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.
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!