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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Jacket (1)I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.

Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.

Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.

Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.

From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which.  McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.

Check the WRL catalog for Nostalgia

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soldierIn one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.

The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.

The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship.  From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.

Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.

But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems.  Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.

Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.

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Doomsday BookConnie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library.  She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities.  Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché.  Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression.  She mixes humor and drama well.

That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace.  Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.

The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible.  Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers.  So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator.  Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread.  As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.

The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines.  I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety.  The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.

If you enjoy this you might go on to some of Willis’s other time travel novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and the duology of Blackout and All Clear.

Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book

Or get Doomsday Book for an e-reader

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TheOrchardistTalmadge is a lonely man, living quietly in his orchard, enjoying the quiet rhythms of the seasons and nursing the loss of his mother and the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. When two feral and visibly pregnant girls steal fruit from his market stall, he is intrigued rather than angry. Talmadge manages to befriend the girls, but only on their own terms. He shelters the girls and tries to protect them from imminent danger, but an evil man appears from their past with shockingly tragic consequences.

A powerful story, deep and quietly told, The Orchardist  entraps the reader into its world.  First time novelist Amanda Coplin breaks tradition by leaving out quotation marks, and telling some events from multiple viewpoints, and she succeeds in creating a compelling novel that exquisitely captures a time (around 1900) and a place (the Pacific Northwest).  But she most effectively captures the lives of ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances. The Orchardist is a moving portrait of people who are damaged but who remain remarkably resilient. The characters, like real people, would be better off if they could put the past behind them, but also like real people, some of them cannot forgive and they must survive however they can. 

Try The Orchardist if you like to get caught up in a sweeping historical novel with hardship and misfortune, but also with burgeoning hope, such as The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman or Year of Wonders,  by Geraldine Brooks .

I listened to part of The Orchardist and I highly recommend Mark Bramhall’s reading as his gravelly voice captured Talmadge’s gruff personality and the slow unfolding melancholy of the story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist on CD.

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illbeseeingyouThis novel reveals its story through letters.  Glory, a 23-year-old, very pregnant mother of an energetic two-year-old son,  picks Rita’s address from a hat at a 4-H meeting.  The intent was to have women select an anonymous pen-pal to help ease the stress of their “situation,” that is, being at home while their husbands are at war.  Glory introduces herself in January, 1943, and tells Rita that if they are going to correspond, they should get to know each other.

Rita replies to the letter a few weeks later and we discover she is a middle-aged professor’s wife from Iowa who loves to garden.  Her husband as well as her newly turned 18-year-old son have both volunteered to serve in the war.

Both women seem to understand the same loneliness and feelings of not fitting in with their community – and they develop a deep friendship through their correspondence.

I enjoyed the intimacy of the letters.  The annoying neighbors, the new friends, what grows well in the gardens, the recipes that stretch the rations, the gossip of their community, the good memories, the very ordinary details of life fill each letter.  I was almost as excited as the characters to start a new letter and find out what would be revealed next.

There is also a bit of romance, lots of family drama, and heartbreak of celebrating holidays without loved ones. Be sure to have some tissues handy because some of the letters will surely break your heart.

Pick this book up if you enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Plot-wise it is very different.  But I was reminded of “Guernsey” while reading I’ll be seeing you – I suppose it’s the glimpse of what happens on the homefront and the fact that both books are written through letters being passed back and forth.

Questions for discussions and a conversation with the authors are included at the end of the book.  The conversation was particularly interesting — co-authors Hayes and Nyhan wrote the book without ever having met in real life!  They only knew each other through phone calls and emails.  Perhaps this is what gives that sense of authenticity to Glory and Rita’s letters.

Check the WRL catalog for I’ll be seeing you

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City of SaintsFirst-hand knowledge of a novel’s setting can be a double-edged sword. If the author portrays the location ineptly, the reader that knows the place may find it impossible to enjoy other aspects of the book. On the other hand, if the author brings that setting to life, the local reader may be willing to forgive other flaws.

