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 River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
An absorbing first novel, in which Lord Nick Falcott, who is about to die in the battle of Salamanca in Spain in 1812, wakes up in a London hospital in 2003. The Guild have found him, and will spend a year acclimating him to the 21st century, then give him a pension and assign him a country. Time travelers can never return to their home country or time period. However, after enjoying life for several years in New England, Nick is summoned by the Guild, and sent back to his estate in England three years after he was declared dead, in order to help find a Guild enemy who is manipulating time nearby at Castle Dar. In 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather is dying, and Castle Dar will be inherited by her cousin Eamon. Julia learns that she can freeze time and travels to London to stay with Nick’s sisters and mother. Nick and Julia are attracted to each other, but the Guild has other plans for Nick. Full of adventure, intrigue, romance, and rich in historical detail, the author leaves open the possibility of a sequel. This debut is a good readalike for A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and the regency romance novels with a military focus by Carla Kelly.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
This is a beautiful book, printed on heavy, smooth paper. Scattered through the book are photographs, maps, newspaper articles, and descriptions of objects in a collection. The rest of this historical novel set in Alaska and Vancouver, Washington is in the form of letters and journal entries, mostly by Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife Sophie. In 1885, Allen is leading an expedition up the Wolverine River into the interior of Alaska, to map and make contact with the Alaska natives. Sophie is waiting for his return in army housing, expecting their first child and learning to photograph birds and develop the pictures. A tale of adventure, hard to explain encounters in the wilderness for Allen, and a tale of waiting, hoping, and learning for Sophie. A remarkable second novel by the author of The Snow Child.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Small town Texas in 1870 comes to life as Captain Jefferson Kidd, in his early seventies, travels around the state, charging a dime each to read to a crowd for an hour. Whenever he’s in a city, he buys newspapers and journals from all over, and highlights articles to inform and entertain his listeners, while trying to stay away from controversial topics right after the Civil War. I found this part of the book charming and interesting, and then Kidd is asked to take a 10-year-old girl 400 miles south to her family in San Antonio, for $50. Johanna was taken by the Kiowa at age 6, and she remembers little of her past. Kidd and Johanna learn to communicate a little, and she enjoys life on the road in a wagon. They have numerous adventures, including being shot at by a cowboy and his gang, but realize it will all end when the Captain leaves Johanna with her aunt and uncle. I would enjoy hearing the Captain read to a crowd, and I’d definitely enjoy learning what comes next for Johanna, trying to find her place in an alien world. Moving, adventurous, and unique; this book is not to be missed by any reader of historical fiction. This book will be published on October 4.
Arabella of Mars by David Levine
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this fun adventure and science fiction novel, set in London in the early 18th century, on Mars, and in the breathable skies between. Arabella Ashby and her brother Michael, raised by a Martian nanny, enjoy life on their Martian koresh wood plantation, but their mother takes Arabella to London so that she can become a proper young lady. Soon, Arabella needs to get back to Mars to save Michael from a threat on his life. She signs on to the sailing ship Diana as a cabin boy, and her skills in working with clockwork automata are helpful. The Diana, built of lightweight koresh wood with silk parachutes for landing, has a mechanical navigator to help chart a course around the Horn, a zone of turbulent weather. Arabella, in disguise as Arthur, enjoys the journey despite the hardships, including an attack by a French privateer and a mutiny against Captain Singh. More adventures await on Mars, and Arabella will need Captain Singh’s help to save the day. Naomi Novik and Mary Robinette Kowal are good readalikes with Regency era fantasy, but not quite the same tone, perhaps because they aren’t science fiction/adventure novels. I need to find more books as well-written and fun as this one, read some of the author’s short stories, and wait for a sequel to Arabella of Mars.
The Last One by Alexandra Oliva
Twelve reality show contestants walk into the woods and up a mountain to face solo and group challenges. They all have nicknames, including Tracker, Biologist, Airforce, Carpenter Chick, and Zoo. The challenges are probably familiar to watchers of any wilderness survival show, but some of the contestants are totally unprepared to survive in the wilderness, which is unusual. Caffeine withdrawal, insufficient clothing, and inability to read a map or compass are unexpected. An expert, along with Tracker, shows the contestants some of the skills they need, but no one will be prepared for the real challenge they face: a fast-moving epidemic. One morning Zoo wakes up alone, without a cameraman in sight. Zoo is married, and wanted one last adventure before starting a family. Following her blue markers, she doesn’t see anyone for many days, although some gruesome dummies are unsettling. After a coyote encounter leaves her with broken glasses, her blurry vision makes it hard to tell reality from the game. She is joined by a young teenage boy, who tries to tell her about the epidemic. They head out on a final quest, and the result is completely unpredictable. Fast-paced, very suspenseful, and moving, this first novel is sure to be a hit this summer.
I enjoy re-reading books occasionally, and sometimes I find books I haven’t read by favorite authors. All of these books were published between 1951 and 1960.
One of my favorite books to re-read is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute. Keith Stewart is an ordinary man in Ealing, England, who becomes trustee of his young niece along with his wife, and tries to find a way to get to the South Pacific to recover her inheritance. He is an engineer who makes mechanical models, and writes about them for The Miniature Mechanic, along with answering dozens of letters from readers working on the models. These readers later help him get to Tahiti and back home again, via the Pacific Northwest.
I also read The Far Country, by Nevil Shute, set mainly in Australia. Post World War II conditions in England were still bad, with some rationing still in place until 1954. Jennifer Morton gets an unexpected gift from her late grandmother, and visits her cousin’s ranch in Victoria, Australia, where she meets a Czech doctor working as a lumberjack. Beautiful scenery, appealing characters, and a good look at the differences between life in England and in northeast Australia around 1950. Nevil Shute’s novels are known for their excellent storytelling, with mostly appealing characters, usually ordinary people in extraordinary situations or settings. These aren’t necessarily gentle reads, as he is best known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach, and the World War II novel, A Town Like Alice.
I listened to two Regency romance novels by Georgette Heyer: Venetia, and The Quiet Gentleman. Her books are known for mild romance and witty dialogue, along with some humor. They are also excellent as audiobooks. Since they’re set in the early 1800s, they don’t feel at all dated. The library has a large collection of both authors’ books, as they are frequently reprinted. If you’re looking for a change of pace for your summer reading, browse and enjoy.