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.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
“The real director of our life is accident—a director full of cruelty, compassion and bewitching charm.
It’s an unrecognized form of stupidity, you have to forget the cosmic meaninglessness of all our acts to be able to be vain and that’s a glaring form of stupidity.
How boring and stale it must be to know that what happens today, this month, this year, doesn’t matter, endless more days, months, years will come.
A feeling is no longer the same when it comes the second time. It dies through the awareness of its return
In the immortal soul, a gigantic weariness and a flagrant despair must grow in view of the certainty that it will never end, never. It is death that gives the moment its beauty and its horror. Only through death is time a living time. Why does the Lord, the omniscient God, not know that? Why does he threaten us with endlessness that must mean unbearable desolation.”
Had enough? Can you tell this novel was written by a Professor of Philosophy?
These and other rantings are on full view in Night Train to Lisbon.
This is a story with two main protagonists. First is Raimund Gregorius, He has led a dull, unfulfilling life as a teacher of classic languages at a private school in Bern Switzerland. He learns of his exact opposite in Amadeu de Prado, a brilliant student who goes on to be a brilliant doctor and also a leader in the Portuguese Resistance to Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose dictatorship dominated Portugal for 1932 to 1974. Gregorius spends most of the novel pursuing information about the life of Amadeu who has been dead for a while, first through an obscure book that Amadeu published and then by tracking down and talking to most of the people that knew him.
Both Raimund and Amadeu are angsty people. Both suffer from life threatening, chronic ailments that may be their undoing. To my disappointment, not much is mentioned about the resistance other than showing the effects on some of the characters, such as deformed hands and broken minds.
I made it through this book and it had its redeeming qualities but on the whole was a real downer. The book is now a movie, starring Jeremy Irons. It was filmed in Germany, and has not yet been releases in the United States.
That’s how he was, the godless priest: He thought things through to the end. He always thought them through to the end. No matter how black the consequences were.
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
A recent book that’s been getting rave reviews and that’s being compared to “The Help” is “The House Girl”. Set in both present day New York and 19th century antebellum Virginia, it follows the story of 17 year old slave Josephine Bell, and her artist-mistress, Lu Anne Bell. We’re also introduced to a determined present day lawyer, Lina Sparrow, who is up for the trial of a lifetime in her attempt to find the perfect plaintiff for a multi-million dollar lawsuit in reparations for the descendants of American slaves. In her research, Lina stumbles upon Josephine Bell’s story, and the big question everyone wants to know is this: did Lu Anne Bell create art, or did her slave? Filled with impeccable historical scholarship and multi-layered character development, this is an important and fascinating read. I believe this book has that same magic effect “The Help” has had for so many readers. It also calls up some nagging questions that need to be answered. For instance, how many generations does it take to repair wrongs done to a people group? Are there current repercussions for descendants of slaves today that the American people are not aware of? How would the US government count the cost of so many unnamed lives, over 246 years of American history? This book grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. I’ve been recommending it everywhere, and the plot is a great conversation starter, too.
Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress
I really enjoyed reading this collection of stories inspired by the work of Jane Austen. There is a wide variety of settings, characters, and styles. A story by mystery author Stephanie Barron led me to the collection, and I was pleased to see stories by bestselling authors Adriana Trigiani, Lauren Willig, and Jo Beverley. In a few, Jane is a character, in others the main (or minor) characters from her books are featured. There are historical and contemporary settings, mystery, ghost stories, romance, and even adventure at sea, featuring Jane Austen’s brother as a character. In one story, Jane is haunted by her characters. If you like Regency romance, witty dialogue, or Jane Austen’s books, movies, or mini-series, you might enjoy this collection.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall won a major literary award and is a memorable, rewarding book to read. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, might be even better. Shorter by 120 pages, it’s certainly a faster read. Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and both won the Man Booker Prize for best novel in English by a writer from Great Britain or the Commonwealth. Even though it’s shorter, Bring Up the Bodies has more about Cromwell’s earlier life and family, including his father the blacksmith. The storytelling is magnificent and the book is quite readable, something I don’t expect in a literary award-winning novel. I don’t know how it would be to read it without having read Wolf Hall first, but if your time is limited, jump in. When the book opens in 1535, Thomas Cromwell is secretary to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is queen, and her daughter Elizabeth is a toddler. Anne becomes pregnant, and hopes for an heir for Henry VIII. Anne’s predecessor Katherine is in failing health. The reader knows that Elizabeth will later become queen, and that Anne Boleyn’s life will be cut short, but Mantel still makes the story absorbing, poignant, and occasionally suspenseful. Thomas Cromwell is still good company, looking to the future of his son Gregory, nephew Richard, and protégé Rafe, while doing his best for king and country. It becomes clear that Henry is also looking ahead, and hoping that quiet Jane Seymour is part of his future. A third book, The Mirror and the Light, is planned.
Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson
I enjoyed listening to Hattie Ever After, although I’m not sure if I read Kirby Larson’s first book, Hattie Big Sky. Hattie is now 17, an orphan, and working at a boarding house in Great Falls, Montana. Her friend Perrilee wants her to move to Seattle, and her boyfriend Charlie, just back from World War I, wants to get married. But Hattie has a dream, and impulsively takes a job as seamstress to a vaudeville troupe that is heading to San Francisco. Hattie’s big dream is to be a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She gets a job at the paper, but no writing is involved. Her entry-level job seems to pay pretty well, and she’s saving money to visit Perrilee. But then her new friend Ruby Danvers, who knew Hattie’s Uncle Chester, needs the money to visit her daughter. Ruby is quite friendly, but is not what she seems.