Such is the case for me with City of Saints, a mystery novel based on a once famous but now forgotten historical murder in 1930s Salt Lake City. I lived in Salt Lake for almost ten years myself, and although Hunt depicts a period long before my birth, I could picture my grandparents rubbing shoulders with Sheriff Art Oveson as he tried to solve the killing of an adulterous socialite.

At first, this Salt Lake City may surprise you. It’s grittier than one might expect, especially for the 1930s, but I always found the Utah capital to contain more cultural diversity and more big city problems than its squeaky clean Mormon image might imply. With mines and railroads in full flourish by 1930, and with the glitz and controversy of Southern California a day away, it makes sense that Salt Lake City has contained that diversity for a long time. That’s the tension that underlies Hunt’s story: Oveson is a practicing Mormon, but he comes from a law enforcement family. He knows there’s a darker side to his town. His partner is about as rough as men come and may have different allegiances than Oveson. Departmental politics and powerful men trying to protect clean public personae taint his case from the beginning.

As a mystery, Hunt’s tale is average, but because it captures an unusual place in a complicated time so well, I think you’ll enjoy it, even if Salt Lake City is new and exotic to you.

Check the WRL catalog for City of Saints

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Beautiful RuinsAs Beautiful Ruins opens it is 1962, and tourists have begun to find the beautiful towns of Italy’s Ligurian Coast, but in a quaint village called Porta Vergogna, Pasquale Tursi has inherited a seldom-visited hotel from his father. He’s laboring to carve a sand beach out of the rocks and create a clifftop tennis court that he’s sure will draw visitors to the Hotel Adequate View (named via an awkward translation). He can see his dreams beginning to come true with the arrival of a beautiful American starlet, only to discover that she has been sent away from the set of the epic film Cleopatra with a cancer diagnosis.

The story jumps forward to the present day, where Claire, a young production assistant, has had her fill of the inane pitches for films and television shows that she screens in her work for Michael Deane, a once-influential producer now sunk to backing lower fare. She promises herself that if she doesn’t hear a good pitch today, she’ll quit her job and take a position as an archivist in a new film museum (even if it is run by the Scientologists). Her last meeting is running late, and her fate seems sealed when two mismatched men finally arrive, one a young man pitching an unfilmable historical adventure called “Donner!” and the other an Italian who can’t speak much English… Pasquale Tursi, now much older and in search of the lost piece of his past.

Walter’s story continues to jump from episode to episode, key moments in the lives of his vivid characters. This kind of story only works if almost every scene is vivid. Otherwise the reader resents giving up a vivid section for one that is more drab. Walter makes it work though, as he stops in with an American singer trying to make a comeback on the fringes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; with a community theatre production in Northern Idaho; with a cynical American soldier in a Catch 22-like WWII Italy; and on a manic day with a drunken Richard Burton. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each set piece adds a little to the mysterious picture, and the sad but beautiful lives of the protagonists are revealed, the beautiful ruins of the title.

Someday someone will make a beautiful film from this book with great characters, beautiful settings, and equal touches of comedy and drama. You don’t need to wait. Read the book and you’ll soon have a lovely movie vividly screening in your own head.

Check the WRL catalog for Beautiful Ruins

Enjoy Beautiful Ruins in large print

Or try it as an electronic audiobook

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whartonEdith Wharton is undoubtedly one of the great chroniclers of American society, as Alan noted in his blog post.  Although she was part of the class she wrote about, she was fully able to assess the standards and identify the weaknesses inherent in that class, and to limn them for readers of all backgrounds. Her characters, supposedly protected from the vagaries of the world by money and dynastic position, still suffered the anguishes of human emotion that could never be expressed.  Most allowed themselves to be thwarted in their personal desires by the rigors of their class and reputation; hence the tragedy.

Until she was forty-five, Edith Wharton’s emotional and physical life was also stifled by her upbringing and the expectations of her social peers. Married far too young to a man far too old, she established a life apart from her husband Teddy. A devoted Francophile, she immersed herself in Parisian life and culture while Teddy isolated himself in their Paris townhouse.  She created a web of friends—artists, writers, and poets (including her mentor, Henry James)—and a deep intellectual life, while Teddy longed to be at their Massachusetts home as a gentleman farmer mucking about in his wellies.  Their marriage was also widely recognized as passionless, and it seems Edith thought herself incapable of sex. Then Edith left her Age of Innocence for a new Age of Desire.

