the Resistance cause and is frustrated by the assumption that she is incapable of making any meaningful contribution to the war efforts because she is a woman. She works hard to prove she can be as useful and courageous as a man and runs incredible risks to achieve her goals.

She is not perfect, though, and her youth is particularly well reflected in her romantic attachment to one of the German officers. As is often the case for young lovers, Céleste seems to fall in love with her idea of romance, having only very limited and furtive contact with the officer. If at first she tries to convince herself that she is only playing a part to gather intelligence (and even her sister Felicité encourages her to try and obtain information), soon things turn serious, proving that she is not as calculating and mature as she would like to believe.

Céleste develops throughout the novel, moving to the city, becoming a true resistance fighter, helping the war effort as a nurse, feeding the prisoners at the station on their way to the camps, spying and passing secret information, and becoming a determined and independent woman. She also proves her strength and determination and survives a terrible ordeal and severe losses.

The cast of secondary characters is also exemplary. Céleste’s family (except for her father that we don’t know much about) are well-drawn and fascinating. The relationship mother-daughter is one of the strongest points and it reminds us of the strong bonds and connections between women (not always straight forward) the series is built on. Felicité, Céleste’s sister, is an amazing character, brave beyond the call of duty and, as we learn later, based on a historical figure. Her actions and her courage are very touching. Her brother is strong and supportive, and also a member of the resistance, and we get to know her friends, the doctor, the priest, and to understand that a lot of the population supported the resistance (some more openly than others), although there were collaborationists there too.

The author creates a great sense of place and historical era. The language, the foods, the clothing, the difficulties of an occupied nation trying to survive and resist are vividly brought to life thanks to the detailed descriptions of the landscape and the events, that make us share in the experience, without burdening the novel with extraneous information. The research is seamlessly incorporated into the story and it reminds us of how close the events are to us and makes us reflect on historical similarities with current times. The style of writing is poetic at times (the descriptions of the forest, Céleste’s love for her home and her pendant…), dynamic and flowing, and it has psychological depth and insight too.

The novel is harrowing and realistic as it describes death and tragedy on a big scale. The events that took place in Oradour Sur Glane in 1944 (and that inspired the novel) are horrific and reading them in the first person helps us understand more fully the kind of horror experienced by the victims and also the survivors.

The ending ties all loose ends together and is perfect for the story.

This is a great book for anybody who loves historical fiction and is interested in the French resistance from a more human perspective. It personalises and brings the readers closer to the experience of the era, at the same time helping us reflect on events and attitudes that are all too familiar. If you prefer your history close, personal, and in the first person, this is your book.

 

 

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review 2017-04-03 10:14
A dark revenge story recommended to readers looking for an author with a distinctive voice and style
A Shiny Coin For Carol Prentice - Mark Barry

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and I was provided with an ARC copy of the novel I freely chose to review.

Although I had heard about the author and read quite a few reviews of his previous books, this is the first of his novels I have read so I can’t compare it to his previous work. I know from his comments in the book that it links to another one of his novels, Carla (I won’t mention how, first, because I haven’t read the other novel, so I can’t comment on how well or badly that works, and second, because I’m going to try very hard not to reveal any spoilers) but I can put at rest the minds of all readers who are in the same circumstances as me. This book can be read as a stand-alone, although I suspect you’ll feel as curious as I am about Carla once you finish reading this novel. 

This novel is narrated in the first person by the eponymous Carol Prentice of the title. And yes, we get to know what the shiny coin means, but again, I’m not going to tell you. She’s a young woman; she’s just finished her degree at Manchester University and has to go back to her hometown because her father has passed away. She had avoided the town for several years (for good reasons as you’ll learn when you read the book) but she comes back to renovate the house and because the time has finally arrived to put her plan into practice. Of course, we don’t get to know about the plan until much later in the novel, but we have some hints throughout. She gets a job at a bookshop (so there are some interesting discussions about literature, mostly initiated by her boss, Steve, who is a connoisseur, not only of books but also of ales and many other things) and it’s not long before ghosts from her past come knocking. What at first appears to be a snotty and spoilt young man’s tantrum turns into a black hole sucking in everything and everybody. Almost.

