high divideIn 1886, Gretta Pope wakes up one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota’s western prairie, with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he’s heading. It doesn’t take long for Gretta’s young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, leaving Gretta no choice but to search for the boys and their father in hopes of bringing them all home.

Enger’s breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters’ emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events–the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians–blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family’s sacrifice and devotion in The High Divide. (description from publisher)

a kings ransomThis long-anticipated sequel to the national bestseller Lionheart, A King’s Ransom is a vivid and heart-wrenching story of the last event-filled years in the life of Richard, Coeur de Lion.

Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders, Richard was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men ever left alive, while Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom. For the five years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend, and A King’s Ransom brings the man and his world fully and powerfully alive. (description from publisher)

lilaA new novel from the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of Gilead and Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church the only available shelter from the rain and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the life that preceded her newfound security. Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand to mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. Despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life was laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to reconcile the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves.

Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence that is destined to become an American classic. (description from publisher)

signature of all thingsA glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge,

Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Signature of All Things follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical.

Alma is a clear-minded scientist, Ambrose a utopian artist, but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life. Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe, from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who, born in the Age of Enlightenment but living well into the Industrial Revolution, bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas.

Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. (description from publisher)

The Signature of All Things  is also available for check out as a free ebook through the RiverShare Digital Library.

ice cream queenIn 1913, little Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Bedazzled by tales of gold and movie stardom, she tricks them into buying tickets for America. Yet no sooner do they land on the squalid Lower East Side of Manhattan, than Malka is crippled and abandoned in the street.

Taken in by a tough-loving Italian ices peddler, she manages to survive through cunning and inventiveness. As she learns the secrets of his trade, she begins to shape her own destiny. She falls in love with a gorgeous, illiterate radical named Albert, and they set off across America in an ice cream truck. Slowly, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen” — doyenne of an empire of ice cream franchises and a celebrated television personality.

Lillian’s rise to fame and fortune spans seventy years and is inextricably linked to the course of American history itself, from Prohibition to the disco days of Studio 54. Yet Lillian Dunkle is nothing like the whimsical motherly persona she crafts for herself in the media. Conniving, profane, and irreverent, she is a supremely complex woman who prefers a good stiff drink to an ice cream cone . And when her past begins to catch up with her, everything she has spent her life building is at stake. (description from publisher)

unterzakhnUnterzakhn (yiddish for ‘underthings’) by Leela Corman tells the story of Jewish twin sisters at the start of the 20th century in New York City.  Esther and Fanya’s stories are told in graphic novel form, spanning more than a decade from childhood through adulthood, with black and white illustrations reminiscent of Russian folk art. The sisters make decidedly different decisions in their lives, but they both chose career paths outside of community and family expectations of them and drift apart from one another (forcefully in one scene).

Fanya starts this story when she finds a woman bleeding in the street and is instructed to go find the “lady doctor”.  This encounter brings her to Bronia, a feminist obstetrician who performs illegal abortions, and convinces Fanya’s mother to let Bronia teach Fanya to read.  Fanya then begins to apprentice for Bronia, and adapts to the strident expectations of her teacher.  While her sister is learning to work as an obstetrician, Esther begins working at the local burlesque theater and brothel — running errands and cleaning up.  As she grows toward adulthood, her work changes and she loses her family in the process.

This is a quick, but in no way a light read.  The writing and the illustrations show a lot of darkness and pain.  The sisters always seem better when they’re together, showing the quick wit and love that seems to be reserved for each other. I had a difficult time putting this book down, because Corman made it easy to care about Fanya and Esther.  This is a good read for fans of David Small’s Stitches or anything by Charles Burns.

~~Sigh~~ A windswept island, daring escapes from Nazis, British country estates, dancing with soldiers in London, writing Food Ministry brochures extolling the values of carrots to hungry British citizens and a funny little sister who bullies a young Princess Elizabeth at a aristocratic Girl Guides Meeting. The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper (a series of three lovely books: A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and The FitzOsbornes at War) are those kind of books where the narrator feels so natural, so familiar that I often forget that the stories in the book didn’t actually happen to me. Sadly, the memories are not all pleasant. These books are about a teenager’s family evolving and trying to survive World War II, all with the weight of a small country on their shoulders. I had originally written “evolving and surviving World War II,” until I remembered the pages and pages of sobbing while reading The FizOsbornes at War. Don’t worry, there is a wonderful ending.

Montmaray is a (fictional) tiny island monarchy between England and Spain whose already small population was decimated during World War I, and there are only a few village families left living in the shadow of a romantic, crumbling castle when 16 year old Sophie begins keeping her journal in 1936. Oh yes, ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLE. Sophie is actually Princess Sophie of the FitzOsborne Royal Family– she is one of three Princesses of Montmaray (the others being her stunning, intellectual cousin, Princess Veronica, and her younger tomboy sister, Princess Henry) and also the younger sister of the future King of Montmaray, charming Prince Toby FitzOsborne. However, Sophie’s royal title does not correspond to a royal lifestyle, at least not while she is living on a remote island in a stripped bare castle under the rule of her mentally ill uncle. Their wealthy aunt is forever trying to get the girls to move away from Montmaray and become a part of British Society, but their loyalty to Montmaray keeps them grasping to its shores until they have no choice but to fall into the lap of luxury. And then, of course, the war begins and Sophie’s home seems lost forever.

