Monday, August 8, 2022

Review: Joan

Title: Joan
Author: Katherine J. Chen

Publisher: 12th July 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 343 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre:  historical fiction, retellings

My Rating: 4 cups


Girl. Warrior. Heretic. Saint? A stunning secular reimagining of the epic life of Joan of Arc, in the bold tradition of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

1412. France is mired in a losing war against England. Its people are starving. Its king is in hiding. From this chaos emerges a teenage girl who will turn the tide of battle and lead the French to victory, an unlikely hero whose name will echo across the centuries.

In Katherine J. Chen's hands, the myth and legend of Joan of Arc is transformed into a flesh-and-blood young woman: reckless, steel-willed, and brilliant. This deeply researched novel is a sweeping narrative of her life, from a childhood steeped in both joy and violence to her meteoric rise to fame at the head of the French army, where she navigates both the perils of the battlefield and the equally treacherous politics of the royal court. Many are threatened by a woman who leads, and Joan draws wrath and suspicion from all corners, even as her first taste of fame and glory leave her vulnerable to her own powerful ambition.

With unforgettably vivid characters, transporting settings, and action-packed storytelling, Joan is a thrilling epic, a triumph of historical fiction, as well as a feminist celebration of one remarkable—and remarkably real—woman who left an indelible mark on history.

My Thoughts

"I, Joan, am coming for you."

Joan of Arc, such a well-known historical figure, one could be forgiven for wondering what spin an author could bring to warrant yet another book. Upon reading the first few pages it becomes abundantly clear why. Katherine Chen has written a very special and unique interpretation of this famous historical figure. She makes it very clear that this is a retelling, a reimagining of this incredible woman from history and she does an amazing job in giving a more contemporary and feminist perspective.

The author explores Joan from a completely different vantage point - her upbringing - with the greater part of the book being dedicated to this time. This makes for a highly engaging read as you are given an insight into Joan’s youthful feelings and the trauma she endured. This is not the religious and devout Joan of history books. This is very much a real person brought up in poverty and the impact of living with an abusive father. This is a girl who climbs trees, roams the village with her dog, loves her sister and both witnesses and experiences incredible trauma. This makes her determined to get out and do something … anything. 

Joan is a book that reimagines how her upbringing may have influenced her to become the teenage leader of the French army we are all familiar with. This is not a book about religious piety, in fact, it very much places under the microscope the life and culture of France at the time. Katherine has done an incredible job of melding both fact and fiction that it all rolls into one incredibly engaging tale. If historical fiction about real people from the past is something that interests you, be sure to pick this book up. You won’t be disappointed.

“Perhaps we were both foolish to expect any other conclusion than this. You have been permitted to do so much. You were the exception to every rule. But how could you overturn a game that is as old as time itself? I think now you were always meant to fail."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Review: The Italian Ballerina

Title: The Italian Ballerina

Author: Kristy Cambron

Publisher: 12th July 2022 by Thomas Nelson

Pages: 384 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre:  historical fiction, World War II, romance, Italy

My Rating: 4 cups


A prima ballerina. Two American medics. And a young Jewish girl with no name . . . At the height of the Nazi occupation of Rome, an unlikely band of heroes comes together to save Italian Jews in this breathtaking World War II novel based on real historical events.

Rome, 1943. With the fall of Italy’s Fascist government and the Nazi regime occupying the streets of Rome, British ballerina Julia Bradbury is stranded and forced to take refuge at a hospital on Tiber Island. But when she learns of a deadly sickness that is sweeping through the quarantine wards—a fake disease known only as Syndrome K—she is drawn into one of the greatest cons in history. Alongside hospital staff, friars of the adjoining church, and two Allied medics, Julia risks everything to rescue Italian Jews from the deadly clutches of the Holocaust. But when one little girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina arrives at their door, Julia and the others are determined to reunite the young dancer with her family—if only she would reveal one crucial secret: her name.

Present Day. With the recent loss of her grandfather—a beloved small-town doctor and WWII veteran—Delaney Coleman returns home to help her aging parents, even as she struggles to pick up the pieces of her own life. When a mysterious Italian woman claims she owns one of the family’s precious heirlooms, Delaney is compelled to uncover what’s true of her grandfather’s hidden past. Together with the woman’s skeptical but charming grandson, Delaney learns of a Roman hospital that saved hundreds of Jewish people during the war. Soon, everything Delaney thought she knew about her grandfather comes into question as she wrestles with the possibility that the man she’d revered all her life had unknown ties to Rome and may have taken noble secrets to his grave.

Based on true accounts of the invented Syndrome K sickness, The Italian Ballerina journeys from the Allied storming of the beaches at Salerno to the London ballet stage and the war-torn streets of WWII Rome, exploring the sometimes heart-wrenching choices we must make to find faith and forgiveness, and how saving just one life can impact countless others.

