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.
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!