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#TuesdayBookBlog Tales From The Hamlet: Memories of Italy by Cassandra Campbell-Kemp (@CassCK55) A distinctive voice, and an Italian tale full of food, wonderful landscapes, and packed with useful information #RBRT

Hi all:

I’m sharing today another great find thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team. This will appeal to lovers of Italy and anybody who enjoys a bit of armchair travel.

Tales from the Hamlet. Memories of Italy by Cassandra Campbell-Kemp

Tales from the Hamlet. Memories of Italy by Cassandra Campbell-Kemp

At the age of 61, Cassandra, a single and peripatetic Brit, was asked to pack up her house and move to Italy to take up the offer of a much-needed job. 15 months later she was made redundant, leaving her unnerved, broke and unable to return home. Her dream of a new life was rapidly turning into a nightmare and, saddled with all her belongings, her antique furniture, over 800 books and her aged Siamese cat she had nowhere to go.

A kind friend offered them sanctuary in a tiny converted former barn in his family’s ‘Borgo’, a cluster of rustic properties grouped around a late-Medieval manor House in the mountains; the beautiful and mysterious Emilian Appenines of northern Italy. There she was befriended and watched over by the owner; an eccentric octogenarian, his household ghosts and 14 semi feral cats.

The experience proved to be challenging yet deeply transformative as she struggled to recover her equilibrium and rebuild her life.

https://www.amazon.com/Tales-Hamlet-Memories-Cassandra-Campbell-Kemp-ebook/dp/B09HKGN2XW/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09HKGN2XW/

https://www.amazon.es/Tales-Hamlet-Memories-Italy-English-ebook/dp/B09HKGN2XW/

Author Cassandra Campbell-Kemp

About the author:

Cassandra is a somewhat eccentric, unconventional and fiercely independent woman of pensionable age. Formerly an international real estate executive she travelled widely, living and working in various European countries – including Italy, Greece and Spain. During her time in Europe she fell in love with the countries, their cultures, the people and the food! She learnt several languages and spent all her spare time exploring.

Now happily retired, she lives alone with her rescue cat, Felix, in a quintessential 17th century English cottage where she writes about her 30 years of adventures. Her first book, ‘Cauliflowers through the Catflap and other tales from a solitary lockdown’ is a humorous and very tongue-in-cheek look at her experiences of shielding alone through the Covid pandemic. Her second book, ‘Tales from the Hamlet’, is a heartwarming tale of what happened when, living in Italy, she was unexpectedly made redundant and saddled with all her antique furniture, over 800 books and an elderly Siamese cat, she had no money to return home and nowhere to go.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/CASSANDRA-CAMPBELL-KEMP/e/B09HNW2ZSG/

 My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.

As a memoir, this is a book that shares the experiences of the author, narrated in the first-person, at a particular point in her life, rather than being an exhaustive account of her biography. That means that the author has chosen a particular aspect or period of her life to share, and this is interesting in its own right, as from the little she tells us at the beginning and what she reveals throughout the book, it soon becomes evident that she has embarked in many adventures, has lived and worked in many different countries, speaks many languages, and her lifestyle does not conform to what many people would expect in somebody of her age. She is not married, has no children, grandchildren, or close family, and although she loves her own space and her independence, she is neither domestic nor domesticated.

There are several elements that make this book unique: the protagonist is not a young woman, she is not in the best of health, and she makes a risky choice at a point in life when most people would be looking forward to their retirements (or even taking early retirement). After years of living abroad, going from country to country, and moving from one challenging but fulfilling job to another, she doesn’t seem to be able to find a suitable job at home (back in the UK). So when an offer from Italy comes knocking at her door, she does not hesitate. This is not a woman who is trying to find herself or discover anything new (even if she learns plenty); she is moving due to her career. Also, although she meets plenty of people and makes many friends, there is no romance in sight (thankfully)! The topic of the Brexit (the book takes place before the treaty was finalised, but it had been voted already and was in the process of being finalized) results in plenty of jokes about her having to marry an Italian man, but these are only jokes, and despite passing comments about the attractiveness of some of the men she meets, and some harmless flirting, this is not a story about a woman who finally finds “the right man”. She is quite clear in her choices, and she enjoys living by herself.

This being Italy, there is plenty of food, wine, amazing landscapes, and Italian words and phrases, but the protagonist is not a cook, and she enjoys the food but does not share recipes or tricks about Italian home cooking. (Sorry if you were expecting those).

She is not big at sharing her past history either, and, other than a brief introduction (that goes some way to explaining how she found herself with a CV full of experience in many different jobs all over Europe but with no formal qualifications or diplomas, and also a polyglot without any certificates in any of the languages she is fluent in), she only reveals things that are directly relevant to the story or to the background of characters we come in contact with (her best friend from home, Ugo, her Italian friend, who finds her the perfect accommodation…), and she also answers the direct questions of some of the people she meets, but Cassandra is not a woman who spends her time idly mulling over her past and what could have been. Yes, she does worry about the future, and she needs a bit of help to assess her options in a realistic manner. Nonetheless, this is a woman who is always looking forward and thinking of what task she can undertake next, and that might vary from the very practical and every day (like changing banks and getting the internet installed), to projects that could help develop and reshape the region she is staying in, bringing in foreign investment and all that involves. No matter what the difficulties and she has to face quite a few, both personal and bureaucratic, she is a force of nature, and she does not give up easily.

