The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper
I have read and enjoyed several of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, beginning with Little Women. When she was 28, May Alcott became known as frivolous Amy March when her sister Louisa’s book became a bestseller. May’s illustrations for Little Women were criticized as amateurish. Stung, May began to focus on her art, taking classes in Boston and travelling to Europe to study, funded by Louisa, who supported the whole family. The sisters clashed frequently, especially over who would take care of their parents and widowed sister. Both women faced the challenge of making money or making art. May sold copies of J.W.S. Turner watercolor paintings, but longed to do more. Louisa didn’t want to keep writing children’s books, but they were very successful. Not nearly as much is known about May’s life, so the author, a debut novelist, had more leeway to write about her life as an artist in Europe, and to imagine the letters exchanged between the sisters, which seem real. Mary Cassatt became a friend to May as well as a famous artist, but it was never easy for Victorian era women artists, especially after they married. May especially struggled with knowing when she was a real artist, even after she had a painting exhibited at the Salon in Paris. When she found love in Europe, more conflicts arose, especially with sister Louisa. In the end, May leaves Louisa her best creation, and leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Louisa May Alcott fans will enjoy this book, as well as historical fiction readers, and readers of Susan Vreeland’s novels.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In a fantastical version of medieval Russia, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna inherits her grandmother’s ability to see and commune with the household spirits and mystical creatures that live side by side with the people of her village. Free-spirited Vasya would rather run wild in the woods than perform her duties as a rich boyar’s daughter. When Vasya’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, comes to the household, things begin to change. Anna can also see the spirits, though she fears them and believes them to be demons. Making matters worse, the zealous, handsome Konstantin comes to serve as the village priest, and he encourages the villagers to turn from the old ways. The spirits weaken, and an unnaturally harsh winter brings death, hunger, and fear to the village. Aided by the fabled frost demon Morozko, Vasya must embrace her gift to save both her family and the village (and maybe the world) before it’s too late.
Katherine Arden’s debut is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and completely gorgeous. Lush prose and fully formed characters make for a compelling read, and Vasya is a worthy heroine. This is the first in a planned trilogy, and readers will be anxious for the next installment. Highly recommended for historical or literary fiction readers who don’t mind a dash of the fantastic. Fantasy readers who liked Uprooted by Naomi Novik will also enjoy this. This book would also be a great pick for teens.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Essun’s daughter is missing, her son is dead, and the world may be ending, again. The Stillness is a volcanic world, with a fifth season occurring every so often that affects many of the small communities on the continent. It may be earthquakes, volcanoes, or plagues, but everyone has a stash of supplies handy if they need to travel to safety. Damaya is a young girl on her way to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained to safely use her talents as an orogene, one who can harness the powers of the earth. Syenite is a four ring orogene, sent to clear a harbor with her new mentor, ten ring Alabaster. With the women, a variety of small communities are explored, and some of the land’s history is explained. Gradually, we learn how the characters are connected, and the pages turn faster and faster to see what geologic calamity will happen next, and when Essun will find her daughter. The award-winning first novel in a fantasy trilogy, this may be a television series. The writing is lovely, the tone is dark and gritty, the creativity of the world building is stunning, the world itself is depressing, and I really cared about the main characters. Fantasy fans will appreciate the quality, but I’m ready for a fun, light read next, probably a cozy mystery. The second book in the trilogy is The Obelisk Gate.
To Be Where You Are by Jan Karon
It’s always enjoyable to visit Mitford, North Carolina, home of Father Tim and his artist wife, Cynthia. This time around, readers get to catch up on most of the town’s residents, and visit young veterinarian Dooley and his wife at their busy animal clinic a few miles outside Mitford. In town, everyone seems to have a big life event, from writing a book, riding in a parade, buying an RV, adopting a pet, to having a baby. Retired Father Tim helps out at the local grocery store when the owner gets sick, and puts off taking Cynthia on a big road trip. So, no real plot, just a very pleasant visit with the folks in Mitford. The first book in the long cozy series is At Home in Mitford.