The novel has some meta-fictional aspects. I’ve already mentioned the conversations about literature, psychology concepts (like the halo effect, perceptual closure), Steve was an author years ago back but did not make it and has strong opinions about popular literature and bestsellers (if you love James Patterson or Fifty Shades, look away now), and the author of this novel, Mark Barry, also makes a cameo appearance in it. As I said before, I haven’t read any of his other works but from some of the reviews, I get the sense that he has appeared in some others. He does not have a big part, and it reminded me of Hitchcock’s appearances in his movies (although Barry’s is a bit more significant than that).

As the novel is narrated in the first-person, we get a close look into the functioning of Carol’s mind and we get to know her better than other characters. She seems to focus a lot of her attention on how people smell (and it’s not always pleasant), what clothes they wear, and how they look. She has some annoying speech habits. There are plenty of ‘like’, ‘I so’, ‘totally’… Those appear not only when she’s talking to others but also when she’s thinking, despite the fact that she’s fairly articulate and perceptive in other ways. It might be funny for some readers and perhaps somewhat annoying for others, but it keeps her real and the story will hook everybody in and will make you keep reading no matter what. Carol says quite a few times that she cannot feel, that she observes things but does not feel them, and when we’ve gone over half the novel she eventually tells Steve why. I had my suspicions but the truth is worse. From her description of the events (that of course, I won’t reveal either) it becomes clear that she was experiencing them she tried to focus on anything but what was happening. She concentrated and observed objects, smells, décor, and it seems her current focus on describing things is a defence mechanism to keep events and people at bay, a way of remaining in control of what is happening as she felt powerless at the time. After her confession to Steve, the floodgates open and she starts feeling again, including acknowledging her complex feelings for Steve, that is difficult to know if they are projected from her need to have support as he becomes some sort of a father figure, or are genuine. She herself is not so sure.

Steve is the other character we get to know in detail, although of course always from Carol’s point of view and this is biased. She likes him from the beginning and he seems a genuinely nice man, much older than her, who’s tried many things and seems to have settled into a quiet life. He is not one for talking much about his feelings (he talks about everything else, though) and he is a recognisable and multi-dimensional character, with a strong sense of moral, that gets caught in a situation not of his making, but doesn’t seem willing or able to extricate himself from it.

Other than Carol and Steve, there aren’t many characters we get to know through the novel. There’s Toby, the baddy, a handsome and rich young man and a bully who believes rules and laws don’t apply to him; there’s also his father, and some other characters that only appear briefly (like the chief of police) but they aren’t as well developed. They only play a minor part in the drama and don’t hold that much of the narrator’s attention. By contrast, the town becomes quite a recognisable character in its own right, with its social mores, its politics and its royalty (so to speak).

The novel is written in a very colloquial way as pertains to the character narrating it (I’ve already mentioned the characteristics of Carol’s language) and there are plenty of references and words very local that might be a bit obscure to readers from outside the UK (or even the region) but that is part of what makes it so distinctive and vivid.

The novel offers quite a few surprises and reveals them slowly. I think most readers will have a variety of hypothesis about what’s going to happen, what the baddies will do next and what the plan is. I’m not sure many people will guess right and is an interesting and effective twist. This is a novel of revenge and just deserts that highlights the fact that there is always a price to pay. We might feel we need to exact revenge to be at peace but things are never quite as easy. With regards to what sets off what Carol describes as ‘the war’ it is pretty banal but, as she acknowledges, it’s not really about that and unfortunately other people get in the middle and end up becoming ‘collateral damage’. It did make me think of Hannah Arendt and her concept of ‘the banality of evil’. In this case not only about the evil person but about what sets it all off.  It does not take much for some people to ruin a person’s life, just because they can…  I’ve already mentioned the ending but I wanted to add that the ending is also a beginning.