I liked many things about this book: Italy, and Cassandra’s love affair with the area, the province of Emilia Romagna (she doesn’t fall in love with a man, but she does with the location, its history, its traditions, and its people). She is an avid amateur historian and researcher, and she feels strong connections with people and places, to the point of having quasi-mystical experiences when visiting certain spots and natural wonders. I was fascinated by her descriptions of places, the information she shares on the history of the region, the way the food is prepared (I knew little about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but now I share in her fascination), and her lyrical renderings of attending a choir concert, or sharing a delightful moment with a boy and his grandmother. You don’t just feel as if you were there, you feel at one with the protagonist, no matter how little or how much you have in common with her (which, in my case, I realise is quite a lot, despite thinking we had very little in common at the beginning). I also loved her observational skills. Sometimes these might result in minute and mundane things being explained in detail (how to get a trolley in the supermarket, or how to access a parking spot at the airport), but, considering how many places she has visited, and the many different ways of doing things she has had to battle through, it makes perfect sense. Who knows how familiar people reading the book might be with things we give for granted in our own environments?

I also enjoyed her love of language, which results in the use of some uncommon words that one is unlikely to read in a newspaper article or a bestseller (but once you’ve read them, and, in some cases, checked them in a dictionary and learned them, you are likely to adopt), but I am sure advanced English students will be enchanted by. I also loved her use of Italian words (whose meaning is always explained), which pepper the narrative and are often more descriptive than any English equivalent.

I am no Italian history buff and had never heard of Matilda di Canossa before, but after reading of her role in the region and the lasting impression she left, palpable even 900 years after her death, now I also share in the protagonist’s interest in this amazing woman, whom we all should know more about.

Oh, and the characters… She does meet some wonderful people, and she never has anything bad to say about anybody. Everybody is a source of information, amusement, knowledge, friendship, help, or delight, and always generous when they encounter this peculiar but good-natured and interesting English woman. And the animals are also wonderful. We have plenty of cats (not only Cassandra’s own Geisha, but the manor house cat, Mimi, the farm cats), a fabulous dog, and some less welcome inhabitants of the area. Yes, Cassandra is a mosquito magnet, another thing we have in common.

Is there anything I didn’t like? Not as such. Readers who prefer their stories streamlined, minimalistic, and pared down, might get frustrated with this book, and many editors would probably trim it down to a fraction of what it is now, as the author narrates similar anecdotes of meeting people who are surprised at seeing her driving a right-handed car, speaking Italian though she is evidently a foreigner, looking at her and asking her all kinds of personal questions, where her husband is, being the most frequent. There are also innumerable descriptions of meals in different restaurants, shopping trips to buy a variety of items and foodstuffs, and her attempts at dealing with Italian bureaucracy. In some ways, this is like having a conversation with a close friend, somebody you might talk to very often, and with whom you share the little things that fill up your days, even when there isn’t anything amazing or extraordinary to say. As the author explains, in her acknowledgments, this book originated in a series of Facebook posts she shared about her adventures in Italy, and as a result of the encouragement, she received from her followers to turn it into a book. With this origin in mind, it becomes easier to understand and appreciate the conversational tone of the writing, which is also full of humour. Life is made up, mostly, of these little quotidian things, and we only realise how much we miss them when “normality” disappears, as we’ve all had to learn recently, unfortunately. (I highlighted many quotes throughout the book, but as I often do, I recommend to those who might not be sure if the writing style will suit them or not, to check a sample of the book and take their time with it. It is worth it).

The ending is a return, to the UK; not a true ending, but a “to be continued” with a promise of a book of Further Tales to be published later. This suits the hopeful nature of the book and leaves us wanting more. I am aware that the author has written about her experiences during the COVID confinement, although I haven’t read her account, so those who are impatient to read more from the author while waiting for the next book in this series can check that.

If I had to issue a warning, I agree with what the author says, on the back cover of the paperback version of this book, also included in the Kindle version: Don’t read this book when you’re hungry, and I would add, especially if you’re on a diet because you might feel compelled to raid your fridge or rush to your nearest restaurant on reading about the wonderful meals Cassandra partakes of. On the positive side, the author includes a list with information, and in some cases links, to the restaurants and eateries she mentions in the narrative, at the back of the book, so those planning a trip to the region can compare notes, try the food and meet some of the people. And if you need any further encouragement, the author includes a link to her website, where you can check photos of the locations mentioned, and also access other useful links.

In case you want to check it now, here it is.

www.cassandracampbell-kemp.com

By the way, if you are not into paranormal happenings or ghosts, don’t worry. Despite the mention of ghosts in the description, that is not what the book is about.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy non-fiction, especially memoirs, but are looking for something a bit different. Yes, the book is inspiring and life-affirming, but its protagonist is so unique that getting to know her and to expend some time with her is what makes it a worthwhile read. There is plenty of useful and fascinating information as well, and people thinking about moving to Italy, or just visiting it, will find it invaluable. So, if you are ready to meet a truly eccentric and wonderful woman, her cat, and are happy to follow her in her adventures (culinary and others) throughout a little-known but gorgeous region of Italy, don’t hesitate. Cassandra will become the guide you never knew you needed.

Thanks to the author, to Rosie and all the members of her team, and to you all for your support and for always being there, reading, commenting, and sharing. Make sure you stay safe, happy, and keep smiling and living life to the full!

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Book review Book reviews

A CHAMPION CYCLIST AGAINST THE NAZIS: THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF GINO BARTALI by Alberto Toscano (@penswordbooks) Inspiring and informative

Hi all:

I bring you a book that made me think about my father quite a lot. I hope you find it as interesting as I did (and as I am sure he would have).

A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis: The Incredible Life of Gino Bartali by Alberto Toscano

A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis: The Incredible Life of Gino Bartali by Alberto Toscano

Italy,1943. Although allied with Hitler, there were those who refused to accept the fascist policies of racial discrimination and deportation. Among them was Gino Bartali.

A champion cyclist, he won the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) three times and the Tour de France twice. But these weren’t his only achievements. Deeply religious, Bartali never spoke about what he did during those dark years, when he agreed to work with the Resistance and pass messages from one end of the country to the other. Despite the dangers, Bartali used his training as a pretext to criss-cross Italy, hiding documents in the handlebars and saddle of his bicycle, all the while hoping that each time he was searched they wouldn’t think to disassemble his machine.