It is no secret among people who know me that my favorite book is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (I have written about it on the blog here and compared it to another fabulous book, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, here, and the Montmaray Journals shares much in common with Dodie Smith’s fantastic novel (which is pretty much the highest praise I will give a book!). Both stories are told in thoughtfully-written diary entries by quiet teenage girls in 1930’s and whose lives seem both beautifully ordinary and bohemian at the same time. Both girls fall in love with men named Simon. Both feel inferior to their prettier, outgoing relations. And yes, both live in ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLES!

P.S. I will just say, that for those of you who thought the end of I Capture the Castle was not a happy one (and I disagree with that! but now is not the place to discuss…), you will be very satisfied with the ending Sophie chooses for herself.

Several recently published books focus on the wives of famous men – after all, who know the triumphs and failings of the great man better than the wife? Get an intimate, behind-the-scenes look of these historical men with these great titles.

aviator's wifeThe Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin – Despite her own major achievements – she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States – Anne Morrow Lindbergh is viewed merely as Charles Lindbergh’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

 

above all thingsAbove All Things by Tanis Rideout – Blending historical facts with imaginative fiction,  this title interweaves the story of George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to be the first man to conquer Mount Everest and a single day in the life of his wife as she waits at home in England for news of his return.

 

 

 

paris wifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain – Meeting through mutual friends in Chicago, Hadley is intrigued by brash “beautiful boy” Ernest Hemingway, and after a brief courtship and small wedding, they take off for Paris, where Hadley makes a convincing transformation from an overprotected child to a game and brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and shattering loneliness to prop up her husband’s career.

 

mrs lincolns dressmakerMrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini – A stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.

 

z a novel of zeldaZ : a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler – When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, insists that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Zelda optimistically marries him and take the rest as it comes. What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time.

whathappensinlondonThe Good: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

This is the perfect Regency romance. It’s funny (actually funny, not just peppered with lines that the characters laugh at but the reader never would), heartwarming (but not schlocky), and steamy (but not gratuitous). There’s a fussy, arrogant Russian prince, a heroine who scorns novels and reads every word of the Times, and a dashing hero who wears funny hats. It’s historically accurate (mostly), but it never gets boring by slogging through too much detail. I devoured this in just two very enjoyable sittings. (Available via WILBOR)

The Bad: A Lady Never Lies by Juliana Gray

aladyneverlies

Oh, dear. This is the kind of book that always made me hate romance novels. It’s nonsensical, it’s boring, its characters have no substance, and the romantic moments are gratuitous and badly written. Gray tries to heighten the drama by having everyone be cagey about their pasts/financial situations/parentage but honestly, it goes over like a lead balloon. Three single young women and three single young men accidentally rent the same Tuscan castle for the summer! They decide to keep both leases and stay in separate wings! They make a wager not to interact with one another to prove some bologna 21st-century-argument that the author has needlessly inserted into an allegedly historical novel! I wonder what will happen!!!???

soullessThe Awesome: Soulless by Gail Carriger

I never thought I’d like a book about vampires, werewolves, and parasols, but I was deeply mistaken. Soulless is a steampunk novel (steampunk: a sub-genre of SF in which the industrial revolution of Victorian times has gone into hyperdrive, producing steam powered dirigibles and other retro-futuristic contraptions and necessitating a lot of metal eyewear with round lenses). Alexia Tarabotti is half Italian and half an orphan, hardly a favorite in London society, but her appearance and parentage aren’t her only problems: in the middle of a ball, she has just been attacked by a vampire. The encounter breaks all the rules of supernatural etiquette AND destroys her plate of treacle tart! Miss Tarabotti soon finds herself in the thick of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences for the supernatural vampires and werewolves she befriends and for herself. Alexia is fierce, fun, and generally unforgettable. The romance is well balanced against the world building and it makes sense for the characters, all of which are interesting, exciting, and well written. Brava, Ms. Carriger! I can’t wait to read the other four books in this series. (Available via WILBOR)

code name verityThe less said about the plot of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, the better. “Careless talk costs lives,” say our heroines, and in a tightly plotted and breathlessly suspenseful book like this, you won’t doubt it. Verity is a prisoner of the Gestapo in occupied France, writing out her confession. Maddie, a young woman pilot, is a part of that confession. As Verity writes, she confronts and examines her beliefs and her fears.

And that’s about all I can tell you.

I am not (usually) a lover of war stories or YA novels, but this one is just too good to miss. The characters are vivid, the plotting is superb, and the immersion in wartime Europe is complete. I loved reading about women in war – active, brave, brilliant women – instead of men. It’s more than a story of torture and war and espionage: it’s about life-changing friendship, love, incredible bravery, and the difficult choices we face (whether our lives are ordinary or extraordinary). Everything about this book was refreshing, surprising, exhilarating, and beautiful (even when it was terrifying). I wanted to reread it as soon as I turned the last page!