The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Romance, mystery, history, Victorian art, and rare books combine to make for an engaging read. The setting moves from the 1980s and 1990s in North Carolina and England to the Victorian era and Elizabethan England. In 1995, rare book dealer Peter Byerly has retreated from North Carolina to an English cottage after the death of his wife Amanda. Finally visiting a bookstore, he is stunned to find a Victorian watercolor portrait tucked into a book about Shakespearean forgeries. The portrait looks just like his wife, who studied Victorian art. When Amanda’s books don’t identify the artist, he is referred to an art society meeting in London, where he meets book editor Liz Sutcliffe. The mystery of the portrait and its artist are somehow connected to an Elizabethan novel Pandosto by Robert Greene, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. A copy of Pandosto with margin notes by Shakespeare and a list of people who owned the book could be proof that Shakespeare really wrote his plays; or it could be a forgery. The search puts Peter and Liz in jeopardy, while alternating chapters describe Peter and Amanda’s college years and the people who owned the copy of Pandosto. Peter’s joy in learning about rare books and his love for Amanda add depth to the story.
Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood
Although this is the 20th book in the Phryne Fisher series, this mystery could be a fine place to start. The books are set in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and the city is vividly described. Asked by Detective Jack Robinson to help investigate the murder of a choir director, Phryne joins the choir, which is preparing to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah. During rehearsals, lunches, and parties thrown by the flamboyant soloist “Auntie” Mark, Phryne considers the possible suspects. In a parallel story, Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician in town to give lectures on the science of deduction has had some close calls. Phryne dislikes the very arrogant Sheffield, but his assistant, Dr. John Wilson, was a dear friend of hers in World War I, where she drove an ambulance and he was a medic. The reader learns that not only is Sheffield a former intelligence agent for MI6, but so is Phryne. Phryne’s assorted household, including the dog, helps with the two cases, and Phryne plays matchmaker for Dr. Wilson. Phryne and her friends are always good company, and so is the choir. I was even inspired to listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Stephanie Daniel. The print book will be coming out in May, several month after being published in Australia.
Dark Days by Dewey Roscoe Jones
Dark Days is a historical fiction novel about the young star-struck lovers, Ishmael Dade and Denise Donaldson. Their story begins in the South close to the time of World War I. Ishmael is black and works as a servant in a white household and Denise is an heir to that estate. Thus, readers know from the onset that the odds are against a lasting relationship between these two bright, passionate young adults. Despite the reality that discriminatory practices, individual racism, and other external factors are constantly working against their union, the couple’s unconditional love strengthens over time.
Author Dewey Roscoe Jones creates a strong sense of place both here in the United States and abroad in war torn France. Everywhere Jones takes his readers—from Muskogee (Oklahoma), to Chicago, to France—there is a ubiquitous division between the Haves and the Have-Nots. He describes how people with the most power brutally suppress those who are at a disadvantage, patriarchal leaders hinder the ambitions of women and children, Northern city slickers take advantage of those who recently fled the rural South, U.S. Army officers exploit soldiers, and medical professionals maintain a system that prevents care to the most needy. But as is true in all historical periods, there are exceptional people who go against the grain and strive for equity. These individuals and groups provide hope, humor and a belief in goodness; thankfully “Dark Days” has such characters. For example, Hattie, Ishmael’s surrogate mom represents courage, wisdom, and forgiveness even though she has witnessed injustices and atrocities that could have left her weak, cynical, and spiteful.
This is definitely a character driven story. The strong willed protagonists that struggle to make it through an unimaginable way of life make this book a real page-turner. I was caught by surprise more than once when I planned to set the book down after completing a particular chapter and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of the following one! This novel makes for a great discussion, because many of the events that take place can be viewed as either a triumph or a tragedy depending on the readers’ perspectives and interpretations.
“Dark Days” is a story of characters being caught between two worlds. A suggested read-alike book is the international bestselling saga “The Far Pavilions” by M.M. Kaye. It is the story of two 19th century star-crossed lovers—Ash, an Englishman who was raised as a Hindu in the Himalayan foothills, and Juli, an Indian Princess who must choose her own destiny. Like “Dark Days,” it features issues of class and race. It also depicts characters that are at odds with their society’s norms.