As a result of his bravery, 800 Jews — including numerous children — were saved from deportation. He died in Florence in 2000 and was recognized as one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 2013. In this book, Alberto Toscano shares the incredible story of this great sportsman and recalls the dramatic moments in Italy and Europe in the twentieth century.

https://www.amazon.com/Champion-Cyclist-Against-Nazis-Incredible/dp/1526753391/

https://www.amazon.com/Champion-Cyclist-Against-Nazis-Incredible-ebook/dp/B089H2WNR3/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Champion-Cyclist-Against-Nazis-Incredible-ebook/dp/B089H2WNR3/

https://www.amazon.es/Champion-Cyclist-Against-Nazis-Incredible-ebook/dp/B089H2WNR3/

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/A-Champion-Cyclist-Against-the-Nazis-Hardback/p/17794

Author Alberto Toscano

About the author:

Alberto Toscano was born in Novara, Piedmont, and graduated in political science from the Università Statale in Milan, Italy, in 1973 with a thesis on the war in Indochina. From 1974 to 1982, he worked as a researcher at the Istituto degli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI) in Milan and served as the editor of the ISPI weekly review Relazioni Internazionali. In 1977 and 1978 he received journalism training from the CFJ journalism school in Paris, France. Appointed International Bureau chief of the Italian weekly Rinascita in 1982-1983, he was then editor and special correspondent of the daily newspaper L’Unità until 1986, when he became the Paris correspondent of the daily economic magazine ItaliaOggi.

He is the author of over 5000 articles on France, published by Italian newspapers of several political tendencies: ItaliaOggi, L’Indipendente, Il Giornale.

He works as a journalist and political commentator for several media outlets — in Italy with the press agency Agenzia Giornali Associati (AGI), the RAI public radio and the private television group Mediaset, and in France with Nouvel Observateur, RFI, France Culture, France Inter and TV5. It also collaborates with the daily La Croix and served as president of the Foreign Press Association in France in 1996-1997, and currently serves as the president of the European Press Club since 2000 and President of the cultural association Piero Piazzano di Novara since 2001. Finally, since 2008, he is a member of the Board of Directors of the French Section of the Union of Francophone Press (UPF).

He is visiting professor in Political Science at Sciences-Po in Bordeaux. He is a member of the Training and Research Unit of Italian Language and Literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

He was received into the French National Order of Merit.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberto_Toscano_(journalist)

My review:

I received an early hardback copy of this non-fiction book from Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, which I freely chose to review.

My father loved cycling, both watching it and jumping on a bike, and he belonged to a local cycling club. He could talk about cycling and bicycles for hours on end, and he inspired others to take it up as well (not me, I must hasten to add, but several of his brothers and nephews). That was partly the reason why I was attracted to this book in the first place, although I had never heard about Gino Bartali. But let me reassure you: you don’t need to be a fan of cycling to enjoy this book. Although there is plenty about Bartali’s cycling career and achievements (he dedicated most of his life to it, even after he retired from sporting events), this book is not a manual on cycling techniques, full of information about bicycle manufacturers, and painstakingly detailed descriptions of the individual races. You don’t need to be very knowledgeable about Italian politics or history to enjoy it either.  Toscano, the author, manages to combine biographical information about the protagonist of the book with a solid background of the socio-historic-political situation in Italy at the time. I’m not an expert on Italian history, but I felt I gained perspective on the Italian experience during WWII, especially on the efforts of a part of the population to save not only Italian-Jews but also Jews arrived from other areas to Italy in that period. I have come across many books on the experience of the French Resistance (particularly historical fiction set there) but not so many on what happened in Italy, and it offered me a new perspective. And non-fictional as well.

What I most liked of the book was the way the author manages to place the story of Bartali in the context of the era. The personality of the man comes across in the book. He was determined, a fighter, very religious (Roman Catholic and devoted), with high moral standards, who would do the right thing, even if it meant putting himself at risk, and although he did not shy away from popularity (he regularly appeared on TV with Fausto Coppi, his eternal rival while cycling but also a good friend), he never wanted to discuss his role in helping save many Jews as part of the efforts of the DELASEM (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants) in collaboration with Catholic priests, bishops, nuns, and many Italian civilians who helped in any way they could (housing them, providing papers, money, etc.). The book uses translated quotes from Bartali’s own autobiographies and also from the book his son, Andrea, wrote about his father (and the originals in Italian are provided also as Endnotes) to illustrate events and to make us feel as if we could hear him and had met him. There are also a few B&W pictures included. As I have said, I felt I learned a lot about the era, the politics, the importance of cycling as a sport in Italy at the time, and how sports and politics become enmeshed (and sports and national identity).  Bartali was not a sympathiser of Mussolini and fascism, and that resulted in difficult situations for him, but he was well known and respected, and that put him in a great position to be able to help others. I also enjoyed the writing style, which is fluid and provides the right amount of information for people without in-depth knowledge to follow the narrative without becoming overwhelming. Toscano achieves a good balance between the general and the detail, and the book offers a good overview of the era and of Bartali’s life and achievements.

If I had to mention something I disliked, or rather, I missed, is a full bibliography. The book provides plenty of information on the subject (Bartali) and on Italian history and politics, but there is no bibliographical section that could help people interested in those topics to research further. Some films and the books about Bartali are mentioned within the text, but there is no separate reference to them. The preface and the afterword, on the other hand, highlight the importance of Bartali and of this book, and there is information within the text about newspaper headlines and articles that would make them easy to trace back.