My Thoughts

Author, Kristy Cambron, writes at the conclusion of her novel: In this way history is powerful. To remember. To learn. To see and understand the human experience through another’s lens. And we hope to give empathy a foothold to grow in our own hearts. Let us be changed. I love this and found her latest book, The Italian Ballerina, to be a wonderful piece of historical fiction full of empathy and hope.

‘A voice inside told Court as sure as anything he’d known in his entire life - he was there for a reason. The reason was her.’

There is a little girl with a battered suitcase, memories she has locked safely away from the invading soldiers. Two kind soldiers who go to incredible lengths to save her and a ballerina who learns what it really means to give and succeed in life. In the contemporary timeline, there is a soccer star who seeks to protect those he loves and a young American searching for answers surrounding a battered suitcase she has inherited from her grandfather. This is an exquisitely written tale that delightfully comes full circle. 

“What does a ballerina have to give? Truly?” Julia tipped her shoulders in a delicate shrug. “I’d dreamed all my life of dancing on the grandest stages in the world. I thought to achieve that would bring me happiness. Or purpose. And it did, for a time. But I stand here with you and find what we’re doing in this one moment matters more to me than all the years of dancing that have come before it. I’m not even certain how I know that, except that I’ve found the most beautiful things in this life to be not of my own hand. And I can see a plan in all of that.”

The only drawback to this wonderful novel is the scattered timelines - rather than being a dual tale there are four timelines that sadly, make it difficult to follow at times. This is compounded through erratic switching and streamlining for smoother transitions would have been desirable. If not for these disconnections I would have rated the book more highly. This is a tale certainly worth reading but concentration is required and flicking back and forth is near impossible on a kindle. 

The Italian Ballerina is a wonderfully rich take full of despair and courage, loss, love and hope. The time spent in modern day Rome and the wartime hospital learning of Syndrome K was a definite highlight. There is romance, drama and the reader walking away all the richer with a full heart. Recommended to lovers of historical fiction. 

“We’re all human, Matt. We all make mistakes and we learn from them. You have to allow for forgiveness in there somewhere. Without grace, none of us would make it a day.”

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review: Gone to Ground

Title: Gone to Ground
Author: Bronwyn Hall

Publisher: 3rd August 2022 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 272 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre:  contemporary, mystery, adventure, romance

My Rating: 5 cups


HUNTED. ALONE. AFRAID... A heart-in-the-mouth and utterly addictive adventure thriller from a phenomenal debut Australian talent. 

UN surgeon Rachel Forester is posted at a remote medical clinic deep in the jungle of Democratic Republic of the Congo. With violence escalating in the region, Dr Forester risks her life by remaining to tend an injured child while the rest of her team evacuates. On the cusp of her final desperate chance to leave, a soldier is carried into the camp by three other members of his unit, his condition so critical, his airlift must take priority over hers.

With no help coming, and in the path of warring militias, this small unit must flee through the heart of the jungle to reach the safety of the province capital. But in the dark wilderness lies a strangling web of crime and corruption. As they get deeper, they discover a sinister mining operation and stolen children with evidence indicating shadowy ties to the UN. But aren't those the people Dr Forester works for? The only people who know she's still lost out there? And now, the people who want her dead?

The further they delve, the more the web closes around them. Will they make it out alive?

My Thoughts

WOW! Just wow! What a journey! Gone to Ground was unexpected and totally thrilling - this debut novel by Aussie author Bronwyn Hall was brilliant! Fast paced action, packed full of a thrilling adventure with a steaming romance that is not to be missed. I loved it!

 ‘There’s no room. You can’t all fit.’ ‘He’s coming instead of me,’ I said. ‘What?’ ‘It’s okay, I’ll … hide or something. They’ll think I’ve gone with you, so they won’t look for me.’ Both of us knew I was talking crap.’

Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is about a UN doctor risking her life to save others and a secret op Canadian military team on a mission. When things go horribly wrong they are forced to set off on foot to safety through the jungle.This book truly had it all - UN military scenario, diamond mining, child abduction, medical dramas, scary jungle with things blowing up all round. The slow burn romance between a down to earth Aussie doctor and a French Canadian soldier makes it worth the read alone - if there is a follow up book with these two I’m queuing up to buy it! All these aspects perfectly combined to produce a rollicking good tale that had me furiously turning pages with a climactic end that had me on the edge of my seat!

‘I spoke of the Congo. Of the instability, the poverty, the health needs and what I’d been doing since I’d left. There was enough colour and detail that they got insight into the difficulties and tragedy’

For a first time author who was not a doctor or had not been ‘lost’ in the jungle this was amazingly well done! I walked every painstaking step and will think of Rachel with every spider I now see 😉 The drama, the mystery and the romance all come together to form the perfectly told story. The plot builds with perfect pacing with the descriptions of the jungle terrifyingly real, the drama in the operating theatre horrifying true.