An encounter with American journalist Morton Fullerton awakened in Edith both an emotional life and a desire that made her risk her position and reputation to be with him.  Although Fullerton himself told Edith that he was sexually adventurous and morally questionable, his seduction of her left her helplessly enthralled.  She even found a way to ship Teddy back to the United States after he suffered some kind of breakdown, which enabled her to fully consummate her relationship with Fullerton.  But what started in a rapture of intellectually challenging romance and sexual awakening quickly devolved into what could only be called a tawdry affair as Fullerton’s true character emerged. When Edith had to return to the United States to look after Teddy, Fullerton dropped his contact with her. Although heartbroken, she still searched him out when she was able to return to Paris, only to find her ardor dampened by his fecklessness and greed.

The details of Edith’s relationship with Fullerton only came to light about 30 years ago, when Fullerton’s cache of letters to and from Edith showed that their perceived friendship was, for two years, a tempestuous romance. Only recently has another collection of correspondence emerged, and author Fields has made full and sympathetic use of both to add a richer element to Edith’s story. Edith’s constant companion, a slightly older woman named Anna Bahlmann, comes to life as a silent witness to Edith’s new world. As Fields depicts her, Anna had started as Edith’s tutor but remained as her secretary, the first person to read, comment on, and possibly correct Edith’s writing.  She was an essential constant in Edith and Teddy’s nomadic lives but so self-effacing that Edith never fully appreciated her presence, and in Age of Desire shifts between treating Anna as a friend and as a servant. In the fiction, Edith sees Anna as a conscience which must be banished so Edith can pursue her newfound needs; only belatedly does she realize what she has sacrificed.  Anna also takes on her own emotional life, as this restrained woman conceals her own ardor towards Teddy, is baffled by Edith’s treatment of her, and falls into an unexpected but unfulfilled relationship.

Edith’s public biography and writings have been known for more than a century; her private story is now well-known, and Jennie Fields’s fictional biography faithfully follows these events.  But she rounds out those facts with intensely atmospheric settings, and conversations plausibly created from diaries, letters, and published writings. From the salon gatherings where reputations were made and broken to the tête-à-têtes where confidences were shared, and even in interior monologues, she maintains a tone of sophistication and wit.  Gilded Age New York, the thrill of travel in Edith’s beloved Pope-Hartford automobile, ocean voyages, the atmosphere of privilege and reflected privilege among the servants—all are brought to life in Fields’s wonderfully rendered language.  Edith’s first sexual encounter with Fullerton is an erotic scene that renders in deep hues what other authors can only achieve in variations of black and white. Since she tells the tale in present tense, the unfolding of these intricate relationships seems immediate.  Historical biography can be difficult to achieve, but Fields does a wonderful job in Age of Desire.

Check the WRL catalog for Age of Desire

Age of Desire is also available as a Gab Bag for book groups

Check out the images of Edith Wharton’s life (alas, with only one indistinct photo of Anna) in Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life 

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butlerWe’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work.  (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.)  With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.

War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels.  (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.

Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.

Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.

The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events.  Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.

Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog

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mistressJimmy Hoffa.  Ambrose Bierce.  D.B. Cooper.  Amelia Earhart. Chances are anyone you ask can identify these famous missing persons. But have you heard of “the most missingest man in America?”  Once upon a time, Judge Joseph Crater’s 1930 disappearance captivated the country, and sporadic developments have still made news since.  Ariel Lawhon doesn’t know what happened to Judge Crater, but her new book sure takes what we know and extends it just a little into a plausible and entertaining solution to the mystery.

What we know: Judge Crater had barely started his new job as an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court and was at his summer cottage when he got a phone call. He returned to New York City, and did some work in his chambers.  On the evening of August 6, Crater had dinner with a friend and a showgirl, set off to see a Broadway play and >poof<.  It took a month for an investigation to start, because everyone thought he was somewhere else, but when he was officially reported missing on September 3 it became national news. Lots of tips, a grand jury investigation, and countless police hours trying to trace him turned up nothing.  Whispers of corruption in the judiciary, of Tammany Hall politics, and of gangland involvement came out of the rampant speculation, but nothing was ever proven.

As you can tell by the title, Lawhon’s story revolves around the women in Crater’s life. Stella Crater’s money financed the Judge’s rise in the world, but he expects that she will comport herself as the political wife, representing her husband in public and keeping her nose out of his business in private.  The Mistress is Sally Lou Ritz, a busty long-legged showgirl with a secret past and serious current problems. Despite the glamorous whirl of Broadway shows and speakeasies, Ritzi also learns to be where Crater wants her and to be gone when he doesn’t. Then there’s the Maid, Maria Simon. Maria works part-time for the Craters, and the Judge got Maria’s husband Jude his new job as a detective for New York City’s Finest.  She, too, learns that keeping Crater’s secrets is the price she will pay for her husband’s advancement.

The story develops along the web of visible and invisible relationships created by these people. All of them dance on the strings pulled by the infamous gangster Owney Madden.  Madden is Ritzi’s sponsor in the not-so-glamorous Broadway backstage world, where interchangeable showgirls often double as courtesans.  He holds the mortgage on Stella’s family cottage, which Crater sold him in exchange for the cash the judge needed to run his election. And he’s the guy who tells the NYPD how and when to conduct their investigations, and it’s no accident that Maria’s husband is one of the guys chosen to look into Crater’s death.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is set in the quintessential New York City depicted in the black and white movies of the era. It’s 1930, and the worst of the Depression hasn’t really become visible to these characters, although they see men in bespoke shoes selling apples.  New Broadway shows are opening up all the time, speakeasies are thriving, the life and livelihood of the City is settled in the chophouses where the rich and powerful eat.  Underneath that lighthearted bustle is the worm of the Big Apple – the flow of money and patronage through the political clubs, bribery from the station house to the courthouse, and the muscle to silence anyone who stands in the way.

Lawhon uses a bookend plot to set the stage for those not familiar with Crater’s story. Stella Crater made an annual visit to a Greenwich Village bar on August 6, where she would buy two cocktails, raise one in a toast, drink it and leave the other untouched. In the book, she invites Jude Simon to meet her there for one last drink, and presents him with a sealed envelope, the final word that explains everything to the last detective remotely interested in the case.  The modern-day conversation makes an occasional reappearance in the story, as do flashbacks that establish Crater’s character or create a timely link between two characters.  Added together, the three plotlines make a deeply satisfying resolution to one of the 20th century’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Check the WRL catalog for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress

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work songI wrote earlier about The Whistling Season and the singular character of Morris Morgan, the erudite and cultured man who wound up in the rough Montana town of Marias Coulee. Morrie was a memorable character from the start, and though the events of that story sent him away from Marias Coulee, Ivan Doig brought him back in Work Song. As important as he was to the first book, we still only saw him through Paul Milliron’s eyes; now we get to see the world through Morrie’s.

Ten years after the events of The Whistling Season, Morrie gets off the train at the go-go town of Butte, Montana, thinking he’ll get an accounting  job with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and start the path to his certain fortune. But little in the town is as direct as the railroad tracks coming and going from the depot. In Butte, you are on one side or the other and even outsiders have to pick, as Morrie learns when he takes a room at Grace Faraday’s boarding house. The sides? Anaconda, which runs the town, or the union, which struggles to represent the miners.

Grace, the young widow of a miner, has two boarders, Griff and Hoop, both veterans of the mine and stalwart union men. They quickly set Morrie straight about “wearing the copper collar”, so he stoutly declares that he won’t work for the Company. Which leaves him jobless and mostly broke, because the trunk with his possessions vanished on the train.

After a brief stint as a professional mourner, Morrie discovers the Butte’s true prize: the public library and its priceless collection of exquisitely bound first editions. As intimidating as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company can be, though, they have nothing on the head librarian, Samuel S. Sandison. Former cattle rancher, book collector, and professional grouch, Sandy is also swayed by anyone who believes as he does in the narrative genius of Robert Louis Stevenson. Morrie easily talks himself into a job, and winds up doing anything Sandison doesn’t want to.

