The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Tristan Lyons recruits Boston linguist Melisande Stokes for a top secret government project, translating modern and ancient documents. Their research shows that magic did exist, but abruptly stopped in 1851. Mel gets absorbed into D.O.D.O. (so secretive that it’s months before she learns she works for the Department of Diachronic Operations) as the pair work with physicist Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca to build an ODEC. At first, the office memos and messages are just something to get through between Melisande’s diary and action scenes. As the pace picks up, the messages get funnier and wilder as the improbable becomes mundane, even as the acronyms pile up. The ODEC is a time travel machine that can only be operated by a witch, and the person sent through time by the witch arrives empty handed and naked. Melisande tries repeatedly to acquire a rare book to help fund their work, Tristan learns to fence, an Irish witch plots to stop the end of magic, Vikings plunder Wal-Mart, and Melisande gets stuck in Victorian London, close to the ending of magic. A complicated, mostly entertaining, and lengthy tale that blends technology, history, and fantasy, along with a good dose of humor.
Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
Adventure and discovery await Yale student William Johnson when he accepts a dare to join Professor Othniel Marsh’s expedition to dig for dinosaur fossils in 1876. A crash course in photography later, Johnson is on a train headed west, until the paranoid Marsh leaves him behind in Cheyenne. Marsh’s rival, Edward Cope, is in town, and Johnson heads west with his group, to the Montana badlands. Their timing is bad, as Custer is just making his last stand at Little Bighorn. A wonderful find of huge dinosaur teeth highlights the summer fossil dig, but they have to get the fossils safely back East. As the rest of the group wait for a riverboat, Johnson and two others are ambushed with a wagon and half the fossils. Now the adventure really begins, as Johnson makes it to Deadwood with an arrow wound, ten crates of bones, and two dead bodies. Deadwood, a mining town, is both dangerous and expensive. He sets up a photography studio to earn enough money to travel south, and accidentally photographs a murder. No one believes his crates only contain bones, and he hires Wyatt Earp and his brother for protection. This entertaining historical adventure was discovered in the late author’s files, and was written before Jurassic Park. Enjoy!
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
Loosely based on a true story, this is a compelling first novel set in South Carolina during and after the Civil War. Teen Placidia Fincher marries Major Gryffith Hockaday shortly after they meet, and almost immediately Gryffith is called back to war. Placidia, 17, finds herself managing the isolated farm and raising toddler Charlie. Scavengers visit, claiming to need supplies for the soldiers. Slaves come and go, and it’s a struggle to get enough help to plant and harvest crops. Some of her relatives, half and step siblings, are surprisingly spiteful, but one neighbor is very helpful. Two years later her husband comes home, to scandal. Neighbors tell him that Placidia had a baby, and soon after buried the child. He files a law suit, and she stays with a nearby doctor’s family, writing letters to her cousin that describe her life during the war while stubbornly refusing to reveal how she got pregnant. The pace continually intensifies, with plenty of drama and some violence, as the reader, and the younger generation who discover Placidia’s diary, are compelled to find out the facts, especially what happens to Placidia and Gryffith when he discovers the truth.
Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb
Yitzhak Goldah arrives in Savannah in 1947 to stay with his cousins Abe and Pearl Jesler. They are very welcoming, nickname him Ike, and introduce him to their friends at the Conservative synagogue. Goldah, 31, worked as a journalist in Prague, and is a Holocaust survivor. He starts working at Abe’s shoe store, where he meets widowed Eve, daughter of the local newspaper owner, who attends the Reform temple. African Americans are second class citizens in post war Savannah, and Goldah identifies more with Calvin and Raymond from the shoe store than the prosperous Jews, who first settled Savannah in 1733. The clash between the Conservative and Reform Jews is especially hard for Goldah to understand. Everything seems so normal and prosperous, as if the war never happened, although there’s a subplot about Abe Jesler getting shipments of Italian shoes through shady connections. A woman from Goldah’s past arrives, and they talk briefly about life during the war. The horror of their experience is not minimized, but isn’t the focus of this powerful, moving story about new beginnings. Savannah is vividly drawn, the story is well-crafted, and the characters seem real.
The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer
Medieval Italy comes to life in this debut historical novel about a neurosurgeon who time travels. Beautifully detailed descriptions of the people, places, and food of modern and 14th century Siena add appeal to a moving story about love, loss, and the Plague. Beatrice Trovato keeps meaning to visit her brother Ben, a historian, in Siena, but is too busy working as a neurosurgeon. Looking at her brother’s research about the history of Siena, exploring the city and its art, she travels back in time to 1347, the year before the Plague will arrive in Siena. Amazingly, she finds work as a scribe, and also meets widowed fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, who’s a witness to a killing by one of the early Medicis. Beatrice, trying to figure out how to get home before the plague, falls in love with Gabriele and Siena. Readers who can accept the idea of time travel and some unlikely coincidences will be enchanted.
Hotel by Arthur Hailey
Published in 1965, this is a thriller about five eventful days at the St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans. Peter McDermott, the assistant general manager, typically spends much of his time dealing with one crisis after another, as he’s responsible for keeping the hotel running smoothly, but can’t make major changes. Christine Francis, assistant to hotel owner Warren Trent, is a bright spot in his day, as is a distressed guest, Martha Preyscott. During the week, Peter deals with problems in the kitchen, an ill guest housed in the hotel’s worst room, a convention of dentists threatening to leave, a thief, and the looming threat of the hotel being sold. Tycoon Curtis O’Keefe is visiting with his sweet girlfriend Dodo, and is deciding if the St. Gregory will become part of his bland, efficient, and impersonal chain of hotels. The city is briefly but vividly described, with most of the focus on a back stage view of the hotel, from the kitchens to the elevators to the incinerator room, offices, and parking garage. A hotel staff member is blackmailing guests who may be connected to a hit and run, and Peter can only how he’d like to run the hotel. An elevator accident, hinted at early in the book, brings the novel to a dramatic close. While somewhat dated, this is still a plot-driven page turner with just enough background on the minor characters to give them appeal without slowing the intensifying pace.
Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
This is an appealing debut mystery, set in Hollywood in 1937. Lillian Frost, aspiring actress turned department store clerk, is shocked to learn that her former roommate Ruby Carroll has been killed. Lillian helps the police when she discovers that the gorgeous gown Ruby was wearing, along with the contents of a suitcase found at Ruby’s boarding house, were taken from Paramount Studios. At Paramount, Lillian meets costume designer Edith Head, who helps investigate the murder. Lillian is likeable, Edith is intriguing, Ruby had plenty of secrets and admirers, and the Hollywood setting and cameo appearances by movie stars make for a quick, engaging read. A sequel, Dangerous to Know, has just been published. This is a good readalike for Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, by Susan Meissner, and may also appeal to readers of All the Stars in the Heavens, by Adriana Trigiani. Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of writing duo Rosemarie and Vince Keenan.