Anita Shreve and Stella Bain

9780316098861_p0_v3_s260x420With some authors, what they write doesn’t matter so much as that they meet the expectations of their faithful readers.  The author of seventeen novels, Anita Shreve delivers her latest – Stella Bain – using memory loss, an abusive husband, World War I, shell shock, psychoanalysis, and lost loves in a romantic tale of an early twentieth century woman who has the strength and courage to recover and create a new life.

If you are a fan and have been waiting, you will enjoy the story and wonder when the next book is coming.

Have you read Anita Shreve’s Rescue?  Check out the review – here

The Winter Ghosts

On his twenty-first birthday, six years after the death of his older brother in World War I, Freddie Watson finally succumbs to his grief and goes mad. Years later, released from the sanitarium, as he drives into the French Pyrenees for a holiday, his car crashes in a snowstorm.  He finds shelter in a small village where he connects with his soul mate, a young beautiful ethereal girl, Fabrissa, who disappears after one night.  Is his experience real or imagined? Is he reverting to madness or privy to another world? Kate Mosse’s The Winter Ghosts will immerse you in Gothic romance and mystery, while revealing the commonality of war – whether in the 14th or 20th century.

The story has a maddeningly slow start, with elaborate descriptions and flashbacks. Once Fabrissa appears, the action reverts to ghostly secrets that are not too difficult to unravel, but Mosse offers a different spin on the obvious.

Mosse uses the Cathar persecution in medieval France as the historical premise for the mystery; zealot Catholic Crusaders had the Pope’s blessing to plunder villages and kill, in the name of salvation. When villagers hid in caves in the hills, the soldiers sealed them in with boulders, creating a living tomb. In the story, Fabrissa wears the yellow cross, the Catholic church’s symbol for heretical Cathars; Mosse alludes to the similarity of the labeling of Jews. The historic references led me to explore more about the Cathars, their beliefs and struggle in the Rene Weis book – The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars.

Freddie finds salvation through Fabrissa – finally able to lay aside his own torment and ghosts by exposing hers. Although the mystery is easily solved in the first 100 pages, The Winter Ghosts offers more in its historical education, if you know what you are reading.

22 Britannia Road

A six year separation for newlyweds is an eternity.  The terrors of war may be too much to overcome.  Amanda Hodgkinson’s 22 Britannia Road is the new English address for Polish war survivors Janusz, the returned soldier, and Silvana, the wife who spent the years trying to survive by hiding in the forest with a young son.

As they try to renew their life together in a new country, the memories and horrors of their years apart intrude.  Janusz keeps secret letters from Hélène, his French lover, and Silvana has her own secret that she fears to reveal.  Aurek, their son, slowly becomes the most resilient promise for the family’s survival as he changes from the feral “foundling from the forest” into a civilized life reunited with his father – complete with a treehouse in the backyard, an English garden, and a school friend.  But he too is haunted by “…the things he has seen…he doesn’t want to think about them…”

Hodgkinson bases the story at the English address, but slowly weaves in the missing six years for both Janusz and Silvana, telling enough of their wartime trauma to justify their anxieties, but leaving some unsaid so that you want to keep reading to discover the atrocities you suspect.  When Janusz tells his story, his soldier’s life is cast as a contrast to Silvana’s strength through her constant terror.

“…the day Janusz left her in Warsaw was the day one life ended and another began…

Neither is the person they were when Janusz married the pregnant Silvana, and you will keep reading to see if any part of that relationship is salvageable.  Janusz works hard to become foreman at the factory, and hopes to have another child.  Silvana, numb from her years trying to survive, does her best to bake currant buns and create a family life for her son, until she discovers Hélènes letters.

Tony, a resourceful Italian widower who owns a pet store and dabbles in the black market – his young son Peter is Aurek’s friend –  silently woos Silvana, eventually leading her to confide in him, and then reveal her awful secret to Janusz.

At this point, the story stops being compelling and becomes melodramatic.  Hodgkinson draws out the denouement so much that the eventual expected ending seems overdue. Despite the overcooked finale, 22 Britannia Road can hold its place with similar recent war stories –  The Postmistress and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.   Hodgkinson reveals the harsh realities of survivors who cannot go home again, yet somehow manage to create a life where they will never be entirely comfortable – even if they replace the English garden with Polish birch trees.

Check out my review of:

the Distant Hours

I cannot tell you about my latest read – “the sacrilege of just blurting out what had taken chapters to build, secrets hidden carefully by the author behind countless sleights of hand…” (Kate Morton).  And the possibility that you won’t like it as much as I did would hurt too much.

But if you enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or if you are a fan of Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages – or even Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind…

if you love to reread Jane Eyre… you might try Kate Morton’s latest – The Distant Hours.  

In her third gothic mystery, this time within a castle during World War II as the setting, Morton uses an undelivered letter reappearing fifty years later to trigger the search into a mother’s past that leads to a delicious unraveling of characters and plot.

Starting slowly and with detailed description that annoyingly slows down the narrative, Morton lost me several times to her nostalgia before yanking me back to the mystery.  Satisfying and comforting, the Distant Hours is an escape – easy to get lost in it for a long time, and leaving you a little startled when it ends.

Related Posts: