How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Tom Hazard only travels through time in his memories, but they are vivid and go back to Elizabethan England. A member of the Albatross Society, Tom ages very, very slowly. As he has to move and reinvent his life every eight years to keep his condition a secret, he isn’t supposed to fall in love. Back in London as a history teacher, Tom has only to look out the window to see places from his own history, where his true love Rose was a fruit seller, and where he played the lute at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. French teacher Camille thinks Tom looks familiar and may tempt him into a relationship, but Hendrich, the head of the society, sends Tom on a quick trip to Australia to recruit surfer Omai, who Tom first met while sailing the Pacific with Captain Cook. Enthralling yet bittersweet, full of history and adventure, a sure bet for readers of historical fiction or time travel. This novel is a February Library Reads pick.
Munich by Robert Harris
A gripping spy thriller about the Munich conference in September 1938 that averted war for a while. After taking over Austria, Germany wanted Sudetenland, an ethnically German section of Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Chamberlain flew to Munich with some of his staff and advisers to meet with Hitler, Mussolini, and French Prime Minister Daladier. Apparently, the British and French military weren’t yet ready for war, and Chamberlain was trying to prevent or at least delay England’s entry into war. Over the course of four very tense days, two junior staffers who met at Oxford try to exchange secret documents that could affect the conference’s outcome. Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s secretaries, is the only German speaker of the British delegation, but is mostly stuck at the delegation’s hotel. Hugh is at the beginning of his career, and money is tight. By disobeying orders, he risks his career. In Berlin, his former classmate Paul van Hartmann is caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, but his main role is to get to Munich with Hitler’s entourage, and transfer the documents to Chamberlain via Legat. Hartmann is under suspicion from the very beginning, and his life is in jeopardy. It’s fascinating to get glimpses of Hitler and Chamberlain, with their very different motivations and personalities, through the eyes of Legat and Hartmann. Hard to put down, although not as outstanding as his earlier novels Pompeii and Conclave.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Picking up from where we left her in The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya Petrovna, disguised as a boy, makes her way to Moscow with the help of the frost demon Morozko and her faithful horse Solovey. Moscow is her first stop on her quest to see the world, and where she hopes to be reunited with her sister, Olga. However, trouble is never far behind, and Vasya finds herself rescuing a few maidens along the way. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother, Sasha, urges the Grand Prince Dmitrii to deal with the roving bandits that have been kidnapping girls and burning villages across Russia. Once in Moscow, Vasya enters a world utterly different from village she left. The grandeur of the city is like magic, and yet the magic Vasya knows holds little power there. She is also torn by the admiration she receives while masquerading as a boy, while knowing the fate that awaits her as a young woman: either to marry or enter a convent. On her journey, Vasya learns more about her family and her ties to Morozko, while a new dark power threatens to overtake Moscow.
There are several plot threads woven through The Girl in the Tower — the second book of the Winternight Trilogy — and Arden brings them together beautifully. As in the previous book, Arden’s lush prose transports the reader to medieval Russia, and her strong grasp of history and creative adaptation of folklore again makes for a winning combination. The story unfolds through the eyes of several characters, which enriches our understanding of them and the world they inhabit. Vasya is still as brave and strong-willed as ever but, thanks to the new setting and characters, she continues to grow as a character, too. The development of her relationships with her siblings and Morozko is particularly lovely. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here, and I’m sure readers will be champing at the bit for the next book!
The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper
I have read and enjoyed several of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, beginning with Little Women. When she was 28, May Alcott became known as frivolous Amy March when her sister Louisa’s book became a bestseller. May’s illustrations for Little Women were criticized as amateurish. Stung, May began to focus on her art, taking classes in Boston and travelling to Europe to study, funded by Louisa, who supported the whole family. The sisters clashed frequently, especially over who would take care of their parents and widowed sister. Both women faced the challenge of making money or making art. May sold copies of J.W.S. Turner watercolor paintings, but longed to do more. Louisa didn’t want to keep writing children’s books, but they were very successful. Not nearly as much is known about May’s life, so the author, a debut novelist, had more leeway to write about her life as an artist in Europe, and to imagine the letters exchanged between the sisters, which seem real. Mary Cassatt became a friend to May as well as a famous artist, but it was never easy for Victorian era women artists, especially after they married. May especially struggled with knowing when she was a real artist, even after she had a painting exhibited at the Salon in Paris. When she found love in Europe, more conflicts arose, especially with sister Louisa. In the end, May leaves Louisa her best creation, and leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Louisa May Alcott fans will enjoy this book, as well as historical fiction readers, and readers of Susan Vreeland’s novels.
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.