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.
My Name is Resolute by Nancy E. Turner
A sweeping historical novel set in Jamaica, Quebec, and Massachusetts over the course of fifty years and almost 600 pages. Resolute Talbot is only ten when her family’s plantation on Jamaica is attacked by pirates, and she is taken captive with some of her family. Her older sister and brother do whatever they have to for survival. In Colonial America, Resolute is made to work hard for a family who moves to the wilderness, where they encounter bears and Indians. The Indians take her to a convent/orphanage in Quebec, where she is called Marie and learns to spin and weave. Escaping with help as a teen, she settles in Massachusetts, where a suitor abandons her when he learns she won’t inherit the Jamaican plantation. Inheriting a shack and a farm near Lexington from an eccentric woman, Resolute always longs to be a lady and return to Jamaica, but instead marries a carpenter, spins and weaves, and aids the Sons of Liberty in their rebellion. With a long and colorful life highlighted by the occasional unexpected visits from relatives, Resolute is a memorable heroine. Though long, this novel really kept my interest with compelling writing and plenty of action. The author is best known for a novel about her great-grandmother set in the Arizona Territory, These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine. Readalikes include An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon and Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill.
A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith
Cora Blake is working at the cannery in Deer Isle, Maine, when she gets an invitation to travel to France. Cora is a Gold Star Mother, having lost her son Sammy in World War I. A volunteer librarian who is raising her nieces, Cora has never stopped grieving for her son, and looks forward to the trip in 1931, with four other Gold Star Mothers, all from different backgrounds. Cora’s group gathers in New York City, and meets Lily, the nurse assigned to them, and their escort, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond. Immediately there’s a problem; Mrs. Selma Russell is African American and not meant to be part of their group. She is sent to a different hotel, and Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell joins the group. Once in France, they tour Paris, where Cora meets wounded journalist Reed, who wants to tell her story. It is a journey of new experiences, shared grief, and unexpected tragedy. Reed’s article also has surprising consequences for Cora. We don’t meet the ladies from any of the other groups on their ship, and at least one storyline is dropped. Cora is excellent company for the reader, but I was hoping for more depth and less drama. I think this book would be a good choice for a book discussion.