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.
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
An absorbing first novel, in which Lord Nick Falcott, who is about to die in the battle of Salamanca in Spain in 1812, wakes up in a London hospital in 2003. The Guild have found him, and will spend a year acclimating him to the 21st century, then give him a pension and assign him a country. Time travelers can never return to their home country or time period. However, after enjoying life for several years in New England, Nick is summoned by the Guild, and sent back to his estate in England three years after he was declared dead, in order to help find a Guild enemy who is manipulating time nearby at Castle Dar. In 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather is dying, and Castle Dar will be inherited by her cousin Eamon. Julia learns that she can freeze time and travels to London to stay with Nick’s sisters and mother. Nick and Julia are attracted to each other, but the Guild has other plans for Nick. Full of adventure, intrigue, romance, and rich in historical detail, the author leaves open the possibility of a sequel. This debut is a good readalike for A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and the regency romance novels with a military focus by Carla Kelly.
Every year, November and December bring a new assortment of winter holiday stories. Most, but not all, are about Christmas, are usually short, and they are featured in a library display called “Heartwarming Holiday Stories.” If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday read, you’ll find plenty of books to browse. Here are short reviews of three new selections:
Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke
In another delicious winter holiday mystery, cookie baker Hannah Swensen is looking back at the previous winter, telling a newcomer to Lake Eden a story about her business partner Lisa. Lisa is worried that her husband Herb is out late “working” every night, and is really upset when she doesn’t get to play Mrs. Claus to Herb’s Santa in a local Christmas show, and the very flirty Phyllis wears a rather revealing costume at the dress rehearsal. Shortly afterwards Hannah and Lisa find a body in a snowbank, near a bag of caramels that Lisa made. Hannah, an experienced amateur sleuth, works with detective Mike to find the killer. I didn’t try any of the dozen recipes included, but they sound delicious. A nice touch is that Hannah dreams of her father as the ghosts in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the ghosts give her some helpful hints. Suzanne Torren is an excellent narrator for the audiobook version.
Amish holiday stories are very popular here, and this book features two novellas. In The Midwife’s Christmas Surprise by Marta Perry, young midwife Anna Zook is having trouble getting accepted in her Amish community as more than an assistant midwife. She is stunned when her friend’s son, Benjamin Miller, returns from three years in the “English” world. In A Christmas to Remember by Jo Ann Brown, storekeeper Amos Stoltzfus is led to an injured woman by a little girl who can only tell them their names. Linda has lost her memory and can’t remember where she was taking the little girl. Short and sweet holiday romances make for a quick read.
Twelve Days of Christmas by Debbie Macomber
Julia works at a large department store, volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club playing piano, and needs to develop a popular blog for a chance at a corporate social media job. Julia’s friend encourages her to write about her grumpy neighbor Cain, and do something kind for him every day during the Christmas season. Cain turns down chocolate chip cookies and a free drink at his favorite coffee shop, so the kindness campaign is not starting out well. Then Cain gets sick, Julia meets his grandfather, and her blog takes off. What will happen if Cain finds out that she’s writing about him? This is a fun, heartwarming story with a little romance, and I didn’t mind that it was a bit predictable. Brenda
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
After a minor medical procedure intended to make Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent able to sense each other’s emotions, Briddey hears a man’s voice, and panics. She’s hearing the thoughts of C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy coworker at Commspan. C.B. tries to convince Briddey that she’s now telepathic, and that no one else must know. Trent wants help to develop a new phone app, while Briddey just wants some peace and quiet, unlikely given her overly intrusive Irish-American family and gossipy coworkers. Briddey’s young niece Maeve gets involved as C.B. teaches Briddey how to quiet her mind before Trent and their doctor find out what really happened. Fans of slapstick romantic comedy will enjoy this fast-paced romp, which skewers our society’s dependence on digital technology and avoidance of self-reflection and true intimacy. The author nicely contrasts internet dating sites with the simple pleasures of reading in a library surrounded by others, or taking a walk late at night.
The Season by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer
College student Megan would rather play soccer than be a debutante, but her mother wants nothing else, so Megan and her twin sister make their debut in Dallas. It doesn’t help that Megan shows up at the first dance with a black eye, and that a couple of the carefully vetted escorts needed another background check. Funny, vibrant, and entertaining, I enjoyed watching Megan learn how to get her priorities straight. This would make a good romantic comedy film.
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller
Livvy Rawlings, a Boston pastry chef, has her life go up in flames when she drops a huge baked alaska. Retreating to her friend Hannah in small-town Guthrie, Vermont, she gets a chance to bake at the Sugar Maple Inn, where owner Margaret is known for her award-winning apple pies. Livvy has a history of making bad decisions, about men, hair color, working and drinking too much; but what she really wants is a family. She finds one on an apple orchard/Christmas tree farm with the McCrackens, from frail Henry to his welcoming wife and handsome son Martin, who invites Livvy (who improbably plays banjo) to join a local band. I didn’t really understand why she spends so much time with the McCracken family when pregnant Hannah really needs her, but I think the author wanted to show how flawed and real Livvy is. Livvy briefly returns to Boston, but is no longer a city girl, and returns to Guthrie to bake a wedding cake, and more pies. A pleasant vacation read that was good but not great. Small-town life with its quirky residents, well-drawn descriptions of food and music add to this first novel’s appeal, along with Livvy’s huge dog, Salty.
I enjoy re-reading books occasionally, and sometimes I find books I haven’t read by favorite authors. All of these books were published between 1951 and 1960.
One of my favorite books to re-read is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute. Keith Stewart is an ordinary man in Ealing, England, who becomes trustee of his young niece along with his wife, and tries to find a way to get to the South Pacific to recover her inheritance. He is an engineer who makes mechanical models, and writes about them for The Miniature Mechanic, along with answering dozens of letters from readers working on the models. These readers later help him get to Tahiti and back home again, via the Pacific Northwest.
I also read The Far Country, by Nevil Shute, set mainly in Australia. Post World War II conditions in England were still bad, with some rationing still in place until 1954. Jennifer Morton gets an unexpected gift from her late grandmother, and visits her cousin’s ranch in Victoria, Australia, where she meets a Czech doctor working as a lumberjack. Beautiful scenery, appealing characters, and a good look at the differences between life in England and in northeast Australia around 1950. Nevil Shute’s novels are known for their excellent storytelling, with mostly appealing characters, usually ordinary people in extraordinary situations or settings. These aren’t necessarily gentle reads, as he is best known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach, and the World War II novel, A Town Like Alice.
I listened to two Regency romance novels by Georgette Heyer: Venetia, and The Quiet Gentleman. Her books are known for mild romance and witty dialogue, along with some humor. They are also excellent as audiobooks. Since they’re set in the early 1800s, they don’t feel at all dated. The library has a large collection of both authors’ books, as they are frequently reprinted. If you’re looking for a change of pace for your summer reading, browse and enjoy.