Hattie eventually gets some chances to write for the paper, beginning with a bet to get an assignment to cover a baseball game. A minor earthquake, an opera star who want to go flying and a visit from President Wilson provide some more opportunities. But Hattie has to decide just how important her dream is. San Francisco in 1919 comes to life, and Hattie is great company and often funny. I thought the narrator, Kirsten Potter, had a more mature voice than expected for a teenager, but was otherwise excellent. The author spent a lot of time with maps, online newspaper archives, and an old city directory to make San Francisco seem authentic. Now I need to listen to Hattie Big Sky, about her earlier adventures on a homestead in Montana.
Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler
Miss books like “The Help”? Can’t get enough of mid-century historical novels? Love to discover new authors? This book by new author Julie Kibler is a true winner, a poignant, tragic tale of forbidden love between Robert, a young African American teen in 1939 Kentucky and his lady love, 17-year-old Isabelle, who is torn between societal norms and her passionate love affair. The story is told in hindsight by 90-year-old Isabelle to her dear friend and hairdresser, Dorrie, who has agreed to accompany Isabelle to a funeral that she knows nothing about. As the story unfolds, it was shocking to read the racial prejudices that occurred, but it is still eye opening to read the similarities of prejudice, even today. I must say, this definitely does not read like a debut novel! Kibler writes similarly to Kathryn Stockett, especially as she draws from the experience of her own grandmother in telling this story. The characters are very well developed, and the story develops at a very quick pace. You won’t be able to put this one down!
Mistress of My Fate by Hallie Rubenhold
Miss Henrietta Ingerton has grown up in a life of privilege in 1780s London, but forever shadowed by her proud, selfish cousin, Lady Catherine. In a Mansfield Park-esque manner, Henrietta is timid, always bowing to the needs of her cousin, whom she desperately wants attention from, until the dashing Lord Allenham pays tribute to both girls. Henrietta and Lady Catherine both fall for him, but it comes out that Lord Allenham loves Henrietta, but cannot marry her, as she has no fortune. This comes to spell tragedy for the couple, but Allenham whispers a word to her that she will always remember: SURVIVE. So this tale is a first-person recollection of Henrietta’s survival so she can one day be reunited with her beloved, who mysteriously disappeared. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel–it has twists and turns, and feels a little like both Moll Flanders and Mansfield Park, rolled into one. The author is a Regency historian, which makes it quite fun for historical fiction lovers.
The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman
Midwife Patience Murphy settles in West Virginia in 1929, hiding from her past. The midwife who trained her has died, and she gets her own clients as the local midwife, Mrs. Potts, nears retirement. Reluctantly, Patience soon acquires a young African American assistant, Bitsy. Called out at all hours and in all weather, Patience and Bitsy are just scraping by, as many of their patients are also struggling. Gradually Patience reveals her past, from being orphaned at 14, to working at the orphanage laundry, running away to become a chorus girl, and becoming a wet nurse. She has also lost the two men she loved, one to an accident and the other in a violent workers’ strike. Descriptions of the births are detailed and sometimes joyful, and life in the Appalachians during the Great Depression is vividly portrayed. A nearby vet is unexpectedly helpful, and friends are found in unlikely places, but so is trouble. A memorable first novel, written by a nurse-midwife.
The Big Read Selection for 2013 is The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, a novel about Italian American immigrants in the early 1900s. Here are some more novels you might enjoy:
Alcott, Kate. The Dressmaker. Titanic survivor in New York City.
Cohen, Paula. Gramercy Park. Set in the 1890s, famous Italian tenor rents house near Gramercy Park while singing at the Metropolitan Opera, falls in love.
Duenas, Maria. The Time in Between. Spanish fashion designer stranded in 1930s Morocco, opens dress shop.
Forster, E.M. A Room With a View. Written and set in early 1900s, an Italian pensione caters to British tourists.
Gentle, Mary. The Black Opera. Nineteenth century Italy, opera librettist.
Mazzucoo, Melania. Vita. Two children from southern Italy try to survive in New York City’s Little Italy in 1903.
McDonnell, Adrienne. The Doctor and the Diva. Early 1900s opera singer seeks treatment for infertility.
Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. Young priest teaches orphans at a convent during World War II, redesigns old handcrafted puppets to tell Bible stories, but the puppets come to life in this horror novella.
Moser, Nancy. An Unlikely Suitor. Italian American dressmakers in 19th century NYC and Newport, Rhode Island.
Olafsson, Olaf. Restoration. Set in Tuscany in 1944.
Pezzelli, Peter. Home to Italy. Recently widowed Peppi returns to his native Italian village and finds that his old friend and fellow mountain biker Luca now owns a candy factory run by his lovely daughter Lucrezia.
Russell, Mary Doria. A Thread of Grace. Northern Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Many thousands of Jewish refugees fled here during World War II.
Schoenewaldt, Pamela. When We Were strangers. Italian American immigrant finds work as seamstress in 1880s Cleveland and Chicago.
Trigiani, Adriana. Lucia, Lucia. Italian American seamstress looks back on her life in NYC.
Trigiani, Adriana. Very Valentine. Family owned shoe company in New York City, started in 1903 by Italian American immigrants.
Walters, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. 1960 Italy and modern day United States.