But trouble is coming to Butte. Wage cuts and safety issues put the miners on edge, and Anaconda puts their thugs to work on anyone who might be an outside agitator. Before long, Morrie finds himself dodging strikebreakers and helping the union with an essential job: finding a work song.

In a community subdivided into different nationalities with their own musical traditions, finding a tune that can inspire the miners to pull together is no easy task.  Morrie can go into an unconventional classroom (think 3000 feet under the surface), teach them about rhythm, rhyme, and melody, but if they are to be as effective as the Wobblies Little Red Songbook, the words have to come from the miners.

As he did in The Whistling Season, Doig seems to go right to the edge of creating an unwieldy cast of characters, but manages to have each one precisely delineated and in the perfect place to play their roles. Along with a  lively young teacher from Morrie’s past, a young union leader toughened in the trenches of World War I, and the towering and haunted Sandison, he includes a starveling boy nicknamed Russian Famine, the fastest thing on two feet in Butte. But Doig is most tender in developing Grace Faraday, the young woman trying to survive on her own in the face of company harassment and her precarious status in a town where unattached females are usually prostitutes. Measuring his worldly ambitions against such people makes Morrie a (slightly) better man, and we are pleased to be along for his self-discovery.  And though I haven’t read it yet, Morrie’s journey continues in Sweet Thunder.  I have a feeling I will be reviewing it in the near future.

Check the WRL catalogue for Work Song

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YardLondon, 1889. The city’s residents are frightened and demoralized by the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and Scotland Yard’s reputation has suffered as a result of its inability to capture the killer. The story opens on the scene of newly recruited Detective Inspector Walter Day and forensic pathologist Bernard Kingsley examining a corpse on a train station platform.   The corpse turns out to be a fellow policeman, shockingly mutilated.

Day soon finds himself heading up the investigation, supervising Scotland Yard’s recently formed “Murder Squad.”  The reader is taken into the world of policing in class-conscious Victorian London and its overworked detectives, disrespected constables, and the nascent science of forensic pathology.  The thoughtful and perceptive Day, and the detectives on his murder squad, examine the cases of the murdered Detective Little, trying to find some thread of a lead to grasp.

As the murder squad pursues leads in the murder of their colleague, an ambitious and dedicated constable pursues the seeming accidental suffocation of a young boy in a chimney. The tragedy is a predictable outcome of the boy’s work as a chimney sweeper’s boy, yet Constable Hammersmith finds himself moved by pity and anger to pursue the facilitator of the child’s fate– against the orders of his superiors. He finds himself opening a very dangerous can of worms, which may or may not be related to Day’s homicide investigation. Jack the Ripper himself figures into this story, but not in the way you might think!

You should check out this series if you enjoy the Victorian-era mysteries of Anne Perry. Grecian’s protagonists share their sense of justice with those of Perry’s detectives Thomas Pitt and William Monk.

I was intrigued by the characters and their relationships. The character Bernard Kingsley is based on real-life forensic pathology pioneer Bernard Spilsbury (most famous perhaps for his work on the Crippen poisoning case).  The forensics are one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. It is fascinating, for example, to see the general incredulity which greets Kingsley’s introduction of fingerprint technology into the case, something which today is taken for granted in criminal investigations. I was surprised to find out that the powerful character of Commissioner of Police Colonel Sir Edward Bradford is a real historical figure and portrayed very true to life.

The relationship between Inspector Day, Constable Hammersmith, and Dr. Kingsley are developed in the second book in the series, Black Country, which I think I enjoyed even more than the first one. I’m greatly looking forward to the next entry in this series.

Check the WRL catalog for The Yard as a book.

Listen to The Yard  on audio CD.

We also have The Yard as an eaudiobook.

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RUFThis hard-hitting historical novel is a “companion book” to the Edgar award-winning Code Name Veritywith which it shares a World War II setting and a handful of characters.

Rose Justice is an 18-year-old American pilot with England’s civilian Air Transport Auxiliary. Only recently arrived in England, she’s chirpy and excited about her work and a little naïve. She dismisses rumors of terrible things happening in German prison camps as propaganda. And one day, returning from a flight over France, she flies off course—while tipping a bomb out of the airmay I add—and suddenly two Luftwaffe jets are escorting her into Germany. Mis-classified with a group of French political prisoners, Rose is sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.