The Bones of Paris by Laurie King
This novel takes place in Paris, France in 1929. The main character is a American “down at his heels” Private eye named Harris Stuyvesant. He is currently in Paris on an assignment to find a missing American young woman who has not contacted her parents in months, which is totally out of character for her. The parents want her found and contract with Stuyvesant to find her.
Paris during this time seems to be one big Party/Pick up scene. In the course of his investigations, Stuyvesant encounters some big name American expatriates including author Ernest Hemingway and photographer Man Ray. Besides the investigations into the American girl’s disappearance, we are also treated to some of the more morbid history of Paris, including mass cemeteries, Catacombs, the Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death), Adipocere (wax made from human corpses), the Theater du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre (where murders are staged to shock and amuse the audience), and a number of gruesome suspects. Is it the Avant-Garde photographer who favors pictures of tortured/dying women, or is it the timid bone collector who keeps vats full of corpses being aided in decomposition by flesh eating beetles? Or is it the famous respected Count, a wealthy French hero of World War I, who runs the Theater Du Grand Guignol for the amusement of his mass of jaded followers?
This is a superbly written, darkly disturbing book.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker ably retells Jane Austen’s story from the point of view of the servants. Sarah, the housemaid, is the main narrator. She was orphaned as a young girl, and has worked at Longbourn for years, along with Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the butler and cook/housekeeper. Sarah is fond of Mrs. Hill, even though she often scolds Sarah and Polly, the younger maid. When Mr. Bennett hires a footman/groom, James Smith, Sarah is at first suspicious of James, but later falls in love with him. Elizabeth, Jane and the younger Bennett girls come to life, but again from the servants’ points of view. Five young ladies in the house certainly make for a lot of laundry, sewing, and cleaning. Sarah wonders what they can possibly have to complain about, and doesn’t think much of their suitors, especially Wickham, who flirts with young Polly. When Mr. Bingley moves to the area, his handsome footman, Ptolemy Bingley, has Sarah dreaming of life in London. When James Smith suddenly leaves Longbourn, he describes his childhood and experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, while Mrs. Bennett and Sarah try to find him. This was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I recommend it to Anglophiles, historical fiction and Regency romance readers.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani
This novel takes place during the Great Depression of the Nineteen Thirties. The main character, Theadore Atwell (Thea) lives with her twin brother Sam on a farm in rural Florida. Her family has modest means, but is also buoyed up from the worst of the Financial Crises by large citrus holdings in the state.
That being stated, the novel starts out with Thea finding herself attending a pricey, exclusive school for girls in North Carolina called the “Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls”. She was placed there abruptly during the summer months because of a family scandal that is keep under wraps for now. She is shocked and saddened to be here, but also curious and headstrong, loves horses, and is a brilliant equestrian. Gradually we get filled in on the backstory of Thea, and how she came to be here.
Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” is an immersive transporting page turner – a vivid propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Great Depression. Much of the novel revolves around dressage, an equestrian sport in which horses and their riders execute a series of precise movements in the ring. It’s a subject that Disclafani, 31 – whose first name is pronounced ANT-un, and who received a reported $1 million advance for her novel in one of the most competitive book auctions of recent years – know very well from her own experience as a serious dressage rider.
This book got five stars on “Goodreads” and is one of the New York Times “Best Books of the Year”. Readalikes include “Shorecliff” by Ursula DeYoung. Visit the Author’s website at antondisclafani.com.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Recuperating from an injury, University of Illinois college student David Graham enjoys reading the poetry of Elspeth Dunn, and writes her a fan letter. This begins a correspondence of several years before and during World War I. Elspeth is married to sullen Iain, her brother Finlay’s best friend, and lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Afraid to leave the island, Elspeth leads a somewhat narrow life. She writes poetry, roams around the island, and worries about her husband and brother in World War I, and then about David when he volunteers as an ambulance driver in France. A parallel story is set in Edinburgh and London in 1940, where Elspeth’s daughter Margaret tries to learn about her past after her mother disappears after an air raid, and also worries about her boyfriend Paul, in the war. Told through letters, this double love story reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows, although it’s not quite as memorable. A quick read, with humor, romance, and drama, recommended for fans of historical fiction or family sagas.
