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.
Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Bookended by 1909 and 1962 world fairs in Seattle, biracial Chinese American Ernest Young tells the story of his coming of age in Seattle with his two friends, Fahn and Maisie. Ernest’s wife has been having memory issues, which may be improving. The trick is that we don’t know whether he married Fahn or Maisie, as his wife is called Gracie. Ernest’s mother was desperately poor, and arranged for him to take a freighter to America. After time at an orphanage and a boarding school, Ernest is to be raffled off at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Unexpectedly, he becomes the houseboy and later chauffer to Madame Flora, who runs an upscale house in Seattle’s red light district, where he meets her daughter Maisie and kitchen maid Fahn. I really enjoyed Ford’s first book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but I didn’t like this story or setting as well, even though the writing and characterization are excellent. Ernest is a very appealing character, more so than either Maisie or Fahn. The 1909 fair is more vividly described than the Century 21 Expo in 1962. I think Ford is an excellent writer, but I hope he picks a happier setting for his next book.
The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
In 1947, Grace Holland has two children and an unhappy marriage. Gene brings her a wringer washing machine as an apology, but discourages Grace from visiting his mother when she is taken ill. Later, Grace learns that Gene’s mother has a washer and dryer, along with a large jewelry collection and expensive clothes. Grace has her young children, her lively friend Rosie, and walks on the Maine shore. Grace’s mother expects her to make the best of things, which another pregnancy does not help. Fires break out all along the coast, and Grace is saved only by her daughter coughing in the night and her own quick thinking. Gene is away fighting the fires, and the family finds shelter at his mother’s house, which is being occupied by a gifted pianist. The night of the fire is vividly described, as is Grace’s new job at a doctor’s office. Her husband and mother-in-law are sketchily drawn, and some plot twists are rather melodramatic. The reader is meant to worry about Grace’s safety, but we know that the newly self-reliant Grace will dare to do the right thing for her children. Excellent period details and plenty of action make for a fast-paced, compelling read.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Beautiful storytelling makes this novel, set mostly in Cornwall and Peru in 1859, compelling reading. Adventure, magical secrets, betrayal, and a different sense of time are all part of the adventure. Readers of Pulley’s first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, may suspect that the large moving statues guarding the salt line of the forest in Peru are clockwork, especially as there are windup lanterns filled with glowing pollen. But Pulley’s imagination takes the story in a very different direction, in a village set on stacks of volcanic glass. Botanist Merrick Tremayne, whose father and grandfather spent time in Peru, is recruited for an expedition to Peru to smuggle cuttings of cinchona trees, the source of quinine, badly needed in India for a malaria epidemic. The risk is high, and Merrick’s leg was badly injured while working for the East India Company. Watchmaker Keita Mori of the first book makes a cameo appearance, but Merrick’s intriguing guide/priest Raphael takes center stage here, bridging the border of the Spanish and Quechua speaking worlds, and with a poignant connection to Merrick’s grandfather. Creative and unpredictable, I look forward to more from this enchanting author. For readers of historical fiction and fantasy.
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
This novel retells the story of A Little House on the Prairie (the book, NOT the television series) from the point of view of Laura Ingalls’ mother, Caroline. In 1870, Caroline, Charles, and their two young girls leave their home and extended family in Pepin, Wisconsin to travel more than 600 miles in a covered wagon to homestead near Independence, Kansas. Authorized by the Little House Heritage Trust, the author traveled to the home sites of the Ingalls family, learned to crochet lace, sew a calico dress, and read diaries of other pioneer women. The result is an immersive experience for the reader, with a fresh, deeper look at a much-loved story. It is also more historically accurate, as Caroline is pregnant with her third child on the journey, wondering who will deliver her child. Building a log cabin and digging a well with only a couple of neighbors is challenging and rather dangerous when seen from Caroline’s point of view. 5-year-old Mary, eager to please, and lively, charming 3-year-old Laura will still delight Little House fans, along with neighbor Mr. Edwards, the unlikely friend of Santa Claus. The relationship and personalities of Caroline and her husband Charles are more complex and fully realized, making for a wonderful reading experience.
I am happy to share that Caroline, which will be published on September 19, is a September Library Reads selection, promoted with a slightly shorter version of this review. Library Reads highlights 10 books every month that have been read and nominated by library staff nationwide.
The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn
Rachel and Liam are sent from the future back to 1815 England, to meet the Austen family, assess Jane’s health, and find the manuscript of The Watsons, along with some of Jane’s letters. They must be careful not to change the time line, but Rachel soon rescues a young chimney sweep. Rachel is a physician and fan of Jane Austen, while Liam is an actor turned Regency scholar. They are posing as a wealthy sister and brother who grew up in Jamaica. While they’ve had extensive training, adapting to the past is challenging, especially for outspoken Rachel. Rich in period detail, I really enjoyed their interactions with the Austens, especially siblings Henry and Jane Austen. Their future world isn’t nearly as appealing, especially after Liam and Rachel return to find that their world has changed. Witty dialogue, with some romance, but no explanation of how time travel works. Enjoyable, especially for fans of Regency romance, Jane Austen, or time travel. For more books featuring Jane Austen, try Stephanie Barron’s excellent mysteries, beginning with Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.
The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, by Jean Pendziwol
Foster teen Morgan gets caught spray painting graffiti, and is assigned community service at a retirement home. Scraping away her work and painting a fence, she is befriended by blind resident Elizabeth Livingstone. Elizabeth has just been given the journals kept by her father Andrew, a lighthouse keeper in the 1920s and 1930s. Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily, a mute but talented artist, grew up on an island on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, with their two older brothers. War, influenza, isolation, and the challenging duty of keeping the light and fog horn working make for a unique upbringing. Morgan reads the journals to Elizabeth, and learns that her grandfather knew Elizabeth. Elizabeth is hoping to find answers to old family secrets, including the mysterious grave of another baby with her name. The plot is melodramatic, with numerous twists and turns, but I found Morgan and Elizabeth to be very good company, and enjoyed their interactions. Readalikes include: The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, and Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline.