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.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Between Shades of Gray is a harrowing story about a young girl, her family and her neighbors being forced from their home in Lithuania and imprisoned in a brutal Siberian encampment under Stalin’s rule. As one would expect, this wartime story is horribly sad and disturbing. However, there are moments in the imprisoned people’s lives where they remind one another that they are indeed compassionate human beings who are capable of empowering themselves and one another by sharing happy and peaceful memories. These moments better enable them to survive–spiritually and physically. On one occasion the “prisoners” free themselves from several months of endless burden and physical wear with the use of what can be called, collective memory. They secretly gather on Christmas Eve and recreate a scene that resembles a traditional Lithuanian Christmas dinner celebration—Kucios. During this commemoration they have only the small stolen rations of stale food from the farming camp that they are temporarily enslaved at. Yet, with these very limited means the group manages to capture the spirit of the holiday celebration, perhaps in a more powerful manner than any Christmas past.
Lina, the protagonist of the story, is a gifted artist and seizes every opportunity to capture, on bark or stolen paper, such moments of beauty. She also uses her artistic abilities to record the destruction and obscenities she has witnessed and experienced. Lina draws with an understanding that her depictions are recorded evidence as well as an act of defiance and freedom of expression. Moreover, she holds onto the hope that her drawings are a conduit through which her separated family can communicate and reunite. The characters in this story, and their small amount of personal belongings, are up-heaved and moved from place to place further away from their homeland and from the peaceful lives they once knew. Lina’s story, and her art, balances a wanting of what once was, with a need to move forward.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (especially for those moments of beauty amidst despair)
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (which also emphasizes the survival of people’s traditions and culture)
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (another story that presents complex individuals who are capable of doing good and of creating harm)
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.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Petronella comes to Amsterdam in 1686 as the young bride of merchant Johannes Brandt, with only her parakeet for company. Johannes’ sister Marin rules the household, frowning on sweets and nagging her brother to find buyers for a recent shipment of sugar from South America. Marriage to Johannes is not at all what Nella had expected, and servant Cornelia is her only friend. A replica of the Brandt’s house in miniature is an extravagant wedding gift, and Nella writes to a miniaturist to furnish the little house. The elusive miniaturist seems to be either a spy or a prophet as the figures and objects delivered mirror people, objects, and tragedy which soon visit the household. Johannes is accused of a serious crime by the owners of the sugar in his warehouse, and many secrets are gradually revealed. The 17th century city of Amsterday is vividly described through Nella’s eyes, with its emphasis on order and cleanliness, prosperous yet rigidly moralistic. The atmosphere is dark and wintry, the pacing picking up speed as Johannes’ trial approaches and Nella struggles to find answers to the family’s dilemmas. While not all questions are answered by the end of the book, this first novel is impressive and memorable. A good read-alike is Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach.
Two novels being published this month feature Jane Austen as a fictional character. Jane Austen and the Twelve Days of Christmas, by Stephanie Barron, is the twelfth book in a mystery series, but this book can be enjoyed without reading the other titles. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and other relatives are guests at a house party at The Vyne over the Christmas holidays in 1814. When Jane isn’t socializing, being a dutiful daughter, or penning her novels, she is a witty and observant amateur sleuth. Spirits are high because Napoleon is in exile and the War of 1812 seems to be over. But when a military courier falls from his horse and dies after visiting The Vyne, Jane suspects murder. Fans of Jane Austen novels or historical mysteries will find this book a real treat, and it’s been selected as a Library Reads pick for November.
First Impressions: a Novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett is the author’s second book, following The Bookman’s Tale.
Upset by her uncle’s death and the loss of his personal library, recent Oxford graduate Sophie Collingwood takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller who knew her uncle. Within a week two customers ask for the second edition of an obscure book by Richard Mansfield. One threatens her, the other man, Winston, takes her to dinner. In the past, Jane Austen has made a new friend, the elderly cleric Richard Mansfield, who admires her writing. Jane has not yet published anything, and struggles to find time to write. Sophie’s quest for the book turns into a mystery that questions Jane Austen’s authorship of Pride and Prejudice, in a romantic and suspenseful book. I would have liked more scenes with Jane and less of Sophie trying to decide whom to trust, publisher Winston or book-loving American Eric. Both Sophie and Jane rely on their sisters for advice and friendship, which is a nice touch. I enjoyed this book, but it’s not as absorbing and memorable as Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie
This is a fascinating novel about the birth of printing in 15th century Mainz, Germany. Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe in Paris, is called home by his foster father Johann Fust to apprentice with the man known as Johann Gutenberg. Merchant Fust is the investor, Gutenberg is the creative, difficult boss, and Peter is stuck in the middle. With Peter’s creativity and hard work, a secret workshop is set up to produce the first printed bibles. The Gutenberg Bible is famous so I knew the project must ultimately succeed, but the author manages to make the reader doubt if this workshop will finish the project before the funding runs out or the Church leaders shut them down. Peter falls in love with illustrator Anna, who is not pleased when she learns that Peter is no longer a scribe. This is not a fast-paced book, but is full of details of life and work in mid-15th century Germany, a place of occasional unrest with the merchants in conflict with the church leaders. The characters are vividly drawn, and the descriptions of the first print shop are excellent.