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.
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.