The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
A highly imaginative, page-turning first novel, set mostly in Victorian London and partly in imperial Japan. Former pianist Thaniel Steepleton helps support his widowed sister by working as a telegraph operator for the Home Office. A bomb threat is received, and Thaniel finds that his flat was broken into. Nothing was taken, but a pocket watch was left. After an alarm on the watch saves his life during an explosion, Thaniel seeks out the watchmaker, the mysterious Keita Mori. Mori is a Japanese nobleman who is a genius with clockwork, and who can sometimes “remember” the future. He even has a clockwork pet, an octopus. Scotland Yard suspects Mori of making a bomb, and Grace Carrow thinks he is probably guilty. Grace is a physics student who needs to marry in order to inherit her aunt’s house, where she can set up a lab. Victorian London is vividly described, including a diplomatic party, a Gilbert and Sullivan performance, and a Japanese exhibition village in Knightsbridge. With plenty of suspense and intrigue along with an unpredictable plot, this is an impressive, original debut.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
Addie Baum, born in 1900, is looking back at her life as her granddaughter interviews her. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Addie is happiest at school. Her mother talks about how life would be better if the family had never left Russia, while Addie’s older sisters Betty and Celia strongly disagree, even though they live in a one-room apartment. Celia is timid and delicate, but steps in so that Addie can attend high school for a year and participate in the Saturday Club at a Boston settlement house. A trip to the seaside Rockport Lodge introduces her to girls who will stay her friends for many years. Celia marries a widower, modern Betty works at a department store, and Addie’s father spends most of his time at the synagogue. Addie becomes a secretary at her brother-in-law’s shirt factory, while attending the occasional night class and keeping up with her Saturday Club. The influenza epidemic causes more suffering and Addie struggles to find happiness, moving to a boarding house, trying to become a newspaper reporter and not having luck with men. Life becomes much better after sister Betty marries, and then Addie finally meets a nice man. Addie’s resilience, rebellious streak, and sense of humor make her an appealing narrator in this novel about working-class Boston girls and immigrant life.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Imagine being an eleven-year-old boy in 1951, setting off halfway across the country on a Greyhound bus, alone. Donal Cameron has an amazing summer of adventure, both good and very bad. It was bittersweet to read Ivan Doig’s last novel; I’m glad it was so enjoyable. Life on the bus, a quarrelsome great aunt who insists on teaching him canasta, close calls with the police, excitement at a rodeo, meeting hobos, and life on a ranch at haying time enliven a memorable story. Other memorable books by Doig include The Whistling Season and The Bartender’s Tale.
Euphoria by Lily King
Inspired by Margaret Mead’s time in New Guinea, this novel is not strictly biographical. Three young anthropologists in the early 1930s are studying isolated tribes in New Guinea. Nell has published a controversial bestseller about her work in Samoa, and Fen is clearly jealous. Nell is recovering from a broken ankle, probably has malaria, and is missing her glasses when she first meets depressed British anthropologist Bankson, who is working along the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have just left the violent Mumbanyo tribe at Nell’s insistence, and Bankson helps them find a more welcoming settlement further down the Sepik River. Nell studies the women and children, making copious notes, while Fen seems to want to be one of the guys and observe daily life and rituals without making any notes or sharing his observations. Bankson is clearly attracted to and protective of Nell, but is dependent on Fen when he falls ill. This is a fast read, but a confusing one. I may need to read this book again to reach a conclusion about what I think happened before the trio meets, and what happens after they leave New Guinea. Most biographical novels I’ve read stay pretty true to the real life of the main character; this book was intriguing because the author didn’t and had more freedom to develop the plot and change the relationships.
A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear
The award-winning Maisie Dobbs mystery series jumps ahead four years, summarizing Maisie’s recent past in only twenty pages. It’s been an eventful period, one that many readers would like to hear more about. After visiting India, Maisie is not quite ready to return home to England, and leaves her ship in Gibraltar. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War is just across the border. Maisie takes a room at Mrs. Bishop’s boarding house, and frequents a café nearby. Out for a walk, she stumbles across the body of Jewish photographer Sebastian Babayoff, and later finds one of his cameras. Since the police aren’t interested in investigating, Maisie, who thought she’d left detective work, takes up the case, mainly for the sake of his two sisters. She finds that she’s being followed, possibly by two men. Her family and friends plead with her to return home soon. Instead, Maisie visits Sebastian’s sister Miriam and asks for help in developing Sebastian’s last photographs. The photographs lead to a trip to war-torn Spain, which raises more questions, but also provides an idea for Maisie’s next project. I missed the presence of Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, but enjoyed being immersed in the atmosphere of 1930s Gibraltar. Maisie really shows her vulnerability in this book, which makes her seem more real. The first book in this excellent series is Maisie Dobbs.
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin
Another notable historical novel from Ariana Franklin, finished after her death by Samantha Norman, her daughter. The story is narrated by a dying abbot to a young monk, which makes a good frame for the book. After 11-year-old Em is attacked in the fen country of Cambridgeshire, archer Gwilherm de Vannes rescues her. Em has amnesia, so Gwil calls the red-headed girl Penda, dresses her as a boy, and teaches her archery. They join a troup of tumblers and travel as entertainers, giving archery exhibitions. Along the way, Gwil is searching for Thancmar, an evil monk who preys on redheads. Then their story joins the larger one of war in 12th century England between Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, fighting for England’s throne. During a blizzard they meet Empress Matilda and two of her knights, and end up at Kenniwick castle, where young Lady Maud is forced to play host to Matilda. The castle is soon under siege by King Stephen, and the archers’ skills are needed. While it is wartime and there is violence, the tone of this book is not dark, as it focuses on the relationships and daily lives of Gwil, Penda, and Lady Maud, all appealing and memorable characters. Readers of medieval fiction will enjoy this book, especially fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Sarah Grimké is shocked when she is given a slave for her 11th birthday. Hetty, or Handful, age 10, must leave her mother Charlotte, a seamstress, to sleep by Sarah’s door in case she is needed during the night. Sarah, though she often stutters, dreams of being a lawyer like her brother, unheard of for a girl from a wealthy family in Charleston, South Carolina. When Sarah teaches Handful to read, both girls are punished. Handful is fascinated by her mother’s story quilt and worries about her association with a former slave. Handful’s spirit stays strong, while Sarah and her younger sister Angelina struggle to make their voices heard. I thought Handful was a very interesting and memorable character, and wanted her to be safe and find a way to become free. A very readable novel, with well-researched insights on Quakers, abolitionists, and the lives of women in the pre-civil war South.