I recommend this book to people interested in WWII stories, particularly those about the home front and about individuals whose war efforts have not been recognised until recently. People interested in cycling, Italian history and politics, and anybody who wants to read about a fascinating character that more than rose to the challenges of his time will enjoy this book. And I’m sure my father would have loved it as well.

I had to conclude with a quote that, according to the book, Bartali shared with his son, Andrea, about why he kept silent about his role in WWII:

I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements and not as a war hero. The heroes are the others, those who suffered in body, mind, and in their loved ones. I just did what I did best. Ride a bike. Good must be done discretely. Once it is spoken of, it loses its value because it is as if one is trying to draw attention away from the suffering of others. They are the medals you can hang on your soul that will count in the Kingdom of Heaven, not on this earth.

Thanks to Rosie Croft and Pen & Sword for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for writing, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, keep safe, and never forget.

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog SEVEN LETTERS by J. P. Monninger (@StMartinsPress). A lyrical and romantic story set in a magical Ireland #sevenletters #bookblogtour

Hi all:

I’m very pleased to join in the book blog tour for an author I’d never read before, but I can tell you he writes beautifully!

Seven Letters by J.P. Monninger
Seven Letters by J.P. Monninger

The first letter brings her to Ireland. The next six are a test of true love…

 

SEVEN LETTERS A Novel By J.P. Monninger

From the author of The Map That Leads to You comes another sweeping, romantic novel about love, family, and what it means to build a home together, SEVEN LETTERS. 

The Blasket Islands are the heart of Ireland – once populated with some of the most famous Irish writers, they are now abandoned, filled with nothing but wind and silence. Kate Moreton, a PhD student at Dartmouth, is in Ireland to research the history of the Blaskets, not to fall in love. She has a degree to finish and a life back in New Hampshire that she is reluctant to leave.

But fall in love she does, with both the wild, windswept landscape and with Ozzie, an Irish-American fisherman with a troubled past who shares her deep, aching love for the land. Together, they begin to build a life on the rocky Irish coast. But when tragedy strikes, leading Kate on a desperate search through Europe, the limits of their love and faith in each other will be tested.

 

I noticed that the description on Amazon.com is quite different, and in fact, I think it tells too much of the story, but I thought I’d warn you, as you might find a different summary depending on where you access it.

Praise for J.P. Monninger and SEVEN LETTERS

“Monninger enchants with this lyrically written romantic love letter to Ireland and its people. Readers who appreciate love stories set against dramatic backdrops will find much to love.”

Publishers Weekly 

“A sweeping love story with intriguing characters and a well-described ending.”

—–Booklist

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Letters-J-P-Monninger-ebook/dp/B07PBMH6ND/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Seven-Letters-J-P-Monninger-ebook/dp/B07PBMH6ND/

https://www.amazon.es/Seven-Letters-J-P-Monninger-ebook/dp/B07PBMH6ND/

 

About the Author

J.P. MONNINGER, author of The Map That Leads to You, is an award-winning writer in New England and Professor of English at Plymouth State University.

 

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Because I read an early copy of the story, some of the details mentioned might not fully correspond to the final published version of the book.

I had never read any of the author’s work before, but the description of the setting, the protagonist and her reasons for visiting Ireland drew me in. I had read about the Blasket Islands in a previous book and become fascinated by what I came across, and, personally, I would love to have the opportunity to be a scholar researching the topic, in Ireland. The novel offered me the chance to vicariously live that experience through the main character, and I did enjoy it enormously. The beautiful writing, interspersed with Irish sayings, stories, and references to books were pure delight.

I am not a big reader of romance, and perhaps for that reason, the aspects of the novel that I most enjoyed were not the truly romantic ones, that I found a bit over the top. Kate, the protagonist, has a strong Irish (and Blasket Islands) connection, and she seems more than ready to fall in love —and under the spell— of Ireland, and the islands in particular. I did love the setting of the story, the description of her life at the university, her research, the people she meets there, and I would have loved to know more about some of the secondary characters (the Bicycle  Society members, for example, Gran, Seamus, Daijeet, Dr Kaufman, and even Milly although we learn more about her later). Also, and I suspect I might be in the minority here, I would have loved to have had more details of Kate’s research, for example, samples of the stories she reads and of the book she writes (she is studying women’s accounts of the life in the Blasket Islands before they were abandoned and the few inhabitants left there had to move out), although I know there are accounts published and available, but her work process, and her description of how she felt as she engaged in it resonated with me (yes, I have a PhD and re-experiencing that period was a huge bonus for me).

Of course, Kate’s experience in Ireland would not be complete without a romance, and we meet the man in question very early on, and no, readers don’t need to be avid romance consumers to spot him and know where things are headed. As I said, not being a habitual romance reader, I wasn’t too convinced by that side of things. I never felt we got to know Ozzie well, but that is reasonable in the context of the story, as Kate seems to falls in love/lust with an idea or an image in her head, more than with the real man, and neither one of them give each other much chance to know what they are getting into and who with. Because we see the story from Kate’s perspective, we are expected to see him through rose-tinted glasses, at least initially, although things (and him) don’t fit neatly into the romanticized image she has in her head. (Oh, there are sex scenes as well, but they are not explicit and are overly romantic and totally unrealistic, but hey, as I don’t like sex scenes, I was pleased they were not many and didn’t mind they were unrealistic). Theirs is the perfect embodiment of a whirlwind romance. As we all know, the course of true love never did run smooth, and there are separations, trials, and many obstacles in the way, some that go well beyond what most people would expect from a typical novel in this genre, and deal in some very serious issues (like the Mediterranean refugee crisis), so although this is a romantic novel, it is not a light and cheery read (although yes, there is the mandatory happy ending that I won’t spoil for you).