I know I’ve been a bit cryptic about this novel but I had to be. I recommend it to those who like stories with psychologically complex characters, where the how is as important as the what, and to readers who’re looking for an author with a distinctive voice and style.  (There is some violence, some talk about sex and disturbing content but none of it is extremely explicit or gore. It is more what we feel at the time of reading it than what is on the page.)

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review 2017-02-03 22:27
An obnoxious and annoying main character that you’ll care about.
The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett - Chelsea Sedoti

Thanks to Net Galley and to Sourcebooks Fire for offering me an ARC of this book that I voluntarily chose to review.

This Young Adult novel is told in the first person by the protagonist, Hawthorn, a girl named after the tree, not the writer, as she has to clarify many times throughout the book. She’s seventeen and not the most popular girl at school. She feels the least popular, as she only has one friend, Emily, she never eats at the cafeteria to avoid others, never gets invited to parties… She has an older brother, Rush, who was a popular football player in High School, although he hasn’t made his dreams come true, her mother is a hippy who stays at home baking and cooking vegan food that nobody seems to appreciate, and her father is more practical and keeps trying to push Hawthorn into choosing a college and growing up. Hawthorn, who writes the story in a diary format, in the first person, is not a lovely girl (well, she is lovable but that’s different). She is selfish and has nothing kind to say to anybody or about anybody. As is often the case at that age, she always thinks the worst of anybody who tries to get closer to her and assumes that everybody’s life is better than hers. She also knows everything and everybody else is boring and/or lame. Let’s say that although she complains bitterly about how unfair her life is, it is not surprising that she doesn’t have a big fan club.

Then, one of the popular girls, Lizzie Lovett, who went to High School with her brother and had since left to live in a nearby town, disappears. She was a cheerleader and a popular girl, everything Hawthorn assumes is a recipe for happiness. She dismisses everybody’s concerns and decides that she’s alive and well. Later, she comes up with a fantastic and paranormal explanation for the disappearance, something that makes her the butt of everybody’s jokes. Somehow, despite the dislike she manifests for the missing girl, she decides to learn everything she can about her in order to prove her theory right, and that becomes her mission in life. That results in her investigating her life, working at her old job and even befriending her boyfriend.

The writing is strong and the character of Hawthorn is realistic and strongly rendered (like her or not. After all it takes all kinds of people). However much or little we might like her take on life (she does moan a lot and can be extremely negative, not only about herself but about everybody around), she is clever, she has a strong imagination and she refuses to be constrained by other people’s expectations and never follows other people’s lead. She refuses to grow up if that means you have to become dull and you can only do what others have done before. How convinced she is of some of her hare-brained schemes is debatable (even she comes to question that towards the end) but that doesn’t stop her or make her less determined.

Throughout her investigation and her adventures, Hawthorn gets to hear quite a few truths about herself; she discovers that she should extend the kindness and tolerance she wishes for herself to others and finds out that friends aren’t  there only to make you feel good and to agree with you. She also discovers that people aren’t who they seem to be, that identity is fluid, and that happiness is less straightforward than she imagines.

Hawthorn’s character grows and matures during the book, even if others don’t, and the cast of secondary characters, that include the members of her family, the people at the café and the visiting hippies, are vividly portrayed and all have important lessons to teach. Even Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend, offers her an insight that is reproduced in the novel itself: sometimes it’s best to leave the ending to the imagination and not to tie all the loose ends. We can’t know everything but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good use of what we learn along the way. (I don’t mean the novel doesn’t end; it does and in a satisfying if somewhat unsurprising way, but the mystery of Lizzie Lovett isn’t fully resolved.)

This novel is strong on characterisation and makes us share the life of a seventeen-year-old girl (however uncomfortable that might be), one that craves excitement and interest and likes to bring drama into her life. I have read negative reviews by people who strongly dislike the main character, although acknowledge the book is well written and the character sounds real. Perhaps for some of us, Hawthorn reminds us of aspects of our personality and our experiences as teenagers that we’d rather not remember because there’s no doubt that most of us have at times been as obnoxious and annoying as her. The mystery and the plot aren’t the main drivers of the book, therefore, I recommend it to those who enjoy character driven novels, quirky stories and personalities, and to those who still remember or want to, the difficult and challenging years of adolescence. And of course to young adults looking for a different kind of heroine.