‘Being a doctor means I look after the health and wellbeing of others, and that territory comes with a lot of abstaining from judgement. But in this part of the real world, staying neutral feels like a stupid, blind luxury.’

Rachel’s writing was on point, richly detailed and immersive particularly when it comes to romance. The connection and sexual tension between Rachel and Anton was palpable. I would read it for this alone. The writing, particularly the ‘kaleidoscope’ scene is off the charts. The secondary characters enabled this to become an  incredibly exciting plot - the ones you loved (Lucas and Jax) and the ones you despised (Christopher).

‘His words pierced straight through the lustful ache dominating my bloodstream and sank into my soul like water into sand.’

If you are looking for an exciting combination of a fast moving, tension filled drama that is overflowing with action this is your book. The steam of the romance smokes off the page with super writing that you can easily lose yourself in. Gone to Ground is a superb debut novel that truly excited me and I highly recommend it as I found it so engaging and fulfilling. 

‘The jungle seemed impenetrable, yet I knew it was filled with creatures in their comfort zone, creatures adapted to their environment in a way I wasn’t.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Review: The War Girls

Title: The War Girls
Author: V.S. Alexander

Publisher: 26th July 2022 by Kensington Books

Pages: 368 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, world war II

My Rating: 3.5 crowns


Casting light into one of the darkest periods of World War II, acclaimed author V.S. Alexander’s powerful historical novel tells of two Jewish sisters of Polish descent who unite in a fight to save their family from the Warsaw Ghetto.

It’s not just a thousand miles that separates Hanna Majewski from her younger sister, Stefa. There is another gulf—between the traditional Jewish ways that Hanna chose to leave behind in Warsaw, and her new, independent life in London. But as autumn of 1940 draws near, Germany begins a savage aerial bombing campaign in England, killing and displacing tens of thousands. Hanna, who narrowly escapes death, is recruited as a spy in an undercover operation that sends her back to her war-torn homeland.

In Hanna’s absence, her parents, sister, and brother have been driven from their comfortable apartment into the Warsaw Ghetto. Sealed off from the rest of the city, the Ghetto becomes a prison for nearly half a million Jews, struggling to survive amid starvation, disease, and the constant threat of deportation to Treblinka. Once a pretty and level-headed teenager, Stefa is now committed to the Jewish resistance. Together, she, Hanna, and Janka, a family friend living on the Aryan side of the city, form a trio called The War Girls. Against overwhelming odds and through heartbreak they will fight to rescue their loved ones, finding courage through sisterhood to keep hope alive . . 

My Thoughts

Having read and enjoyed V.S. Alexander, The Taster, I was excited to return to his writing. As he states himself, “(I) feature strong women protagonists whose lives take them on incredible journeys in settings fraught with danger and intrigue. Along the way, they learn about life, love, and themselves.”

‘You can be a War Girl, like the rest of us - someone who stands against the Nazis and fights for freedom.’

An incredible amount of research has gone into The War Girls inclusive of topics such as Judaism and the Warsaw ghetto, with spying operations during WWII -  specifically, the SOE from England. It was interesting to read about the lengths many Jews went to in trying to preserve their religious and cultural values during the Nazi occupation and time spent in the Warsaw ghetto. 

‘Like a caged animal clawing to escape; she coveted the power and determination to break free’

With overarching themes of family and friendships, bravery and tragedy, loss and hope readers will lose themselves in the three main characters - one life in the ghetto, one a Polish Catholic in Warsaw and one an SOE operative. Although slow at times, the details are rich and incredibly heartbreaking. If the atrocities that occurred in Poland during WWII, specifically in the ghetto, are something that interests you then this is a must read. 

‘No one will know the truth, and we will be no more significant than the dust we’re made from.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Review: Mercury Pictures Present

Title: Mercury Pictures Present
Author: Anthony Marra

Publisher: 26th July 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 408 pages

Genre: historical fiction

My Rating: 3.5 cups


The epic tale of a brilliant woman who must reinvent herself to survive, moving from Mussolini's Italy to 1940s Los Angeles

Like many before her, Maria Lagana has come to Hollywood to outrun her past. Born in Rome, where every Sunday her father took her to the cinema instead of church, Maria immigrates with her mother to Los Angeles after a childhood transgression leads to her father's arrest.

Fifteen years later, on the eve of America's entry into World War II, Maria is an associate producer at Mercury Pictures, trying to keep her personal and professional lives from falling apart. Her mother won't speak to her. Her boss, a man of many toupees, has been summoned to Washington by congressional investigators. Her boyfriend, a virtuoso Chinese-American actor, can't escape the studio's narrow typecasting. And the studio itself, Maria's only home in exile, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.