The structure and the way the story is told is quite original, as it revolves around letters, the seven letters of the title, some formal and official, some personal, and they help create the backbone of the novel, written in the first person, from Kate’s perspective. In fact, although the novel is classed as a romance (and I’ve mentioned some of the more conventional romantic aspects of the story), for me it seemed to fit better into the Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story (although the character is perhaps a bit older than most of these kinds of characters tend to be), and it is written as if it were a memoir, where the letters serve as anchors, points around which the protagonist organizes her memories of the events, because although the story is told chronologically, it is not linear and there are jumps in time, during which life has gone on and settled, but the narration is only retrieved when something of some significance to Kate’s journey and to her relationship with Ozzie takes place. (There are scenes that showed potential, for example, an archeological trip Kate gets involved in, but it ends up becoming only a setting for an encounter with Ozzie, and we are given no details as to what else might have happened during the trip). Although she is not the typical innocent-abroad of many XIX and early XX century novels, she does not know herself, her trip abroad changes things and she goes back to the USA a changed woman, although there are many more things that she must learn, not only about herself but also about others, before the end of the book. Her process of discovery felt realistic, and I empathized with her struggle between her idea of what her life should be like, what her heart wants, and her attempts to reconcile the two, if possible.  Oh, there is also a prologue including a lovely Irish story about a man falling in love with a fairy woman, although, to me, in this case Kate plays the part of the man —who cannot settle in the magical land and misses home— and Ozzie that of the fairy woman.

I agree with comments that say perhaps the story would have gained in depth and become more realistic if some part of it had been told from Ozzie’s point of view, but, considering Ozzie’s backstory, that would have been a completely different book, and one that would have taken the focus away from the romantic angle.

In sum, this is a story I enjoyed, and I don’t hesitate in recommending it to romance readers, in particular to lovers of Ireland and anything Irish. There are many elements that make the story worthy of reading even for those who are not big on romance, especially the setting, the beautiful language, and the protagonist, who although flawed and contradictory, loves books, scholarship, her friends, Ireland and has a wonderful zest for life. The descriptions, not only of Ireland, but also of New Hampshire, Italy, and other settings, take readers on a lyrical journey, and I was sorry it came to an end. Oh, and there’s a wonderful dog too.

As you know, I usually recommend readers to check a sample of the book to see if the style of writing is a good fit, but in this case, the publishers have been kind enough to send me the beginning of the book, that I share with you:

PROLOGUE

The Irish tell a story of a man who fell in love with a fairy woman and went with her to live on an island lost to time and trouble.
They lived in a thatched cottage overlooking the sea with nothing but donkeys and gulls and white chickens to keep them company. They lived in the dream of all lovers, apart from the world, entire to themselves, their bed an island to be rediscovered each night. In all seasons, they slept near a large round window and the ocean wind found them and played gently with their hair and carried the scent of open water to their nostrils. Each night he tucked himself around her and she, in turn, moved closer into his arms, and the seals sang and their songs fell to the bottom of the sea where the shells held their voices and relinquished them only in violent storms.
One day the man went away, mortal as he was; he could not resist his longing to see the loved ones he had left behind. She warned him that he would grow old the moment his foot touched the soil of the Irish mainland, so he begged her for one of the donkeys to ride back to his home for a single glance at what he had left behind. Though she knew the risk, she loved him too much to deny his wish, and so he left on a quiet night, his promise to come back to her cutting her ears with salt and bitterness. She watched him depart on a land bridge that arced to the mainland and then turned back to her cottage, knowing his fate, knowing that love must always have its own island. She raised up the fog from the ocean and she extinguished all light from the island and the chickens went mute and the donkeys brayed into the chimney smoke and the gulls called out her anguish.
After many days of travel, and through no fault of his own, he touched ground and became an old man in one breath. Even as age claimed him upon the instant of his foot striking the soil, he called to her to save him, but she could not help him any longer. In the seasons afterward, on certain full moon nights, she permitted the island to rise from the mist and to appear to him, or to any broken-hearted lover, the boil of the sea stilled for an unbearable glimpse of what had been lost so thoughtlessly. To his great age he lived for the moments when he might hear her voice rising above the sea, the call of their bed and their nights and their love, the call of his heart, the call of the gulls that held all the pain of the world. He answered on each occasion that he was here, waiting, his heart true and never wavering, his days filled with regret for breaking their spell and leaving the island. He asked her to forgive him the restlessness, which is the curse of men and the blood they cannot still, but whether she did or not, he could not say.

