Blog

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley (2015)

Political writer Christopher Buckley retreats to the 16th century for this hilarious story as he believed the U.S election of 2016 was sufficiently self-satirizing to demand his attention. In 1517, relic hunting was a good business for Dismas until he conspires with the artist Durer to produce a creditable shroud for sale to an affluent but corrupt noble. The noble was greatly displeased when the fraud was uncovered and Dismas escapes with his life only after agreeing to steal the true shroud for the noble. The reader then journeys with Dismas and Durer to Chambery in hopes of substituting a shroud of equal or better quality (according to Durer) for the true shroud. Many misadventures and missteps occur for the reader to enjoy until the pair of travelers are rewarded for their efforts. The reader should then read again the 2017 news report at the beginning of The Relic Master to see what the author is suggesting.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009)

As the first in a new series by Alan Bradley, this mystery has promise. Flavia is delightful, charming, intelligent, and an almost too clever eleven-year-old chemist who deftly solves a murder in her English village in the early 1950s. The reader wants to scream at her older sisters, her silent father, and the authorities to get out of the way and let Flavia solve the crime in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes (2016)

If you are missing your Downton Abbey fix, you will be pleased to find Julian Fellowes also has written this serialized novel (as well as two others Snobs and Past Imperfect) featuring the British aristocracy. Belgravia takes the reader from the Duchess of Richmond’s ball just before the battle of Waterloo (yes, the Duke of Wellington attends!) and well into the 19th century to follow the fate of young Charles Pope, conceived just before the ball. Questions of legitimacy are not easily resolved as Pope’s biological father is killed at Waterloo and his mother dies at his birth. Pastor Pope and his barren wife are delighted to adopt Charles and give him their name at the secret request of Pope’s maternal grandparents.

Thus the adventure and suspense begin to protect the name of Pope’s deceased mother and to find a suitable heir for the paternal grandparent’s good family name and estate. Complications arise from the maternal grandfather’s social ambitions, a daughter in law’s affair, and jealousies harbored by husbands and would-be heirs.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

nightingaleThis is one of my recent favorite books. I could not stop reading this compelling story of two sisters during the Nazi occupation of France, and how the war impacts each in very different ways. These strong women are inspiring and unforgettable, as they endure the unimaginable. All of the characters in The Nightingale really brought the story of the French Resistance to life. I felt as if I were reading a true story. There are twists and turns that kept me engaged until the bitter end.

I highly recommend Kristin Hannah’s latest novel for anyone who enjoys reading about WWII history, or about strong women in extraordinary circumstances. It would also be a great book for book clubs.

 

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis (2016)

dollhouseThe Barbizon Hotel was the home to women who moved to New York City to start modeling or secretarial careers, aspiring actresses and poets, or those just waiting to meet the man of their dreams. The Dollhouse opens in 1952 with Darby McLaughlin leaving the Midwest to begin Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and moving into the Barbizon. She is immediately intimidated by other women especially the Eileen Ford girls (aspiring models). Darby is lonely and homesick, but is befriended by a maid working in the hotel. Esme introduces her to jazz clubs, nightlife, and romance.

In the present day Barbizon, Rose Lewis a journalist now living in the condo Barbizon with her boyfriend. She hears a story about Darby and Esme and wants to explore it further. So she introduces herself to the older residents, hoping to interview them about the history of living in the Barbizon.

Both storylines are easy to follow even as the stories get more and more interwoven. Fiona Davis’ characters are likable and well defined. What was especially interesting was a glimpse into the fashions, morals, and expectations of young women in the 1950s.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

doomsdaybookThis book hit all the right notes: likable, interesting characters; gripping story told from multiple perspectives; and historical fiction blended with believable time travel. In 2048 England, students and professors at Oxford have mastered the art of time travel as a means to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Budding historian Kivrin plans to visit 1320 Oxford to learn more about everyday life in the Middle Ages; instead, she ends up in 1348 at the height of the Black Death. A mysterious epidemic in 2048 also creates chaos, preventing Dunworthy (Kivrin’s mentor) from bringing her home.

A compelling narrative, Doomsday Book will propel you forward, frantically turning to pages to discover the fate of those in past and future. My first foray into Connie Willis’ novels—but it won’t be my last!

Transatlantic by Colum McCann (2013)

transatlanticI appreciate good historical fiction, especially those stories that connect people and events across time. Colum McCann has done his research and given us some great historical framework before the reader figures out that Transatlantic is really about three generations of women who have left their mark on history, in particular that of Ireland. Great insights into women who carry many personal burdens, yet persevere. Great insights into human nature in general.

The Muse by Jessie Burton (2016)

museAlternating between 1930s Spain and 1960s London, The Muse is a compelling story with its threads tied together by a painting and its artist. In the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War, teenager Olive Schloss struggles with identity, relationships, and artistry. In 1967 England, Trinidadian writer Odelle faces similar challenges. Early on in Jessie Burton's sophomore novel (after The Miniaturist), it's obvious that a mystery in the plots of the parallel narratives will be resolved; the surprise (and joy) is in how Burton accomplishes it.

