Book review: A Star For Mrs. Blake – I love France #94

I LOVE FRANCE!

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A Star For Mrs. Blake

Star For Mrs Blake

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
A Star For Mrs. Blake
By
April Smith

Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: Jan 14, 2014

ISBN:  978-0307958846
Pages: 352 

Genre:
Historical fiction

Source: Received
from the author for a
virtual book tour on France Book Tours

Goodreads

This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

      books-on-france-142014 historical fiction New author challenge

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK

new eiffel 5

In 1929, American mothers of soldiers fallen during WWI in France were offered a free trip to allow them to visit the graves of their sons. In A Star For Mrs. Blake, April Smith recounts this trip through the portrayal of 5 of these Gold Star Mothers. To do so, she based her inspiration on the Diary of Colonel Thomas Hammond, who did accompany such a group of pilgrims. Hammond is in the novel, under his real name, and just as in life, this adventure changed the course of his military career.

The book starts slowly, with the description of Cora Blake’s daily life in Maine, in a small city living mostly from the sea. This slow beginning helps to understand who Cora is, and how she dealt with her grief of losing her boy during WWI. It also highlights the difference between her milieu and the persons and sites she will discover during her trip to France.

I highly enjoyed this book, which touches on so many major themes around war and its effects, though not in an overwhelming way.

The writer listened, the notebook filled up, and Cora could feel something lift as she’d tossed that thorny secret over her shoulder, left it to the pond and the flower beds and the bittersweet afternoon light.
p.176

  1. There’s grief of course, and how each woman lives it differently, from serene but sad acceptance, to insanity. There are very powerful scenes when the mothers finally arrive in the cemetery in chapter 16.
    The author also portrays very well how grief colors and modifies relationship between people.
  2. There’s the theme of disability, with the character of a journalist, totally disfigured, and his life with a lead mask.
  3. There’s also the theme of destruction, with incredible descriptions of Verdun. The women, some coming from an affluent American high society, are shocked to discover what war did to this city, which has barely started reconstruction in 1929. I have to say, visiting such areas a couple of years ago, you can still see the impact on the environment, where the tranchées were.
  4. The mothers, coming really from protective naive milieus (compared to what the French just had to go through) are also shocked at discovering the reality of collaboration during the war.
  5. And there’s the ever present problem of unexploded grenades and bombs. Believe it or not, peasants in this region still discover some every year as they till the land, some dating from WWII, but lots also from WWI. I had myself to evacuate an area when I discovered one around 2000 on a property visited by many tourists on that beautiful afternoon in Champagne. Fortunately, it was easy to contact quickly the fire department by phone. They came right away, took care of the thing, they are so used to that, and no one was injured. The scene when a Gold Star Mother comes upon an unexploded bomb in the book is so true to life, so well rendered.

Lots of other themes fascinated me in this book. For instance diversity. I don’t know if this was in Hammond’s diary, but 2 mothers happened to have the same last name, and they got mixed up, sent to the wrong group, the wrong hotel, and received the wrong pictures of their son. The problem is, for the context of the time, one mother was white, the other black. The theme was so well treated, with the beautiful relationship developing between the black mother and the other ladies in her group who totally accepted her among them, just as any mother having sacrificed her son for the sake of peace, but how the system intervened and messed up everything.

In relation to this theme and others, the army definitely does not come out too well in this book. No surprise for me here. There’s an awesome passage on the futility of war in chapter 22.

And there’s also social diversity, and how women form totally different social backgrounds interact.

And national diversity and relationships, with quite revealing scenes between Americans, French, and Germans. In some French regions today, especially among older generations, you still can feel this is not neutral ground.

I also liked other things surrounding Cora’s life at home, her inner debate about possibly starting a new life, and a very special person she met at the end of her trip.

I think the author did an amazing job at dealing with highly emotional topics without ever falling into the teary or over gruesome style.

AUDIOBOOK:

I had actually started listening to this audiobook when I was contacted by the author to review her book. So I ended up listening to some chapters, and reading others. I thoroughly enjoyed the narration by Bernadette Dunne. I think she had the perfect tone of voice, able to convey emotion with restraint. Her narrations also helped a lot to differentiate between the different social milieus encountered in the course of the novel.