1

I had misgivings: it was a tourist bus. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I had booked passage on a tourist bus. It wasn’t even a
good kind of tourist bus, if there is such a thing. It was a massive, absurd mountain of a machine, blue and white, with a front grill the size of a baseball backstop. When the tour director—a competent, harried woman named Rosie—pointed me toward it with the corner of her clipboard, I tried to imagine there was some mistake. The idea that the place I had studied for years, the Blas- ket Islands off Ireland’s southwest coast, could be approached by such a vehicle, seemed sacrilegious. The fierce Irish women in my dissertation would not have known what to say about a bus with televisions, tinted windows, air-conditioning, bathrooms, and a soundtrack playing a loop of sentimental Irish music featuring “Galway Bay” and “Danny Boy.” Especially “Danny Boy.” It was like driving through the Louvre on a motor scooter. It didn’t even seem possible that the bus could fit the small, twisty roads of Dingle.
I took a deep breath and climbed aboard. My backpack whacked against the door.
Immediately I experienced that bus moment. Anyone who has ever taken a bus has experienced it. You step up and look around and you are searching for seats, but most of them are taken, and the bus is somewhat dimmer than the outside light, and the seatbacks cover almost everything except the eyes and foreheads of the seated passengers. Most of them try to avoid your eyes because they don’t want you sitting next to them, but they are aware, also, that there are only so many seats, so if they are going to surrender the place next to them they would prefer it be to someone who looks at least marginally sane. Meanwhile, I tried to see over the seatbacks to vacant places, also assessing who might be a decent, more or less silent traveling companion, while also determining who seemed too eager to have me beside her or him. I wanted to avoid that person at all costs.
That bus moment.
I also felt exhausted. I was exhausted from the Boston–Limerick flight, tired in the way only airports and plane air can make you feel. Like old, stale bread. Like bread left out to dry itself into turkey stuffing.
I felt, too, a little like crying.
Not now, I told myself. Then I started forward.
The passengers were old. My best friend, Milly, would have said that it wasn’t a polite thing to say or think, but I couldn’t help it. With only their heads extending above the seatbacks, they looked like a field of dandelion puffs. They smiled and made small talk with one another, clearly happy to be on vacation, and often they looked up and nodded to me. I could have been their granddaughter and that was okay with them. They liked “Danny Boy.” They liked coming to Ireland; many of them had relatives here, I was certain. This was a homecoming of sorts, and I couldn’t be crabby about that, so I braced myself going down the aisle, my eyes doing the bus scan, which meant looking without staring, hoping without wishing.
Halfway down the bus, I came to an empty seat. Two empty seats. It didn’t seem possible. I stopped and tried not to swing around and hit anyone with my backpack. Rosie hadn’t boarded the bus; I could see the driver standing outside, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Two empty seats? It felt like a trap. It felt too good to be true.
“Back here, dear,” an older man called to me. “There’s a spot here. That seat is reserved. I don’t think you can sit there. At least no one has.”
I considered trying my luck, plunking down and waiting for whatever might happen. Then again, that could land me in an even more horrible situation. The older gentleman who called to me looked sane and reasonably groomed. I could do worse. I smiled and hoisted my backpack and clunked down the aisle, hammering both sides until people raised their hands to fend me away.
“Here, I’ll just store this above us,” said the old man who had offered me a seat. He had the bin open above our spot. He shoved a mushroom-colored raincoat inside it. He smiled at me. He had a moustache as wide as a Band-Aid across his top lip.
I inched my way down the aisle until I stood beside him. “Gerry,” he said, holding out his hand. “What luck for me.
I get to sit next to a beautiful, red-haired colleen. What’s your name?”
“Kate,” I said.
“That’s a good Irish name. Are you Irish?” “American, but yes. Irish ancestry.”
“So am I. I believe everyone on the bus has some connection to the old sod. I’d put money on it.”
He won a point for the first mention of the old sod that I had heard since landing in Ireland four hours before.
He helped me swing my bag up into the bin. Then I remembered I needed my books and I had to swing the backpack down again. As I dug through the bag, Gerry beside me, I felt the miles of traveling clinging to me. How strange to wake up in Boston and end up on a bus going to Dingle, the most beautiful peninsula in the world.

Thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Griffin and the author for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#TuesdayBookBlog THE ARTIST AND THE SOLDIER by Angelle Petta (@AngellePetta) A compelling WWII #historicalfiction novel, coming-of-age and M/M love story, and a fascinating backdrop #Bookreview

Hi all:

Today I bring you a book that’s officially released as this post publishes and one you should not miss.

The Artist and the Soldier by Angelle Petta
The Artist and the Soldier by Angelle Petta

The Artist and the Soldier by Angelle Petta

Two young men come of age and fall in love against the backdrop of true events in World War II—It’s 1938. Bastian Fisher and Max Amsel meet at a Nazi-American summer camp, Siegfried. Neither boy has any idea what to do with their blooming, confusing feelings for one another. Before they can begin to understand, the pair is yanked back into reality and forced in opposite directions. Five years later, during the heart of World War II, Bastian’s American army platoon has landed in Salerno, Italy. Max is in Nazi-occupied Rome where he has negotiated a plan to hire Jews as ‘extras’ in a movie—an elaborate ruse to escape the Nazis. Brought together by circumstance and war Bastian and Max find one another again in Rome.
Exploring the true stories of Camp Siegfried, a Nazi-American summer camp in New York and the making of the film, La Porta del Cielo, which saved hundreds of lives, The Artist, and the Soldier is intense, fast-moving, and sheds light on largely untouched stories in American and Italian history.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artist-Soldier-Angelle-Petta-ebook/dp/B07CFWWFQL/

https://www.amazon.com/Artist-Soldier-Angelle-Petta-ebook/dp/B07CFWWFQL/

Author Angelle Petta
Author Angelle Petta

About the author:

Petta holds an MA from Emerson College and a master’s equivalency in Drama Therapy through the NADTA. She is a registered drama therapist and a Ph.D. student at Lesley University. She works as a Drama Therapist at an Expressive Arts Center in Virginia called A Place To Be.

She lives, works, and writes in Northern Virginia with her husband, two delightful dogs, and one fat cat.

https://www.amazon.com/Angelle-Petta/e/B07BYCPWD9/

 

My review:

When I was approached about the possibility of reviewing this book, I was fascinated by the historical background behind it, which I was not familiar with. A book combining World War II, Nazi summer camps in the US, the filming of a movie by Vittorio De Sicca in Rome during the war, and a love story, had to be a winner.

The author manages to combine a coming-of-age (both male protagonists, Max and Bastian, are very young at the beginning of the book) and love story with a fascinating historical background. The two youths meet at a Nazi summer camp in New York. Both their fathers are German and want them to grow up aware of their heritage. Max and Bastian are, in many ways, mirror images of each other, opposites that, indeed, attract. Bastian looks German (blond, tall, strong), is impulsive and always excels when it comes to sports, and outdoor activities, whilst Max takes after his Italian mother, is quiet, and has the soul of an artist. They both suffer trauma and have difficult childhoods, although in different ways. The unlikely pair becomes close and Bastian supports Max when tragedy strikes, although things take a bad turn, and they end up separated by life and circumstances.