This novel is for fans of historical fiction and art-related novels such as The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro, and That Summer by Lauren Willig. Plus, check out our book list featuring Art & Artists.

Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (2015)

deathmrpickwickSome reviewers were suffocated by Stephen Jarvis’ 800+ novel aiming to show it was the illustrator, Richard Seymour, not Dickens who had the original ideas for The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Although I had to renew the book, I enjoyed following Mr. Indelicate and Inscriptino (Scripty), the present day investigators, as they searched 19th century evidence for Mr. Pickwick’s origins.

Death and Mr. Pickwick provides many amusing stories and interesting facts about 19th century publishing. I was amazed at the reported great popularity of The Pickwick Papers as originally published in serial form and then as a novel. As I followed the investigation to the very end, I continued to hope Mr. Dickens and the publishers would show more kindness towards Seymour. After all, Mr. Dickens was no stranger to generosity as seen in his later works e.g. A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities.

Check out reviews in The New York Times and The Atlantic.

Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick (2009)

sunflowersThe relationship of the eccentric painter Vincent van Gogh and a young prostitute Rachel begins in the French city of Arles where van Gogh has escaped from Paris to explore a new movement in painting. His never ending search for the perfect model leads him to Rachel and their love for each other grows more intense and tormented as van Gogh struggles with the demons in his soul and mind.

The letters between van Gogh and his brother in Paris reveal many of the known truths of this deeply gifted artist and his life story. A recent trip to the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was a fascinating comparison of the book, Vincent's artwork, and his love for a young prostitute looking for her own escape.

Check out Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick today.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (2010)

kitchenhouseSeven-year-old Lavinia, orphaned on her ship bound journey to America, becomes the indentured servant of the Captain and his family. She is to live in the kitchen house of the captain's tobacco plantation under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter.  It is here that she calls home and develops deep relationships with her adopted family. The slaves all take Lavinia under their watch and teach her the ways of the slave quarters, kitchen house, and the big house, but she is treated differently because of her white skin.

As Lavinia matures into a young woman, her role on the plantation changes and she finds herself caring for the mistress of the big house who has fallen to the addictions of opium. Lavinia is trapped between these two different worlds and her loyalties, love and life are all endangered. Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House tugs on your heartstrings as Lavinia makes life choices and her world and its surroundings are forever changed.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (2015)

circlingsunAfter her acclaimed novel The Paris Wife, Paula McLain tackles yet another adventurous woman of the early twentieth century: Beryl Markham. Markham had an unconventional upbringing in Kenya after her mother's return to England. Her father loved her, but was caught up in his own business and personal concerns. She learned to survive on her own with the help of friends in the local Kipsigis tribe. Markham struggled to maintain her personal relationships and marriages. She was most comfortable around horses and wide open spaces. She finally realized her true calling flying above her beloved African landscapes.

Check out Circling the Sun today.

Blood on the Water (2014) and Corridors of the Night (2015) by Anne Perry

These two Anne Perry novels feature the Monk family – William, his wife Hester, adopted son Scuff, and street urchin Worm – all working together to solve the current crime.

Ibloodwatern Blood on the Water, Commander William Monk of the River Police is on patrol when the Princess Mary explodes, sending nearly 200 passengers to their death. Soon after Monk begins his investigation, the case is transferred to the Metropolitan Police due to its “international implications.” But Monk and his family cannot leave the case alone: Hester attends the trial of the captured suspect, son Scuff (who spent his young years on the waterfront as an orphan) questions waterfront denizens like Worm to get first-hand information, and Monk continues to follow the case. After a rapid trial and conviction, Monk raises questions of guilt and the river corridorspolice is reassigned the case. Motive, access, and high level involvement are unclear as the Monk family pursues the truth.

In Corridors of the Night, Nurse Hester Monk becomes the protector of two small children who are being used to supply blood to a very ill man undergoing an experimental treatment. The scientist conducting the treatment has little regard for the children or Hester such that Monk and Scuff need to rescue her from what is a near kidnapping.

The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons (1999)

crookfactoryDid you know that Ernest Hemingway was a spy during WWII while he was in Cuba? This novel imagines just what Papa was up to between the fishing and the drinking in the early days after Pearl Harbor. Dan SimmonsThe Crook Factory is a fun but not fast paced novel of suspense.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

godinruinsAfter reading – and very much enjoying – Life After Life, the idea of more Todd family adventures was appealing. Kate Atkinson calls A God in Ruins a companion novel to Life After Life, not a sequel. She takes one of the alternate realities of Ursula's adored younger brother Ted, and develops the storyline after his miraculous recovery from a plane crash as a bomber pilot in World War II. The novel alternates between Ted's wartime experiences and his civilian life as father and grandfather. Curious readers of Life After Life will also be treated to an excerpt from Aunt Izzie's The Adventures of Augustus, the character she modeled after Teddy. Atkinson continues to test the reader's concepts of time and fiction with this engaging novel.