Death of a Dyer by Eleanor Kuhns
Will Rees has returned to his farm near Dugard, Maine. A traveling weaver since his wife’s death years ago, he has learned that his farm and his son David were neglected by his sister and brother-in-law. Now teenage David is basically running the farm while Will prepares to set up his loom, and former Shaker Lydia Jane is the new housekeeper. Will has strong feelings for Lydia, but isn’t ready to commit to marriage yet, so she lives in a cottage on the farm, and they try to avoid company. While serving in the Continental Army, Will learned he had a talent for solving crimes, demonstrated in the first book in the series, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. When his childhood friend Nate Bowditch is killed, lawyer George Potter tells Will that Nate’s wife Molly would like him to clear her son Richard of suspicion of murder. The investigation pays for help with the harvest and in the kitchen, so Will is free to travel by wagon and investigate. He learns that Nate was greatly changed from the last time Will saw him, and preferred to live in a weaving cottage on his farm, researching dyes yet neglecting his family, and he also gambled. Richard has disappeared, but his half-brother, son of a slave, is also a suspect, and Will protects him from slave catchers. Many secrets in the Maine community of Dugard are unearthed, and Will’s life is threatened more than once. Reluctantly, he accepts Lydia’s help in his investigation, and even David’s input as well. Will and David have a complicated relationship that feels authentic. The late 18th century small town Maine setting is refreshingly different, and appealing. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Richard Waterhouse, and didn’t want the story to end. Lydia and Will are excellent company, and I hope for many more mysteries for them to solve.
The Son: A Novel by Philipp Meyer
During the Westward expansion of the United States, also known as “Manifest Destiny” no group of Indians gave the settlers more problems than the Comanche. They dominated an area of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico that was called “Comancheria” In “The Son”, Eli McCullough, the thirteen-year-old son of a rancher in West Texas is captured by the Comanche after his family is killed. Along with his brother they are taken, naked, on a two week ride back to the Comanche home base. The Comanche are fierce and warlike, and love going on raids against the whites, the Mexicans, and other Indian tribes. They bring back horses, booty, and slaves. At First Eli is consigned to hard manual labor with the women of the tribe, but as he proves his worth as a hunter and warrior, he is promoted to going on raids, and even earns his first scalp.
Eli’s experiences are just the beginning of the story covered in this book. The history of Texas is laid out in the stories of Eli and his descendants. Eli’s son Peter is caught up in a blood feud with the Mexican Garcia Clan over Cattle. Later when the cattle use up all the resources of the land, oil is discovered, dotting the landscape with drilling rigs and saving the families fortunes. Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeanne is raised on the ranch and can hold her own with her brothers. However when she takes over the family oil business she encounters old fashioned sexism in the nineteen sixties.
The history of the Comanche have been covered in other books and films. “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C Gwynne tells the story of Quanah Parker, the half breed son of Cynthia Parker, who was actually abducted by the Comanche and became a member of the tribe. Quanah was the last great Chief of the Comanche and presided over their eventual destruction and consignment to the reservation.
In the movie, “The Searchers” John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a civil war veteran whose niece, Debbie, is captured by the Comanche, thus starting a three year odyssey by Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin to find and bring Debbie back home.
In the movie “A Man named Horse” Richard Harris plays
I’m usually not big on family sagas, but this one really interested me because of the Comanche connection.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Honor Bright travels from England to Ohio in 1850 with her sister Grace. Grace is engaged to marry Adam Cox, a dry-goods merchant from their hometown and a fellow Quaker. After an arduous journey where Honor is constantly seasick, Grace dies suddenly just before they reach Faithwell, Ohio. Honor is befriended by Belle, an outspoken milliner, who has Honor help sew bonnets. When she reaches Faithwell, Honor must depend on the kindness of strangers, and is very lonely. Even Quaker meeting feels different in Ohio, and her sewing and quilting skills are not as valuable, as applique quilts are preferred to elaborate patchwork. Honor must marry and learn new skills, and finds herself caught up in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves traveling north. Ultimately, Honor must decide what is more important; her principles or her new family.