Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Margot discovered that her home town of Hampton, Virginia, was also home to many African American women mathematicians who worked for NACA, later NASA, in the 1940s and beyond. The college educated women, many of them teachers, were recruited as human computers during World War II, running calculations for aerospace engineers. These jobs paid much better than teaching, and many of the women stayed on as they began to raise children, and as NACA transitioned to NASA. Virginia was defiantly a southern state, resisting integrating schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and the women worked in the all black West Computers section at first, with a white section head. The cafeteria tables and bathrooms were also segregated, but the pioneering women proved their importance, getting reassigned to other sections, sometimes getting promoted to mathematician and rarely to engineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, the goal was to produce new faster and safer airplanes, and later they worked on projects developing rockets, calculating spacecraft trajectories, and programming early computers. Several of these pioneering women are highlighted, and the stories of their careers and personal lives are fascinating and surprising. I haven’t yet seen the popular movie based on the book, but I look forward to it, and to learning more about the human side of NACA and NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The author’s thorough researching of the people, place, and time make for a compelling and memorable read.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Step back in time, to the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov, 30, is living in a suite, full of family antiques, enjoying mingling with international guests and fine dining every night. Unfortunately, a revolutionary poem he’s authored becomes too popular, and a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 sentences him to house arrest at the Metropol, for life. Stuck in an attic room, how shall he live? Fortunately, Rostov is wealthy, charming, and resourceful. Young hotel guest Nina has acquired a master key and explores the hotel with Rostov. While he is removed from the outside world, the staff and guests share their experiences with Stalinist Russia and later World War II with him, especially after he becomes the head waiter of the hotel’s restaurant. He can plan seating charts with ease, has perfect manners, and has a fine palate for wine and gourmet food. Daily meetings with the maître d’ and the chef lead to friendship, as well as some excellent bouillabaisse. Beautiful actress Anna Urbanova makes regular visits, and a young girl, Sofia, comes to stay and captures Rostov’s heart. This is a rich, layered novel to savor, with lyrical writing, marvelous characters, and both humorous and poignant moments. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, and I enjoyed it even more than his first novel, Rules of Civility.
Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal
An absorbing coming-of-age story set in 1960s New Orleans, this first novel is moving and compelling. Ibby Bell, almost 12, travels to New Orleans to live with her grandmother after her father dies. Ibby learns to wear dresses, eat Southern food, and attends her first church service. Fannie is an eccentric, wealthy woman who likes to bet on sports. Queenie is her longtime cook, Queenie’s daughter Dollbaby takes care of the house, makes dresses for Ibby, and is slightly involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia shows Ibby around New Orleans, although they draw stares in segregated New Orleans. Queenie and Dollbaby teach Ibby the rules to living with Fannie: don’t talk about the past, don’t ask about the locked bedrooms, and don’t ask too many questions. The big house has its secrets, which Ibby gradually learns, along with her family history. A strong sense of place and appealing, complex characters add to this book’s considerable appeal.
Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart
I’ve recently read six novels that were popular in 1967, as my library is celebrating its 50th anniversary all year. Frankly, some of the books feel rather dated. This book doesn’t, except for newsreels playing before feature films at theaters. Young English veterinarian Vanessa March is asked to accompany a teen friend of the family to visit his father in Vienna. Puzzled at the request, Vanessa learns that her husband Lewis, currently on assignment in Sweden, was just seen in a newsreel at a traveling circus in Austria. Vanessa and 17-year-old Tim head off to Vienna, where Tim wants to work with the Lipizzaner stallions. Mountain driving, a visit behind the scenes at a small circus, including veterinary work on an older horse, a suspicious fire, plenty of delicious Viennese pastries, suspense, an old castle, the Lipizzaners, and a very unusual chase scene all add to the novel’s appeal. Also, when Vanessa finally sees her husband, he’s in disguise. Vanessa, Lewis, and Tim all work together to solve a mystery, just in time. This book is a real pleasure to read, or re-read.
