Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
Not just another historical novel featuring artists and authors in Europe, Horan’s second book after Loving Frank adds Samoa and the United States to the European settings, and plenty of drama to her novel about Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife. American Fanny Osbourne leaves her unfaithful husband and travels to Europe with her three children so that Fanny and her daughter Belle can study art. After a family tragedy, the Osbournes are staying at a rural inn when they meet Scottish “Louis” on a hiking vacation. He is much younger, and has just earned his law degree. He suffers from tuberculosis, and is rarely well, but dreams of writing full time and living with Fanny. Fanny reluctantly returns to California with her husband, pursued by Louis. After much struggle, Louis and Fanny marry, and begin a life of travel, seeking a healthy place where Louis can thrive and write, including a very colorful period in Samoa in the South Seas. Fanny sacrifices much for her husband’s art, which can make for difficult reading. This novel paints a vivid portrait of the Stevensons, if overly dramatic at times.
On September 16 at 10:00 a.m., the Tuesday Morning Book Group will be discussing The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood, a historical novel set in two different time periods. Vivien lives in California in 1919, and survived the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. We learn about her life and her connection to Claire, living in Virginia in the early 1960s. Claire, a former flight attendant, is married with a toddler, and volunteers for JFK’s presidential campaign. Here is my review.
On September 28 at 7:00 p.m., the Tuesday Evening Book Group will be discussing The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig, a coming of age novel set in Gros Ventre, Montana in 1960. Rusty is growing in the back room of his father Tom’s bar, the Medicine Lodge. Tom won’t talk about his past or Rusty’s mother, so Rusty and his friend Zoe sit in the bar’s back room listening to the customers and trying to make sense of what they hear. The past, including the construction of the Fort Peck dam, comes to life when oral historian Delano comes to town, along with Francine, who might be Tom’s daughter. Here’s my earlier review.
The Crime Readers are meeting at Home Run Inn Pizza on Thursday, September 18 to discuss Tug of War by Barbara Cleverly. A well-earned vacation takes a sharp detour when Scotland Yard inspector Joe Sandilands is called to a chateau in Champagne, France, where a shell-shocked patient has amnesia. Trying to determine his identity proves a difficult, delicate task: several families are claiming the unknown soldier as their own. The discussion begins at 7:00 p.m., with optional dinner at 6:00 p.m. The Crime Readers are co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library.
Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland
This is another good choice for book discussion groups from Vreeland, author of Luncheon of the Boating Party and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Set in Provence and Paris from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, Parisian Lisette has a rough transition to life in Provence with her husband Andre and his grandfather Pascal. Andre is a frame maker, and Lisette had hoped to work in an art gallery in Paris. Gradually, Lisette learns to appreciate the village of Roussillon and the beauty of the countryside. Elderly Pascal tells Lisette stories of the paintings he has collected and how he acquired them, and of meeting Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne. As a young man, Pascal had mined ochre used for pigments in the paintings. When the war begins, the paintings are hidden. Lisette learns to garden and milk a goat, and meets contemporary painter Marc Chagall. Visit the author’s website for gorgeous photos of Roussillon.
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Book eight in the Outlander series is over 800 pages long. I didn’t really mind, because it’s been five years since the previous book, Echo in the Bone, was published, and I needed a while to catch up on the storylines and characters. Much of the book is set in and around Philadelphia in 1778. No one wants to be in the war, but Jamie Fraser is asked by George Washington to be a colonel. Lord John Grey might lose the sight in one eye after Jamie punches him, or he might be arrested as a spy. Jamie’s wife Claire, a time traveler from the mid 20th century, is practicing medicine with 18th century supplies. Jamie’s nephew Ian, part Scot and part Mohawk, is in love with Quaker Rachel, whose brother, a physician, loves John Grey’s niece. Jamie and Claire’s daughter Brianna is in Scotland with her family in 1980, until son Jem goes missing and her husband Roger MacKenzie travels back in time and meets Jamie’s father, and his own. Another family connection, William, rescues Jane and her little sister Fanny from a brothel. Most of the storylines end up with Jamie and family back in North Carolina, rebuilding their family home. At least one more book is planned. Adventure, romance, history, and time travel continue to enliven this series, which began with Outlander, soon to be a television series.
The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Princess Kelsea has been raised in isolation in the northern forest by her elderly guardians since her mother’s death eighteen years ago. The Queen’s Guards arrive on her 19th birthday to take her home to claim her throne, if they can keep her alive on the journey. A magical sapphire necklace she wears helps, but it doesn’t tell Kelsea who she can trust, or keep her from being injured. The nearby kingdom of Mortmesne is ruled by a sorceres, and she demands a tribute of Tearling citizens every month, or her army will invade the Tearling. Kelsea makes a bold decision to stop the tribute before she’s even crowned. This book is the first in a fantasy series set in the far future, and a movie is in development. I’m looking forward to reading Kelsea’s next adventure.
Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein
Sportswriter John Feinstein spent the 2012 season with players, managers, and umpires of baseball’s International League. Life in Triple A is vividly described, and is shown in stark contrast to the major leagues, but the athletes Feinstein meets show a real love of the game of baseball. Several players are featured, with their history of teams, accomplishments, and injuries, but you don’t get a player’s whole story all at once, and some of them blend together. Some former major league stars are featured, such as Mark Prior, Dontrelle Willis, and Scott Podsednik. Some are rehabbing from injuries, while other players have trouble adjusting to the grind that is the minor leagues. Few days off, travel by bus instead of chartered planes, and salaries that are not bad, but only a small fraction of what they’re used to. Players are more rivals than teammates, but news of a call up to the major leagues is still greeted with cheers. Cubs Hall of Fame player Ryne Sandberg has worked his way up the managing ranks of the minor leagues, and finally gets to manage the Philadelphia Phillies. His story is quite memorable, as is that of young umpire Mark Lollo, who is either going to get called up to the major leagues soon, or his contract won’t be renewed. Managing at the Triple A level can be especially challenging because of last-minute call ups of starting pitchers and catchers. Some players travel up and down the leagues so many times in a season that it seems like they’re always playing catch up in an airport trying to get to their next game, while other players wonder if they’ll ever get to bat in the major leagues. A satisfying read for sports fans.
Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare
While the plot resembles Cinderella or My Fair Lady, the novel is a charming, sensual Regency romance. Griff is kidnapped by his mother and dragged to the seaside town of Spindle Cove to choose a bride, any bride. His mother will give the young woman lessons to become a perfect duchess. It turns out that his mother can’t wait any longer for grandchildren, and Griff, as a duke, is expected to have heirs. Stubborn Griff chooses none of the young ladies present, but instead Pauline Simms, a servant and a farmer’s daughter. She agrees to a week in London, and has a side bet with Griff that if she fails to become the perfect future duchess, she will return home with enough money to open a bookshop. Plenty of humor, an instant attraction between Griff and Pauline, and a dowager duchess who knits, badly, make for an enjoyable read.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
I didn’t want to read this book, but I’m glad I did. The wild and lonely beauty of 1820s Iceland stars in this novel based on a true story. Two men are killed, and Agnes Magnusdottir and two others have been convicted of murder. Awaiting word from Denmark of a possible appeal, Agnes is sent to the farm of district commissioner Jon Jonsson to await her fate. Unwelcomed but treated fairly by Jon’s wife Margret and his two daughters, Agnes is put to work on the small farm. Around the hearth at night, and when a young priest, Toti, visits with her, we learn Agnes’ story. Abandoned by her mother, then left homeless when her foster mother dies, Agnes grows up as a pauper sent to work on several small farms. The murders occur at the home of her employer and lover, herbalist and sheep farmer Natan Ketilsson, a charming yet manipulative man. The cold and dark of winter on Iceland’s coast is vividly described, along with the isolation of remote farms. This is the first novel from an Australian writer who first heard of Agnes when she spent a year as an exchange student in a fishing village in Iceland. Definitely not a light or cheerful book, but a haunting, memorable novel.
The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton
In 1942, Helen Easley is desperate for news of her husband John, a war correspondent. He’s not on an official assignment, but may have left Seattle for Alaska. The Japanese occupy the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, and there is a news blackout. Since his brother’s death in the war, John is obsessed with his work, and left after an argument with Helen. Working in a dress shop in Seattle, she moves in with her elderly father Joe. Helen manages to join the USO but feels guilty about leaving her father behind. She heads for Alaska and any word of John, trying to get over her stage fright and talking with pilots and anyone who’s been to the Aleutians. John, meanwhile, has crash landed on remote Attu with young airman Karl. They scavenge coal and live on seafood, often wet and always cold, and even consider surrendering to the Japanese occupying the island. Part adventure, part wartime love story with a very unusual setting, this is an excellent historical novel.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
Young Isabella, daughter of Sir Daniel Hendemore of Scirland, is fascinated by tiny winged creatures known as sparklings. They are considered insects, but she wonders if they might be related to dragons. Scirland is an alternate version of Victorian era England, a fantasy version with dragons. Also, the industrial revolution is slowed by a lack of sufficient iron deposits. When she’s 17, Isabella’s father very kindly has a matchmaker draw up a list of eligible young men who might share her scholarly interests, normally discouraged in women. Isabella is fortunate in her marriage, but longs to go on an expedition to study dragons, despite the danger and discomforts of a sea voyage to snowy Vystrana. She gets her wish, in order to take notes and make detailed drawings for the expedition; her drawings are scattered throughout the book. Things go badly from the beginning, with a mystery and threats. The book is narrated by an older Isabella, so we know that she makes it back to Scirland, and her adventures are continued in The Tropic of Serpents. This novel really kept my interest, and may appeal to readers of Mary Robinette Kowal, Caroline Stevermer, and Patricia Wrede.