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review 2016-11-26 21:21
Suspense, red herrings, and a couple of detectives to keep an eye on.
Her Last Breath: A shocking psychological thriller perfect for Hitchcock fans (Detective Kerri Blasco Book 2) - Kirk J. Schneider Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher, RGS Media, for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I review voluntarily. This is the second book in the Detective Kerry Blasco Series, but it can be read independently and although I haven’t read the first book in the series I could follow the story without difficulties. The novel starts with a bang. The story is told in the first person and we share with the main character, Mari, the experience of waking up next to a body, with no memory of how she got there. She panics suffers an asthma attack and is unable to find her inhaler. She is losing consciousness… From that point on, her life is turned upside down; she becomes the main suspect in the murder of a man she’d never met before —a well-known photographer with a shady past, some dubious practices and more than a few enemies — and her estranged husband, a high-flying lawyer, comes back into her life. The story is told from the point of view of Mari, but we also get accounts, in the first person, from other characters, most of them from Kerry Blasco, a female detective that sometimes can have strong intuitions, or so everybody says (that is not too evident in this case, as other characters tell us from the beginning that somebody is setting Mari up, and despite Kerry’s stubbornness and her insistence on Mari’s innocence, her reasoning appears logical and based on clues and evidence rather than any sixth sense). Kerry is a likeable character, a woman coping with a personal trauma, hard-working and empathetic, although we do not get to know her in depth in this novel alone. Her partner, in the police department and in life, Alex, seems to play devil’s advocate to her more sympathetic good cop, although is a good guy at heart. Despite the different points of view, the story is narrated from, each chapter is narrated in full by the same character and these changes are not confusing. Mari, due partly to the effect of the drug somebody put in her drink, which causes her memory problems, to past difficulties with alcohol, and to the shock of her situation, is a character that appears confused and who often acts on impulse rather than using her common sense. She functions as a conduit for the reader and it’s a good device as, like her, we don’t know either what happened and get to suspect everybody and live first hand her anguish and doubts. There’s plenty of intrigues, the action moves at a good pace, and we have many detectives (not only the official ones, but also Mari and Jay, the man who rescues her at the beginning of the book), a number of suspects, and quite a few red herrings, twists and turns. You might or might not guess who the guilty party is, but there are many curve balls and the mystery is well constructed. An enjoyable and dynamic read, with some violence (but not extreme) and no explicit sex scenes or long descriptions, it’s high on entertainment value and will keep you guessing.
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review 2016-10-09 16:38
The course of true love never did run smooth
The Lady Anne (Above all Others; The Lady Anne Book 2) - Ammonia Book Covers,Brooke Aldrich,Lawrence G. Lovasik

I write this review as one of the members of behalf of Rosie’s Books Review Team. I was provided with a free copy of the book as part of the team.

I have read and enjoyed La Petite Boulain, the first book in the Above all Others series and really enjoyed getting to know a bit more about Anne Boleyn’s childhood, and particularly, the way the story was told, in the first person from the point of view of young Anne, or, to be more precise, the young Anne as remembered by the older Anne at the moment of awaiting her death in the Tower.

Here we see Anne return to England after spending part of her childhood and teenage years in courts abroad. She is sad to leave France, as she feels by now more French than English, and the weather and the difficulties of her trip don’t help make her feel at home. Luckily, things take a turn for the better quickly. She meets Thomas Wyatt, a neighbour, accomplished poet, and a childhood friend, and once she joins the court, becoming one of Queen Katherine’s ladies in waiting, she soon meets interesting people, makes new friends, rekindles old friendships, and becomes a fashion icon and very admired for her style, accomplishments, and her personality.