They go their separate ways, and we keep waiting, convinced they will meet again. Bastian is still daring, impulsive, and is plagued by self-hatred and doubt. Max, who has always been more accepting of his own identity and has become stronger and more determined, has been living in Italy, has studied film, and finds a great opportunity to help Italian Jews. He takes part in the project of filming a movie under the protection of the Vatican and comes up with the idea of offering them contracts there. De Sica is determined to keep filming for as long as he can to keep all those people safe, and this historical fact provides a fascinating backdrop to the story of the two lovers.

The story, told in the third person, follows the point of view of the two male characters first, and later we also get to read about the adventures of Ilsa, Bastian’s sister, a fantastic character, from her point of view. She is strong, a fighter, and is determined to find her brother, no matter how far she has to go and what she has to do. Her experiences as a nurse during the war are gripping, and she keeps working despite terrible personal loss, hardship, and deprivation. Her character allows us to see things from a different perspective and also provides us more background into Bastian’s character, that is, perhaps, the most complex of the book, at least in my opinion.

Although the love story is central to the book, this is not a light and easy book to read. Apart from the tragedy and the terrible events that happen during the war, there is child abuse, mental illness, bullying, and the novel does not shy away from the unsavoury aspects of life. The characters are not all good and perfect either, and they sometimes do things that are questionable, while at others they can behave like true heroes.

The writing beautifully conveys the emotions of the characters, the setting (Rome as an open city provides a great backdrop), and the relationships, without going over the top with the descriptions, and ensuring the story keeps moving at a good pace. Being a big movie fan, I would have liked to read more about the filming of the movie, but the author refrains from getting sidetracked, and the guest appearances by the actors of the film and the interventions by De Sica are all the more enjoyable for being kept under control and not overwhelming the main story.

I wanted to share a couple of quotes from the book:

“Travel safely, signora. It is a dangerous world we are living in.” Her world had always been a dangerous one. A gun instead of a fist, a war instead of an irate father, her present didn’t feel so different from her past.” (This reflection belongs to Ilsa, Bastian’s sister).

Did something as inconsequential as film belong in this new world? It was De Sica who’d helped him see his misconception. “We need film, and music, and art, more than ever now,” De Sica had said. “These mediums help us remember that we are humans living in a world filled with monsters. What we are doing here is not frivolous. It is saving us, our humanity.” (Max questions his vocation, but De Sica comes to the rescue).

The ending feels appropriate and fits in well with a love story. It shows that both characters have grown and learned to accept who they are and what their relationship means. Other issues are resolved as well, and although some of the coincidences and the way the characters always seem to be in the right place at the right time require some suspension of disbelief, this does not go beyond the expectations for the genre.

In an end note, the author explains the conception of the story and clarifies that although Max, Bastian, and Ilsa are creations of her own imagination, the historical events and backdrop are accurate, and she has used her fictional characters as a conduit to tell the story. I believe this would be a great selection for book clubs, as there is much to discuss and many interesting aspects that will attract readers of different types of stories.

I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in WWII, Italian cinema, and love stories with complex protagonists. I look forward to following the author’s career in the future.

In case you are interested, the author has shared a link to an article about the Nazi summer camps in the US in an interview. Here it is:

https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/04/28/402679062/nazi-summer-camps-in-1930s-america

Thanks to the author for her book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and to keep smiling!

Categories
Book reviews

#Bookreviews NUMERO ZERO by Umberto Eco and ZERO K by Don DeLillo. Two great writers pushing boundaries #TuesdayBookBlog

Hi all:

I’m still trying to catch up with some of the reviews I haven’t posted yet, and as I was checking, it struck me that two books by two very well-known authors (one who has unfortunately left us since I read the book) had Zero in their titles, and I couldn’t resist to bring them together. I’m not sure there’s much to link them otherwise (one of the writers is Italian, the other from the US, the themes are in no way related, nor are their styles) although it’s true that both of these books are perhaps fairly different to their usual novels. Whatever the reason, here they are.

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

From the best-selling author of The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery, a novel about the murky world of media politics, conspiracy, and murder

A newspaper committed to blackmail and mud slinging, rather than reporting the news.

A paranoid editor, walking through the streets of Milan, reconstructing fifty years of history against the backdrop of a plot involving the cadaver of Mussolini’s double.

The murder of Pope John Paul I, the CIA, red terrorists handled by secret services, twenty years of bloodshed, and events that seem outlandish until the BBC proves them true.

A fragile love story between two born losers, a failed ghost writer, and a vulnerable girl, who specializes in celebrity gossip yet cries over the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. And then a dead body that suddenly appears in a back alley in Milan.

Set in 1992 and foreshadowing the mysteries and follies of the following twenty years, Numero Zero is a scintillating take on our times from the best-selling author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

numero-zero-2

Here my review:

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco. Satire, conspiracy, politics, media… although not sure it’s a novel.

Thanks to Net Galley and to Vintage Digital for offering me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve read some of the reviews by many readers who have followed Eco’s literary career. All seem to agree that this book cannot compare to some of the other novels he’s written, although some like it nonetheless, whilst others are disparaging of it.

For me, Umberto Eco is a writer who’s always been on my bucket list but never quite made it (or perhaps I read The Name of the Rose translated to Spanish many years back, but as I don’t remember it, I’ll assume I didn’t). When I saw this opportunity I decided not to miss it.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Numero Zero is quite different from anything I had imagined.

The beginning of the book is very intriguing, and it presents a writer/translator (Colonna) who swiftly explains his current situation. He is convinced that somebody has entered his house and he is in fear for his life.

Following this introduction to the main character, Colonna goes back to describe how he got there. The background to his current situation is what forms most of the novel, and we only return to the original point very late in the book (when there are only a few pages left).

