Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.
When a young Russian musician is found dead at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t think the investigation by MI5 is headed in the right direction. With help from her new assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a veteran and daughter of Nigerian immigrants, the Queen secretly makes inquiries. In the spring of 2016, the Queen is soon to turn 90, and enjoys talk of horseracing, walks with her dogs, and giving well-deserved honours. The mystery is clever and intricately plotted, but I most enjoyed the characterizations of the Queen, who is depicted as shrewd, loyal, and an excellent judge of character, and of Rozie, along with the wonderfully described setting of Windsor Castle. The first book in a planned series, this compulsively readable and engaging mystery is sure to delight fans of The Crown and readers of British mysteries with amateur sleuths.
Marrying right before World War I, Agatha Miller followers her mother’s advice to put her new husband Archibald Christie first. Unfortunately, other than surfing and playing golf, nothing Agatha does seems to make Archie happy. She even puts time with her daughter Rosalind at a lower priority, and leaves her behind to travel with Archie. Finally, Agatha thinks about what makes her happy: time with her daughter, mother, and sister Madge, and writing mysteries. It’s not so enjoyable reading about Agatha and Archie’s increasingly unhappy marriage. Then Agatha suddenly vanishes in December 1926, the same day she and Archie have a loud argument during breakfast. The story really takes off here, and the disappearance is related from Archie’s point of view, as the police become suspicious of his role in her disappearance. I wanted to know more about Agatha Christie’s life after reading this novel, which is based on the real disappearance of the author. It’s been 100 years since the first Hercule Poirot mystery was published; so it’s perfect timing for a novel about the creator of Poirot and Miss Marple. This mystery will be published in late December.
The struggles and triumphs of the wife of Winston Churchill make for an interesting biographical novel, especially the second half of the book, which covers World War II. The first half of the book doesn’t flow as well, as it covers the first thirty years of Clementine and Winston’s marriage. Clementine was always interested in politics, although she didn’t always share Winston’s views. He was moody and rather bombastic, but Clementine would stand up to him, soothe and support him, and they were a good team, at least according to this very well researched novel. Clementine struggled to balance being a supportive wife with being a good mother and running a household on a modest budget during the early years of their marriage, and occasionally took a rest cure to recharge. I really liked the chapters on Clementine’s work on the home front during the war, improving air raid shelters, helping Winston with his speeches, and being recognized internationally for her work with the Red Cross. Other recent books about the Winston and his mother Jennie include Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard and That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron. Readalikes include novels by Melanie Benjamin, Paula McLain, and Nancy Horan.
Maud Gage, daughter of a suffragette, is a student at Cornell College in the 1880s when she meets Frank Baum. This is the story of their marriage, raising sons and struggling to make ends meet in South Dakota and Chicago until Frank’s storytelling makes him a success with the publication of The Wizard of Oz. The tone is bittersweet, especially the scenes with Maud’s sister and niece in drought-stricken South Dakota. Later in life, Maud visits the M-G-M studio during the filming of the Wizard of Oz and encounters young Judy Garland while trying to keep the film true to Frank’s stories. The Baum’s family life is vividly described, especially the ways Frank tried to make Christmas magical for their sons. Though I would have enjoyed more about their life after Frank started publishing the Oz books, Finding Dorothy is an absorbing, engaging biographical novel.
Jennie Jerome visits Europe with her mother and sisters in 1873 and catches the attention of Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill. She will become best known as Winston Churchill’s mother, but this book just covers her childhood and marriage to Randolph. Jennie is vividly shown here as glamorous and scandalous, but also smart, sympathetic, and complex. She can definitely keep a secret, had a fascinating childhood, and is a distant but loving mother. Jennie falls in love with a diplomat, finds that an old friend is not to be trusted, and is surprisingly loyal to Randolph in her own fashion. Colorful and sensational, this biographical novel is sure to please readers interested in the sumptuous Gilded Age.
Rich New York socialites are befriended by writer Truman Capote in the 1950s. Truman is openly gay, so their husbands don’t mind having him around on their yachts and in their villas. Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman, and Slim Keith freely confide in him; only C.Z. Guest doesn’t share her secrets. Twenty years later, Truman reveals their secrets in a fictionalized article for Esquire, with grave consequences. The author explores the lives and relationships of these glamorous women and the colorful writer, best known for his book In Cold Blood and a remarkable black and white ball. Gossipy, entertaining, yet often sad, this novel is a compelling read.
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.
A broad, sweeping novel about the life of Hollywood star Loretta Young and her family, including her secret daughter by Clark Gable. Italian immigrant Alda Ducci leaves a convent that’s a home for unwed mothers to be personal secretary to Loretta, and moves into the family home with Loretta’s mother and sisters. A friendly priest comes to weekly dinners, and rising stars like David Nivens come to stay. Loretta, accompanied by Alda, takes the train to Mount Baker, Washington to film A Call of the Wild with Clark Gable. They’re isolated, they flirt, and later Loretta finds herself pregnant. As Clark is married and his wife won’t give him a divorce, Catholic Loretta conceals her pregnancy and later “adopts” her own daughter, Judy. There are different accounts of Clark’s and Loretta’s relationship, including one from her own daughter-in-law, but it’s very romantic in Trigiani’s account, although doomed to end, just like a tamer romance with Spencer Tracy. I found the scenes on the movie sets and in the extended family home the most appealing, and the fictional character of Alda seemed more real than some of the others. The tone of the book was very dramatic, as if the author were trying to write a screenplay for a movie Loretta starred in, but it just seemed over the top to me. Also, Loretta’s children with husband Tom Lewis are barely mentioned and are never seen. A short chapter summing up everyone’s lives and deaths seemed rushed and could have been left out. The book did make me want to learn more about Loretta and Hollywood’s Golden Age, and I might watch some more of her movies.
The poet Emily Dickinson comes to life in this novel set in 1860s Amherst, Massachusetts, which also features her (entirely fictional) maid, recent Irish immigrant Ada Concannon. Emily writes her short poems, gardens, bakes, and occasionally visits with her sister-in-law Susan, who lives nearby with Emily’s brother Austin. Increasingly reclusive, Emily decides to wear only white, and rarely travels beyond her home. In contrast, Ada, 18, is hard-working, outgoing, and friendly. Ada first lives with her uncle, then with the Dickinsons. Her beau, Daniel Byrne, cannot protect her from a stalker, and Emily seeks her brother Austin’s reluctant help for Ada. Except for the stalker, this is a charming story told from two very different points of view, and it made me want to learn more about Emily Dickinson’s life. Several of Emily’s poems are included, a nice touch. Nuala O’Connor is an Irish author, and part of the book is set in Dublin, Ada’s hometown. An unusual and memorable historical novel.