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.
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.
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.
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 Obituary Writer by Ann Hood
In California in 1919, Vivian leads a remarkable life, but one that has been marked by grief since the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Her best friend is now raising a family in Napa Valley, while Vivian accidentally becomes a writer of obituaries that give families closure. Having lost her lover David in the earthquake, she continues to hope that he is still alive somewhere.
In a parallel story in 1960s Virginia, Claire, a former flight attendant, feels trapped in bland suburbia. Her husband Peter is distant and demanding, her toddler daughter and housework fill her days. Volunteering for Kennedy’s presidential campaign provides a much needed outlet for Claire, and leads to an affair, which doesn’t end well. Claire’s pregnancy complicates an already strained marriage. On the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration, Peter and Claire travel to Rhode Island in a snowstorm for his mother Birdy’s 80th birthday celebration, where learning about Birdy’s past gives Claire needed perspective.