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
A fantasy novel set in an alternate version of the American West, this sequel to Silver on the Road lives up to the promise of the first book. Teen Isobel and her mentor Gabriel, along with two horses and a mule, are traveling through the Territory, as Isobel learns the land, the people, and her new role as Left Hand for the Master of the Territory. Alone temporarily, Isobel comes upon a field of slaughtered bison, and promises to remember them. Small animals and birds are strangely absent, and it’s as if the land is poisoned. Gabriel can sense water, but neither can sense the main road for a while, and then the earthquakes begin. Something is very wrong, and it’s Isobel’s charge to investigate. They find a Marshall who’s arrested two scouts from east of the Mississippi, probably sent by President Jefferson. They are accused of encouraging a group of magicians to work together to trap a spirit. Isobel and Gabriel, with the remaining magicians, join the Marshall in a journey to a small, warded town for a trial. Although Isobel seems more mature than most 16-year-olds, it’s fascinating seeing the Territory through her eyes. The writing is compelling, the characters fully realized, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens next, while dreading what they might encounter. Clearly, Isobel and Gabriel are living in an unsettled and unpredictable time, and there are likely several more adventures ahead for them. Here’s my review of Silver on the Road, which I suggest reading first.
How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman
I enjoy reading about daily life in other times and places, learning about how ordinary people lived, worked, and ate, but without the wars, politics, and royalty that fill many history textbooks. Ruth Goodman is a historian and a re-enactor, and spent months living like a Tudor for the British television series Tudor Monastery Farm, and worked as an advisor for the Wolf Hall miniseries. She also did a lot of research, looking at wills and household inventories of the Tudor era, as well as researching homes, furniture, food, and clothing. I enjoyed the descriptions of making cheese, bread, and ale, and what it was like to sleep on a rush strewn floor or a rope-strung bed with a mattress and bed curtains. Hour by hour, she goes through the activities of life, from sleeping, waking, bathing (or not), dressing, work including apprenticeships, school, religion, and social life, as well as food and drink. Ploughing and tending the fields she learned by doing, as well as different dance styles, making and caring for elaborate ruffs, and more. Fans of the Tudors, Wolf Hall, or history buffs are sure to enjoy, and readers will learn whether it’s more important to change your linen undergarments or to take a bath. A few recipes are included.
I enjoyed these three fantasy novellas, set in the World of the Five Gods. The first book in the loosely connected series is The Curse of Chalion, but the Penric novellas are a good place to start.
Lord Penric is the younger son of a minor noble, and is on the way to his betrothal to a cheesemaker’s daughter when he stops to help an elderly lady who’s fallen ill. She is a temple divine and when she dies, her demon unexpectedly transfers to Penric. Penric names the demon Desdemona, and her previous hosts, all female, tell him amazing stories. No one expects the demon to be allowed to stay with young, untrained Penric, except the reader. Penric has always wanted to go to university, and is happy to get the education he needs for his new station in life, and gradually learns to cope with the demon.
Penric and the Shaman
Several years later, Penric’s education is complete, and he is sent on a mission to help locate Inglis, a runaway shaman accused of murder. There are magical dogs, an avalanche, and adventures in the mountains and a small town. This is the shortest of the novellas. Penric is learning to use Desdemona’s powers when necessary, but there are consequences, so he must get creative.
In Penric’s Mission, Penric is an agent for the Duke of Adria. He is travelling by sea to Cedonia, home of an earlier host of Desdemona, to meet with a young general. Instead, Penric is imprisoned, and General Arisaydia is arrested and badly injured. Using Desdemona’s skills, Penric escapes, and finds that the general has been released to the care of his widowed sister, Nikys. Penric uses his healing skills, and the trio have a cross country adventure escaping their enemies, and Penric gets to battle another wizard. This story was great fun, and I liked the possibility of a future romance with Nikys. So far, Penric’s Mission is only available as an ebook.