Colonna describes himself as a loser and he has accepted a very strange job: to record the memoirs of a man who is setting up a newspaper, Domani. Only the newspaper will never get published, and the whole project is a way of manipulating contacts, allies and enemies by a third interested party.

There are descriptions of the reporters, a motley crew, fairly quirky, but none particularly talented or known. The ones we get to know more about are Braggadocio, who’s always investigating some conspiracy or other (eventually coming to the conclusion that it is all part of a single huge conspiracy, involving Mussolini, the Vatican, the CIA, European governments…), and the only woman, Maia, who has a very special personality, but seems the only one with some sense of ethics and morals. By a strange process of osmosis, Colonna and Maia end up in a relationship, the one bright and hopeful point of the whole novel, however, weird the coupling seems.

Rather than well-developed characters and situations, Numero Zero seems an exercise in exposing current society (although the story is set in 1992), the press, media, politics… and their lack of substance. Also the lack of interest in serious stories by the population at large, and our collective poor memory.  As a satire I enjoyed it enormously, and although most of the characters experience no change (we don’t get too attached to them either, as they seem to be mostly just two-dimensional beings representing a single point of view), I thought Maia become more realistic, cynical and enlightened by the end of the book. And I found Colonna’s final reflection about Italy hilarious. (No offence to Italy. I think all the countries are going the same way if not there already. I’m Spanish and I definitely had to nod).

I agree with many of the comments that the disquisitions and tirades of Braggadocio are relentless, but reflect a paranoid character (and perhaps, although he accuses Maia of being autistic, there is more than a bit of obsessiveness in his personality), the comments about the newspaper, how to write articles, and the press I found illuminating (yes, and funny), and overall I enjoyed the book, although as I said, it’s not my idea of a novel.

So I find myself in a similar situation to when I reviewed Satin Island. I enjoyed it (not as much as Satin Island, but it made me laugh more than once), but it is a novel that’s perhaps not a novel, with not very well developed characters, and an anecdote at its heart rather than a plot. There you are. You decide if you want to read it or not. Ah, and it’s short. 
Paperback:  $ 14.95 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero-Umberto-Eco/dp/0544811836/

Hardback: $19.14 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero-Umberto-Eco/dp/0544635086/

Kindle: $15.13 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero-Umberto-Eco-ebook/dp/B0110ONP24/

Audio:  $ 17.72 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero/dp/B016QTSTCY/

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo
Zero K by Don DeLillo

Zero K by Don DeLillo. The search for meaning and control

Description

The wisest, richest, funniest, and most moving novel in years from Don DeLillo, one of the great American novelists of our time—an ode to language, at the heart of our humanity, a meditation on death, and an embrace of life.

Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body.

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”

These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.”

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

Zero K is glorious.

zero-k

My review:

Thanks to Scribner and to Net Galley for providing me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve read novels by Don DeLillo before and enjoyed them although I haven’t read all of them. I was curious to read this novel, and I’ve also noticed that Zero keeps appearing in the title of novels I’m reading these days (not sure what it says about me but…).

I’m not sure exactly what to say about this novel. On the surface, it’s a story written in the first person by a character, Jeff, who goes through a very strange experience. His wealthy father, Ross, and his stepmother, Artis, have asked him to go with them to a strange facility, the Convergence, where his stepmother, who is terminally ill, thanks to new scientific processes including cryogenics, is going to be frozen in the hope that in the future they’ll find the cure for her condition and she will live again, seemingly forever. The trip and the experience are confusing and disorienting, as not only is Jeff not sure where he is, but the compound seems designed to make people lose their bearings. Doors that aren’t really doors, rooms stripped bare, strange speeches mixing up seemingly spiritual, philosophical, religious, ecological and economic subjects with a somewhat apocalyptic and sect-like underlying message. Jeff’s father is very wealthy and has invested heavily in the programme, but Jeff isn’t quite convinced. His attempts at finding meaning in the process and get some control over it range from mentally giving names to people, inventing the background for the individuals he meets, trying to imagine their stories… In many ways, that’s the same we, as readers are asked to do. We are not expected to be simply passive receivers of a story or of a meaning but must collaborate with the author and create a joint one.

As a reader, I find it easier to connect to books and novels where I empathise or I’m very interested in its characters. In the case of the main character and guiding conscience of this novel, it’s not a straightforward process. Do we really get to know Jeff? We know how he thinks and what it feels like to be inside of his head, what his relationship with his father and his stepmother is like (at least what he thinks it’s like) and in part two we get to glimpse into a relationship he gets into, although mostly through his references to the adopted son of his girlfriend, a very special boy. Jeff is articulate, erudite, curious, a keen observer and seems to live inside of his head, but he seems to mostly react to others and to the situation analysing everything to death, rather than doing anything or deciding anything. In a way, he’s perhaps as frozen and paralysed as Artis and Ross, but they’ve made a decision, however, egotistical and self-aggrandizing it might be, while he remains the passive observer. For me, Jeff is intriguing, but not someone I feel an easy connection with or I care for. Like him, the novel is engaging at an intellectual level but not so much at an emotional one, at least for me.

This is a novel where action is not the prime component. It is beautifully written and you’ll read some passages many times, as they seem to demand analysis and ongoing exploration. I’m not sure I can say what it is about? Life and death? The future? The meaninglessness of existence? Family relationships? I don’t feel it’s DeLillo’s most accessible story, and definitely, I would not recommend it to somebody who is looking for an easy read and a good story. But if you’re interested in a challenging read and in exploring big themes and personal meanings, this might be the book for you.

Buy links:

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-K-Don-DeLillo-ebook/dp/B018Y1BEQA/

Hardback: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-K-Don-DeLillo/dp/1501135392/

Audible: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-K/dp/B01DFBQUPE/

Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers and the authors (so sorry about Umberto Eco’s death) for the books, thanks to you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, like, share, comment and CLICK!

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