I was curious to see how this novel would portray Anne as a young woman, in an era more familiar to most people than that of her early years. She is presented as an interesting mixture of a clever and intelligent woman, with far wider knowledge and experiences than many of the women her age she meets, but still a young girl at heart, who loves the idea of courting, handsome and romantic knights, and has to admit to being proud of the way men are attracted to her and women copy her dresses and jewels. She changes her mind often and she thinks she is in love with Tom Wyatt one day, although it’s an impossible love, but then decides it’s only friendship. She falls in love with Henry Percy (of much higher standing than her as he’s due to become the Earl of Northumberland) and with her father’s approval pursues a marriage that would have been very advantageous for her family, but when Cardinal Wolsey and Henry’s father forbid the match, her disappointment makes her hate him. And then, there’s King Henry…

I must confess that I enjoyed the discussions about Anne’s ideas and her education in religion and philosophy in the first book, and there were only passing references to it here (partly because she worried about the company she keeps and how they would react if they were aware of her opinions, and partly because there are other things that occupy more of her time), and there is much more about romance and romantic ideas. King Henry seems to notice her following an accident (although perhaps before that) and her behaviour and her refusal to become his mistress seem to spur him on rather than make him forget her and move on. If Henry Percy gave up on her without a fight, this is a man who would risk everything (even the future of his kingdom) for his own enjoyment and to prove himself, and in Anne, he meets a challenge. Not being a big reader of romance, the pull and push of the relationship and the will she/won’t she (especially knowing how things will turn up) part of it was not what interested me the most, although the scenes are well done and I found the fights and disagreements between the couple enjoyable. I became intrigued by King Henry’s portrayal, not so much by what he does and says, but by how others see him. There is a very apt warning her brother George gives her, recalling how King Henry was walking with his arm around a nobleman’s shoulders one afternoon and two days later the said nobleman’s head was topping a pole on the King’s orders.

I was more interested in matters of politics and alliances (confusing as they were), the inner workings of the court, marriages and births, and Anne’s reflections about the roles of women and men in the society of the time, that she struggles against but ultimately feels obliged to follow. I was also intrigued by the depiction of her family, her brother George, always close to her, her sister Mary, who although Anne always saw as too free and easy, she comes to understand and appreciate (and who manages to achieve a happy existence in her own terms, eventually), her mother, who suffers from a strange illness, and her father, who appears to be only interested in the family’s advancement (although claims that it is not for himself, but for those who’ll come after). He seemingly has no respect for morality if it can get in the way of achieving his goals, and at times he treats his daughters as pawns or worse. In the novel, Anne is portrayed as having much of the initiative, at least at the beginning, regarding her relationship with King Henry, but I was very intrigued by the role her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, would come to play, and how much he influenced later events and the rise of Anne to become Queen.

This volume made me wonder, more than the first one, how reliable a narrator is Anne supposed to be. She makes a very interesting comment about wearing masks and the fact that we all perform our roles in public, whatever our feelings or thoughts might really be. After all, this is Anne remembering her life and trying to distract herself from her likely dark fate. Sometimes she does protest too much, when talking about her accomplishments, intelligence and fashion sense, and insists that she does not believe in false modesty. She also talks about Tom Wyatt’s affections and how she had not encouraged him, but she evidently enjoys his attentions. At other times, she describes events and scenes as if she were at the same time protagonist and observer (from telling us what she was feeling and her concerns, she will go on to describe what she looked like or what she was wearing). She does highlight the behaviours she thinks show her in a good light and easily finds ways in which to dismiss some of her more selfish or problematic behaviours, but at a time such as the one she’s living through, after having lost everything and everybody, it’s only understandable. If anything, it shows her as a complex and contradictory individual and makes her appear more real.

The writing is once more fluid and beautifully detailed, bringing to life places, customs and times long past.

Although I know what will happen next, I’m intrigued to read Anne’s version of events and look forward to the next book. I highly recommend this series to anybody interested in Anne Boleyn who enjoys historical fiction, and to anybody who is considering reading about such a fascinating historical figure.

 

 

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