The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
How to describe a book that the author describes as six long, inter-connected novellas? Amazing comes closest. Not a happy book, but not bleak either. I won’t suggest this for a book discussion as it’s 624 pages long, but it’s well worth reading. Our first narrator is Holly Sykes, age 15, getting ready to leave home in southeast England in 1984 after a big argument with her mother. She meets the mysterious Esther Little, is aided by teen Ed Brubeck, and has a horrible scene removed from her memory on her way to picking strawberries on a farm. Other scenes are set in different countries in different decades, with a group of people who are reincarnated and can live for centuries (horologists) battling with those who would steal souls to stay alive. Holly is a recurring character, and she encounters both groups of people throughout her life. The scenes set a few decades in our future are quite fascinating; a look into one possible future. This book reminded me a little in its size and wideranging themes of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and some of Neil Gaiman’s books.
The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Tess gets a job as maid for dress designer Lucile Duff-Gordon right before the Titanic leaves port. Tess and the Duff-Gordons escape the Titanic in different lifeboats and the aftermath of the tragedy affects them very differently. After reaching the United States on the Carpathia, seamstress Tess still works for the demanding Lucile with hopes of designing dresses herself some day. She also makes friends with reporter Pinky, and becomes closer to sailor Jim and wealthy divorce Jack Bremerton, both Titanic survivors. When the hearings on the Titanic disaster begin in New York City and Washington, D.C., Tess is torn between learning the truth and her loyalty to her employer. Unlikeable Lucile gets a little more sympathetic as the hearings go on and her fashion show opens. New York City in 1912 is vividly drawn, as are the characters, but I would have enjoyed the book more if there was less about the Titanic hearings and more about immigrant life in America.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley begins the Last Hundred Years trilogy with a novel about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family set during the years 1920 to 1953. Walter and Rosanna raise a large family near the farms of their parents, and cope with an amazing amount of change, from the coming of electricity to reluctantly replacing plow horses to a tractor, drought and financial worries during the Great Depression, watching a son go off to World War II, and more. The heart of the story is a scene where the extended family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner after the war. The novel is narrated in turns by most of the Langdons, but the characters are so memorable that the changing point of view enriches rather than confuses. Remarkably, the author can even capture the reader’s attention with the description of a day in the farmhouse from the viewpoint of a toddler. Smart, opportunistic Frank is the eldest and the one who will go off to war. Lillian makes an unexpected escape from the farm, while Joe never wants to leave. Of course, the Langdons experience moments of drama and tragedy, from Rosanna giving birth alone to a revival meeting, the state fair, and sudden death, but most of the scenes are about life on the farm. Readers will welcome Early Warning, the sequel, in May.
A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas
Eliza Spooner and her two children struggle to run their small Kansas farm after Will joins the Union Army. Eliza and her friends meet once a month to quilt and support each other, and Eliza sends Will a special down-filled quilt for Christmas. Widowed Missouri Ann and her little girl move in, and an escaped slave needs a safe place to stay. Finally, the Christmas quilt is brought home after the war in a most unexpected way. A quick read, this charming, heartwarming novel about life on the homefront during and right after the Civil War is loosely connected with The Persian Pickle Club.
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good, by Jan Karon
It’s been nine years since there’s been a new book by Jan Karon set in the small town of Mitford, North Carolina, but I think it’s been worth the wait. Father Tim, an Episcopal priest, first appeared in At Home in Mitford in 1994. The two most recent books featuring Father Tim and his wife Cynthia have been set in Mississippi and Ireland. Cynthia is still writing and illustrating children’s books, and Father Tim is struggling with how to find meaning in retirement. When he is asked to preach again at the Episcopal church in Mitford, it’s a tough decision. Adopted son Dooley is in college and has given a friendship ring to Lace. Dooley’s younger brother Sammy lives next door, and Tim wonders how he can reach out to the troubled teen. An unexpected opportunity to volunteer at the local bookstore one or two days per week while the pregnant owner is on bed rest gives Tim the chance to re-connect with his friends and neighbors as Christmas approaches. All of Mitford’s quirky characters make an appearance, with plenty of laughter and some tears in this heartwarming novel.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Breq is a soldier, visiting the icy world of Nilt, in search of an unscannable weapon to help in her quest of revenge against the leader of the Radch. Breq is also Justice of Toren, a spaceship that is two thousand years old, and was most recently a troop carrier in orbit around the planet of Shis’urna. In debut novelist Leckie’s universe, a starship is run by an artificial intelligence, and the same AI also has dozens of soldiers, in formerly human bodies known as ancillaries. Breq was 19 Eck. On Nilt, Breq rescues and treats the unconscious Seivarden Vendaii, a former officer on Justice of Toren who has outlived all her relatives and is addicted to kef. Breq and Seivarden, who doesn’t recognize her, have adventures while the reader learns their stories. Breq is remembering something that happened in a temple on Shis’urna, and a later incident on the starship involving a favorite officer, Lieutenant Awn. The conquering Radch are inclusive of different religions, but intolerant of civil unrest. To make things more confusing, the Radch, who have spread through many galaxies, have no gender in their language so everyone is referred to as she or her. A brilliantly imaginative book that has swept the major science fiction/fantasy awards, this book is also challenging and can be confusing. Several days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about it, and just re-read the first chapter. This book was published a year ago, and the sequel, Ancillary Sword, has recently become available. I’m looking forward to seeing where Leckie’s creativity will take Breq in Ancillary Sword, and the final, not-yet-published book. Suggested for fans of C. J. Cherryh, John Scalzi, and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.
How to Be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
A very readable, often entertaining look at daily life in England in Victorian times. Ruth Goodman, a historian, has spent considerable time immersed in Victorian life for British television series, including Victorian Farm. Goodman’s experiences provide added interest, although there were things she didn’t experience, such as the London smog. Several families are described at different points in the Victorian era, which lasted 63 years, and the reader learns about their typical diets, working and living conditions, and even different modes of transportation. The hardest part to read is about the lives of children, including the lack of modern medicine and knowledge of nutrition, opium tonics for babies and long hours of work for children as young as six. Conditions and education for children did improve over time, and the section on education is quite interesting. The format, taking people through a typical day from dawn to bedtime, works well. On a chilly day like today, I’m happy to live with central heating and hot running water, the things Goodman missed most while re-enacting Victorian life, but she does succeed in making the idea of a visit to the Victorian era sound appealing.