VERDICT: Very powerful, yet not overwhelmingly emotional historical novel, reflecting on many facets of international conflicts. Highly recommended to anyone curious to know what happened on the field of WWI, and how it affected people, relationships, and countries.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

 

In 1929, The U.S. Congress passed legislation that would provide funding for the mothers of fallen WWI soldiers to visit the graves of their sons in France. Over the course of three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made this trip.  Smith imagines the story of five of these women, strangers who could not be more different from each other. One of them is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother from coastal Maine. Journeying to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the lives of these women are inextricably intertwined as shocking events – death, scandal, and secrets – are unearthed. And Cora’s own life takes an unexpected turn when she meets an American, “tin nose,” journalist, whose war wounds confine him to a metal mask.  [provided by the author]

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

April Smith

April Smith is the author of the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mystery series,
starting with North of Montana.
She is also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of dramatic series and movies for television.
She lives in Santa Monica with her husband.

Visit her website.
Follow her on Goodreads
Get in touch with her on Facebook and Twitter

HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK YET?
DID YOU READ ANY OTHER GOOD BOOK RELATED TO WWI?
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS  IN A COMMENT PLEASE

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Book review and giveaway: The Shadow Queen – I love France #93

I LOVE FRANCE!

I plan to publish this meme every week.

You can share here about any book

or anything cultural you just discovered related to France, Paris, etc.

Please spread the news on Twitter, Facebook, etc !

Feel free to grab my button,

and link your own post through Mister Linky,

at the bottom of this post.

*******

The Shadow Queen

Shadow Queen cover

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
The Shadow Queen
By
Sandra GullandPublisher:
Release date: April 8, 2014
at Doubleday (US)
and HarperCollins (Canada)ISBN: 978-0385537520
Pages:  336Genre:
Historical fiction

Source: Received
from the author for a
virtual book tour on France Book Tours

Goodreads

This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

      books-on-france-142014 historical fiction New author challenge

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK

new eiffel 5

This is the first book I’ve read by Sandra Gulland, and I’m hooked! Indeed, what is not  to love in this portrait of 17th century France?

First, I thought the perspective chosen by the author worked extremely well: to speak about the court and the affairs going on around king Louis XIV and his famous mistress Athénaïs de Montespan, she chose as her narrator someone who starts as basically a nobody.
Claudette has a very poor childhood, wandering through France with the small remnant of their family’s acting troupe. They even sleep in caves. Her world clashes significantly with the one of a little girl she meets. Claudette is fascinated though. After many adventures, she will end up the seamstress and eventually the maid of that girl, who turns out to be Athénaïs. Claudette finds herself swept in a different world, with values not her own. At one dangerous point, she will have to choose which set of values to follow, to the risk of her own life and the life of those she loves. What will she do?

But Claudette is actually someone history remembered. She was Claude de Vin des Œillets, known as Mademoiselle des Œillets (Provence 1637 – Paris, May 1687), daughter of actors Nicolas de Vin and Alix/Louise Faviot.
Even Louise de Maison-Blanche (1676-1718)  (you will have to read the book to know who this important person is) is still known today.

The world of the stage allows the author to expand a lot on the topic. The 17th century was extremely rich in that respect in France, with the famous playwrights Corneille, Racine, and Molière. I enjoyed very much seeing the conflictual relationships developed between these authors and their companies, on the background of the relationship with the Church, especially the fanatic Company of the Blessed Sacrament, an extremist secret society which was then very active in censoring theater.

On the other side, you have an inkling into Black Magic with Athénaïs crazy ceremonies when the King started looking towards younger ladies; and the infamous Catherine Monvoisin, or Montvoisin, known as “La Voisin” (c. 1640 – February 22, 1680:burned at the stake for witchcraft), a French fortune teller, poisoner and an alleged sorceress, one of the chief personages in the affaire des poisons, also present in the novel.

