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.
The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott teaches English literature at the University of Barchester so that he can live in his grandfather’s home town, where he spent many happy weeks as a boy. He loves to read in the cathedral’s rare book library, and attends Evensong and Compline services in the cathedral, where his friend Gwyn is the dean. He meets weekly with his friends David and Oscar to discuss book collecting, and is content with his life (except for faculty meetings) until young Bethany Davis arrives from America to digitize the cathedral’s books and unsettle his world. She demonstrates the usefulness of online research to Arthur, who avoids computers, befriends Oscar and David, and helps Arthur finish his overdue guide to the cathedral. Arthur is looking for information on St. Ewolda, who founded the monastery, and is stunned to find that Bethany shares his secret interest, searching for the Holy Grail. The contemporary story alternates with short accounts of the guardians of the lost book of St. Ewolda from 560 AD to World War II, and the dangerous times they lived in. Arthur, Bethany, David, and Oscar race against time to steal a rare book, explore the cathedral’s crypt, and crack a medieval cipher before the cathedral’s board must vote on an offer to buy the rare book collection. Barchester is the fictional town described in Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s books, and is a charming setting for this clever academic mystery that has a little romance.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Willie Lincoln, age 11, has died of typhoid fever. His distraught father, President Lincoln, visits the Georgetown cemetery the night after his burial in February, 1862. The Civil War isn’t going well, and Lincoln’s in despair. His vigil that night helps him organize his thoughts and plans on how to proceed with the war. This is not a traditional historical novel, as most of the book is narrated by a chorus of the graveyard’s ghosts who do not accept the fact that they’re dead, and have not yet gone on to face judgment, a transitional state Buddhists call the bardo. The ghosts are eccentric, disturbing, sad, confused, and sometimes very vulgar and crude. They are from different times and walks of life, and talk and argue with each other. They reflect back on their imperfectly remembered lives, and are moved by Willie, as young ghosts should not linger long. They try hard to connect the president with his son’s ghost. The scenes in the cemetery alternate with short chapters of quotes, both real and fictional, of people’s reactions to Willie’s illness, death, and the unsettled state of the country. The overall tone is melancholy, and it’s a very vivid, moving read. It took me a while to adjust to the book’s unusual style. This is a first novel by a noted short story writer. This book will have the most appeal for fans of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era, and readers looking for a unique, challenging and definitely worthwhile reading experience.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
In a life full of disappointments, Christina Olson both enjoys the coastal Maine farmhouse she shares with her parents, one of her brothers, and her cats, and longs to be free of the house and her life. In her 40s, she meets young painter Andrew Wyeth, who is engaged to her young friend Betsy, and they open up her world. Wyeth loves painting the old farmhouse and its surroundings, and sees Christina as no one else does. An illness as a young girl leaves Christina with shaky balance and weak legs, but she keeps house for her family after leaving school early, although she could have trained to be a teacher. At 20, Christina has a romance with a handsome summer visitor, but it too ends in disappointment. A few friends, sisters-in-law, clambakes, picnics, berry picking and other joys of summer enliven her life, along with the poems of Emily Dickinson, but the winters in a drafty house without electricity or a furnace get harder. This is a beautifully written book, and the author’s skill and extensive research make the Olsons and Wyeths come to life, along with the famous painting Christina’s World. This is a very moving and melancholy book, and difficult to read at times as Christina’s health suffers and her world narrows. In the end, Wyeth’s friendship and art help her see herself in a new way. This book is sure to be popular with readers of The Orphan Train.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.