In Ann Hood’s novel, a clever storyline follows two women’s lives some fifty years apart against a backdrop of significant events in American history: the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and its aftermath, and the 1960 presidential election and inauguration of JFK. At one point in The Obituary Writer, their two storylines merge into one. Vivien and Claire are not contemporaries, yet they share certain struggles and dreams. Can one woman’s regrets bring closure and happiness to another woman? With the women’s movement and all the changes of the 20th century, did individual women’s lives change that much? Even in the 21st century, do women continue to feel trapped in traditional roles?
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.
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.
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.
Colson Whitehead’s newest novel seeks to answer one question: what if the Underground Railroad were an actual railroad? This is, unfortunately, where the fantasy ends and the cruel truth of our country’s past sets in. Cora is a young woman who grew up in slavery on a Georgia plantation. When she was a child, her mother escaped, leaving Cora bitter and orphaned and later an outcast. When another slave, Caesar, approaches her with a plan to escape, at first she refuses, but eventually the two set out for freedom together, taking an underground steam train to northern states. Though the planation is behind them, other horrors await as each state is like its own world, not to mention a famous slave catcher is hot on their trail.
The Underground Railroad is by no means an easy read, but it is a rewarding one. Whitehead makes the journey personal through Cora and the people she meets along the way, and his narrative style is unmatched. Additionally, Bahni Turpin’s excellent narration really brings everything into focus. By the end, it will be clear to see why this book has won so many awards and distinctions, including the National Book Award.
This 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.
The 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.
This 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!
I 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.
Alternating 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.