Over the coming months, as the bright lights go dark across Los Angeles, Mercury Pictures becomes a nexus of European émigrés: modernist poets trying their luck as B-movie screenwriters, once-celebrated architects becoming scale-model miniaturists, and refugee actors finding work playing the very villains they fled. While the world descends into war, Maria rises through a maze of conflicting politics, divided loyalties, and jockeying ambitions. But when the arrival of a stranger from her father's past threatens Maria's carefully constructed facade, she must finally confront her father's fate--and her own.

Written with intelligence, wit, and an exhilarating sense of possibility, Mercury Pictures Presents spans many moods and tones, from the heartbreaking to the ecstatic. It is a love letter to life's bit players, a panorama of an era that casts a long shadow over our own, and a tour de force.

My Thoughts

‘Everyday the war in Europe produced melodrama to rival Hollywood's most indolent imaginations’

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra is a piece of historical fiction that takes the reader into the lives of several individuals associated with an American movie studio during the 1940s. I thought this was a clever way to approach this time period  as it was different and unique. Combined with a distinct writing style the end result is most interesting.

Looking at Mercury Pictures allows Anthony to weave a range of characters and themes throughout the story. The downside of this is that, clever as it is, it does lend itself towards readers per chance getting lost amongst the many threads. Still, if a unique read surrounding an iconic era is your thing then look no further. Anthony undertakes themes including movie studios and war propaganda, European war refugees/immigrants who look to establish their identity and find a place for themselves in America. 

Maria Lagana is the consistent character in this tale, with characters coming and going and a look at the issues that surround each of them. Her story is the common thread throughout. Anthony has a unique writing style and is able to achieve many people and plots throughout this book with his flavour of writing. This is not really a story about war, rather it’s about what it was like to live through a war and the consequences of that to both governments and individuals. 

Touching on politics, immigrants, the impact of war and many, many other stories Anthony presents a unique perspective of this time. It is an interesting take and at times you will laugh, at times you will pause but there is no doubt Mercury Pictures Presents will appeal to a cross section of readers. 

Long before she went to work in the pictures, she understood that the true temptation of fantasy wasn’t its outlandishness but its aching plausibility.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Review: The Last Hours in Paris

Title: The Last Hours in Paris
Author: Ruth Druart

Publisher: 12th July 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 443 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre:  historical fiction, World War II, romance

My Rating: 4 cups


1940s: Elise is a young French woman secretly helping the resistance in German-occupied Paris. Sebastian is a young German soldier working as a translator. They meet, fall in love, and are relishing in the unforeseen happiness they have found in one another, despite being on opposite sides of the war. After liberation, however, the young couple is tragically torn apart, with Sebastian arrested by the French resistance and Elise captured and shamed as a ‘collabo’ by her own people, before being sent to Brittany for her own protection.

The lovers are parted, each believing the other to be lost forever. 

1960s: Elise and her 18-year-old daughter, Josephine, live in Brittany, France, with Brigitte, a gruff and bitter Frenchwoman who took Elise in after the war. Josephine has always been told that her father was a Frenchman who died when she was a baby—but when she discovers she is, in fact, the daughter of a German soldier, she travels to England to find out more about her real father. To her shock, she learns he is not dead, but living in the U.K. where he settled after the war and made a new life with his wife, Margaret, an Englishwoman who knows nothing of his past.

When Josephine reveals that her mother Elise is still alive, Sebastian must make the most difficult decision of his life: honor his duty to his new family, or return to his first great love?

My Thoughts

Much like her first book, While Paris Slept, this is a dual wartime historical fiction narrative with an enticing twist that poses difficult questions. Ruth has once again delivered her readers with a tale that is uniquely moving and sure to pull at your heartstrings. 

‘It's a funny thing, nationality. What does it really mean to be French? Or to be German?’

Inspired by family history, I loved the character of Sebastian - an ordinary man with unbearable choices. Forced to become part of the German army as a translator and in so doing, partake in an ethos he did not believe in. Elise became his reason for living. The Last Hours of Paris is about love, loss, sorrow and hope. Much like her first novel, Ruth takes you on a journey through Parisian war torn streets where near impossible decisions will need to be made. It will be difficult to have an ending that can avoid heartbreak. 

‘… he hardly knows himself. He's never been free to make his own choices. He

was an obedient son who became an obedient soldier. But there's more to him than that. He's a troubled soul.’

This is a story about all the victims of war and the ultimate cost of following your heart. Like I said, it raises difficult questions for which there are never any easy answers - but I love that it makes you think. Emotional turmoil involving family, lovers and in time, their children. This is a well written story ranging from the days of occupation, to liberation to the ramification of collaboration. Historical fiction fans are sure to find The Last Hours in Paris an appealing book. 

‘Not excuses, Élise. Reasons. When you get to my age, you see the world differently, you realise there's the story and then there's the story behind it … don't be so quick to judge.'

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.