She has entered a different world. In six months, from September 1944 to March 1945, Rose has any remaining naïveté starved and frozen and beaten out of her, until the appalling becomes ordinary. She is taken under the protection of the Rabbits (we would say “guinea pigs”): Polish prisoners, mostly students, on whom the camp doctors have run unconscionable medical experiments. The Rabbits know that they will all be executed eventually, but various means of evasion may keep them hidden away for another week, or day… in perpetual hope that the war will end and someone will survive to let the world know what happened in this place.

Rose’s narrative is written after she escapes Ravensbrück. A survivor in a sort of post-war limbo, Rose is also concerned with how to return to “real life.” Having sworn to herself and others to “tell the world” about the atrocities at the camp, she isn’t even able to describe the experience to her family. The Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg suggests one path to closure by way of judgment and retribution, but Rose is looking for other ways to redeem her experience.

A poet as well as a pilot, she creates a pilot’s metaphor—lift and weight, thrust and drag—to describe the forces that fueled her survival during and after the prison camp. Obviously, Rose Under Fire is a story carrying a lot of weight. It’s the strong relationships between very different women—women from the French resistance, Night and Fog agents, Girl Scout saboteurs and Soviet bomber pilots—that give the novel lift as well.

Check the WRL catalog for Rose Under Fire

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maddyclareSarah Piper is alone in the world.  She’s working for a temp agency in post World War I England.  One rainy afternoon she gets a call to meet a potential client at a coffee shop.  While this is a bit unorthodox, she needs the rent money, and so goes to the meeting.

There she meets handsome Alistair Gellis, a ghost-hunter.  He needs her to make contact with a potential ghost that apparently does not like men.  While scared of the prospect of seeing a ghost, Sarah agrees.  It’s the most excitement she’s had in her life, and she’s more frightened to disappoint her employer than she is of the ghost.

The ghost story turns into an investigation of another crime – and Sarah, Alistair, and his other assistant Matthew are in danger as they try to solve the mystery of Maddy Clare.

I enjoyed the setting of England between the World Wars.  I thought the author brought in enough detail to give a taste of the period. The author did a good job explaining why the war had such a profound effect on her main characters without having them go on and on about their hellish experiences.

I like being a little bit scared  – and the description of Maddy haunting the barn where she hung herself was creepy, not keep-the-lights-on scary.

I liked Sarah.  She’s smart and practical yet she isn’t afraid to run screaming from a particularly difficult encounter with an angry Maddy.  And who wouldn’t be freaked out by the arrival of hordes of ravens? Those human reactions helped me balance the other-worldliness of the ghost story.

And then there was the love story…  The novel could have survived well without it, but I enjoyed Sarah’s budding romance with Matthew.  In my opinion, it never hurts to have the promise of a happy ending!

The Haunting of Maddy Clare recently won two Romance Writers of America’s RITA Awards: Best First Novel and Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.

Check the WRL catalog for The Haunting of Maddy Clare

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YokotaOfficersClubThis compelling story of family, betrayal, and memory starts out in the late 1960s as 18-year-old Bernie is flying to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa to visit her family after her first year at college.  She grew up in an Air Force family, under the shadow of larger-than-life Major Mace Root, and popular and beautiful younger sister, Kit.  Now she has been “breathing civilian air” for a year and has joined a peace group, Damsels in Dissent.  Her large family are astonished at their first sight of her at the airport in tattered jeans with peace symbols and no bra.  She, in return, is astonished at how badly her family is dealing with their new assignment, from her teenage sister’s open rebellion to her younger sister’s anxiety to her mother’s cupboard full of Valium.

The story moves forwards and backwards in time from the 1960s to the 1940s, with poignant descriptions of the plight of Japanese civilians in the immediate aftermath of World War II when work, shelter, and food were in short supply. Slowly the picture is revealed of Bernie’s past and the book explores the nature of blame, responsibility, and human ties as Bernie comes to a wrenching realization about the triggers of her family’s disintegration eight years earlier during their posting to Yokota, Japan.