You also see the appalling poverty and misery of the 99% at the time. France was quite dirty and smelly at the time, including at the court of Versailles. The descriptions in the book give  a very good idea about what it must have been to live in those times and conditions. The collapse of Pont Marie in Paris is an amazing passage on that theme in the novel (chapter 12).

Besides, France was far from being united linguistically: many local patois were used, making it difficult for the inhabitants of a city to be understood by the inhabitants of the next city or village.

I enjoyed very much the characters. They are described with real depth, you can really feel you know their personality and their struggles, from the all attentive Claude, to her disabled brother, to the terrible insufferable character of Athénaïs. The King looked sometimes like a puppet under her influence.

It was interesting to see how these people were presented in this novel and in The Hurlyburly’s Husband, by Jean Teulé, recently published and reviewed. Two very different perspectives, one French, one American, on the same court and the Montespans.

Some readers have criticized the title of the book, saying it focuses too much on Claudette, whereas the title refers to Athénaïs. I disagree with this view, and believe the title can actually apply to both women. I’m basing my argument on this passage by Claudette herself:

Sometimes I felt like a queen of shadow realms, forever peering out onto glittering worlds –whether watching my mother performing from the dark wings, or Athénaïs from this darkened room.” p.99

In her own way, each of the two women is a shadow queen. This line allows also to think along the metaphor of court as a stage, so un-real compared to the regular life of all others.

VERDICT: This magnificent well-researched portrait of 17th century France, from the very poor, to the world of theater, to life at court, is a welcomed change in historical fiction. The world can be a stage, and your choice of characters will have consequences on how you find happiness.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

 

From the author of the beloved Josephine B. Trilogy, comes a spellbinding novel inspired by the true story of a young woman who rises from poverty to become confidante to the most powerful, provocative and dangerous woman in the 17th century French court: the mistress of the charismatic Sun King.

1660, Paris

Claudette’s life is like an ever-revolving stage set.  From an impoverished childhood wandering the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Claudette finally witnesses her mother’s astonishing rise to stardom in Parisian theaters. Working with playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine, Claudette’s life is culturally rich, but like all in the theatrical world at the time, she’s socially scorned.

A series of chance encounters pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of Athénaïs de Montespan, mistress to Louis XIV and reigning “Shadow Queen.” Needing someone to safeguard her secrets, Athénaïs offers to hire Claudette as her personal attendant.

Enticed by the promise of riches and respectability, Claudette leaves the world of the theater only to find that court is very much like a stage, with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. This parallel is not lost on Athénaïs, who fears political enemies are plotting her ruin as young courtesans angle to take the coveted spot in the king’s bed.

Indeed, Claudette’s “reputable” new position is marked by spying, illicit trysts and titanic power struggles. As Athénaïs, becomes ever more desperate to hold onto the King’s favor, innocent love charms move into the realm of deadly Black Magic, and Claudette is forced to consider a move that will put her own life—and the family she loves so dearly—at risk.

Set against the gilded opulence of a newly-constructed Versailles and the blood-stained fields of the Franco-Dutch war, THE SHADOW QUEEN is a seductive, gripping novel about the lure of wealth, the illusion of power, and the increasingly uneasy relationship between two strong-willed women whose actions could shape the future of France. [provided by the author]

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PRAISE FOR THE SHADOW QUEEN

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Sandra GullandSandra Gulland is the author of the Josephine B. Trilogy, internationally best-selling novels about Josephine Bonaparte which have been published in over seventeen countries.
Her forth novel, Mistress of the Sun, set in the 17th-century court of the Sun King, was also a bestseller and published internationally.
Her most recent novel is The Shadow Queen, also set in the era of the Sun King, published in April of 2014 by HarperCollins in Canada and Doubleday in the U.S.

See more on her website: www.sandragulland.com

Sign-up for her author newsletter: http://www.sandragulland.com/contacts/

Follow her on Facebook  | Twitter  |  Pinterest  | Goodreads

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Just a reminder guys:

If you link your own post on France,

please if possible

include the title of the book or topic in your link:

name of your blog (name of the book title or topic):

example : me @ myblog (Camus)

Thanks!