The Yokota Officers Club does a wonderful job at capturing a slice of military family life, especially the isolation of Bernie and all her siblings, except popular Kit.  A myriad of details of military life are scattered throughout, some of which are still pertinent for military families today, such as the frequent relocations. Bernie calls the souvenirs of bases where her family have lived “the spoils” of military life, particularly “the set of three framed fans that have hung of the wall in the hallways of all the houses we lived in since Fussa.”  My family lived in Europe rather than Asia so we lean more towards cuckoo clocks and wooden shoes than ornamental fans, although in North Dakota we had the same obscure brass Turkish camel wind chime as our neighbors.  Other details such as a family losing their jobs for not mowing the lawn are dated, as a base family will still get a notice about a messy yard, but the military is less strict.  And some things have completely changed: “Wives of majors who wish to make colonel wear heels and hose in public.”

In turns both funny and sad, The Yokota Officers Club is a story about loyalty – to family and to country, and to people who surround us.  It is based on Sarah Bird’s own childhood and she dedicates the book to her family – her Lieutenant Colonel father, nurse mother and three brothers and two sisters, just like Bernie’s family. But in the acknowledgements she adds, “to my family who… understood and accepted my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past.”  Try The Yokota Officers Club for an emotional, character driven read about family relations.

Check the WRL catalog for The Yokota Officers Club.

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barkerReading The Plantagenets got me thinking about war and its impact on people and culture, which led me to reread Pat Barker’s magnificent WWI novel Regeneration. Barker’s book is a timely exploration of the effect of war on both society and on the individuals who must participate. The novel is a fictional account of poet and Royal Army officer Siegfried Sassoon’s commitment to the Craiglockhart Hospital following his declaration against the war. Rather than court-martialing Sassoon, the British Army sends him to the care of Dr. W. H. Rivers, who is known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers.

Barker deftly blends these historical characters with her fictional ones. Rivers gradually comes to question his role in curing these men of their insanity only to send them back to their likely deaths. Sassoon is clearly not insane, and his clearness of purpose increases Rivers’s conflict. Rivers was a pioneer in treating shell-shock, and his humane treatment is chillingly contrasted with the electric shock therapy used by another psychiatrist whom Rivers visits near the end of the novel. While Rivers and Sassoon provide the frame for the novel, the story of working class officer Billy Prior (a creation of Barker’s) fills in much of the detail of the war. Barker goes on to explore the conflicts in Prior’s life in her two sequels, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

Barker’s prose is lyrical, even when writing about the horror of trench warfare, and the question of where sanity lies in wartime is still a pressing one.

Check the WRL catalog for Regeneration

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Captivated by the pages in Gap Creek devoted to the slaughtering of a hog and the rendering of its fat, I have shown that passage to several people who, after reading that one section, immediately proceeded to read the whole book in less than a day or two.

I was taken aback by how interesting I found it to read such raw detail about a process that I would have absolutely no opportunity or desire to participate in, but the detailed prose made me feel so familiar with the unpleasant work that I could almost smell it. This was the first time I noticed myself so engrossed in a story that I felt as if I could be there, working as hard as Julie Harmon; in fact, I wanted to be able to work as hard as Julie. I would not wish upon myself the hardships or poverty of her turn-of-the-century Appalachian life, but I envied her character’s drive and unquestioning energy to do what’s necessary. Our lives these days are often rife with options, the easy route freely taken without the consequences of starvation or loss of life too common a hundred years ago. I’ve witnessed older members of my family who work with such force and have never found within myself such stamina. Today, I suppose it can be found most often in elite athletes, willing to push their bodies to their absolute limits.

Even in Julie’s day, and among her family members, she is an uncommonly strong and intensely diligent workhorse, so much so that this quality stands out more than beauty for good-looking Hank, who stuns her by offering his proposal of marriage. Their married life proves to be fraught with unforeseen challenge and misadventure. At times, it seems that their life could not possibly get worse but then it surely does. The reading of Gap Creek is an experience you will not forget or regret.

Look for Gap Creek in the WRL catalog.

I eagerly await the upcoming release in late August of the follow-up novel, The Road from Gap Creek.

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guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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