A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discoveryBook – A Discovery of Witches begins in the heart of academia in Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a bright young scholar, Diana, is researching centuries-old manuscripts for a presentation on the origins of science. The author’s detailed descriptions of the atmospheric library and Oxford’s history laden campus set a very pleasant tone for this story of romance, magic, history, and suspense. Diana has suppressed all connections to her family’s involvement with magic and is therefore taken by surprise when her contact with an enchanted manuscript on alchemy in the Bodleian library attracts the unwanted attention of a diverse supernatural community. This community includes another professor, a vampire studying genetics, named Matthew. A tentative courtship between Diana and Matthew includes yoga classes, carefully planned meals, scholarly conversation, and the finest wines. The realistic details of these romantic engagements obviously draw deeply from the life of author Deborah Harkness, who is a history professor, recipient of numerous fellowships, and an award-winning wine blogger. Whether Matthew is trustworthy, or actually one of the numerous entities jeopardizing Diana, is a mystery to be revealed. The second book in the series, Shadow of Night, is even more a work of historical fiction, and reveals the author’s knowledge of Elizabethan England.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether RevivalsBook – Oscar is doing pretty well for himself. He’s found his way to Cambridge, working his way through his degree as an aide in a nursing home, where he meets the most interesting characters. He never loses his head, though, until he meets Iris Bellwether at one of her brother’s church services (he plays the organ). A little light church music isn’t all Eden Bellwether is interested in, though, and before he knows it, Oscar is drawn into Eden’s circle of admirers, accomplices and experimental subjects. Eden believes that his music has the power to heal. He might be right.

This spectacular Gothic novel by debut author Benjamin Wood sucked me in from the wonderful two-page prologue. It’s been repeatedly compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but as I’ve read neither of those, I couldn’t tell you how accurate the comparison is. I can tell you that I fell in love with all the characters, who are by turns symbolic and wonderfully genuine, and that the tense, surreal atmosphere was sustained well throughout the book. I’d recommend it for a book club – there’s lots to talk about.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case HistoriesBook - Three unresolved cases in England span twenty-four years. Case One involves the disappearance of three-year-old Olivia Land. Case Two involves the brutal, seemingly random, murder of eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre. Case Three involves Michelle, a new young mother who feels a murderous rage at being stuck alone out in the country with only her baby and husband for company. As private detective Jackson Brodie begins to look into the cases, he unearths startling discoveries and connections between the cases. We also get glimpses into Jackson’s own tragic past. As he comes to resolutions in the cases, he begins to make peace with his own history. This book was a page-turner and I enjoyed the plot’s twists and turns. It’s told from several different perspectives, which helps illuminate the hopes, struggles and failings of the characters. Despite the dark topics, the novel offers an overall message of hope and healing.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's DisgraceBook – Divorce in England became available to the middle class for the first time in 1858, and one of the first cases was that of Robinson v. Robinson & Lane. Henry Robinson had read his wife’s diary while she was ill, and discovered it full of stories about her passionate love affair with a handsome young doctor. He sued for divorce as soon as he was able. Isabella Robinson’s defense argued that the diary was a work of fantasy and none of the affairs had actually happened. The court took three months to reach a verdict, and meanwhile the case became a sensation. Excerpts of Mrs. Robinson’s diary were printed in the papers – a lucky stroke for historian Kate Summerscale, as the actual diary has vanished.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace immerses you in the world of a middle-class Victorian housewife who desperately longs for something more in her life. The book reads almost like a novel, following first the events of Isabella Robinson’s diary and then those of the trial, while also describing the surrounding world – the mania for diary-writing, the salaciousness of the press, the nervousness about the new divorce courts. For those who want more of the same, Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter is a fictional tale of Victorian divorce which references the Robinson case.

Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O’Farrell

instructions for heatwaveBook – Meet the Riordans. Gretta, a devout Irish Catholic, discovers her husband has gone missing during a crippling heat wave in 1976 England. Her three adult children gather together for the first time in years to help search for their father. Monica, the oldest daughter, is her mother’s rock and seems to have a well-ordered life. But her partner’s daughters despise her and she hides secrets that she has never faced. Her brother, Michael Francis, feels guilt over a past indiscretion and wonders if his wife, newly enrolled in community college, is having an affair. The youngest sibling, Aoife, has always had issues. She was a screaming infant and an unruly child, until finally, as an adult, she escapes to America and reinvents herself. The disappearance of their father is the catalyst that brings everyone together, and in the search for him, they discover and are forced to address the secrets and misunderstandings that have wedged between them. I listened to the audiobook of this title and was absorbed in the story and the narration by John Lee.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

stella bainBook – This novel begins with a compelling mystery as the main character awakens in a field hospital in Marne, France during World War I, not knowing her name or anything about herself beyond what is evident from her British nursing uniform and her American accent. This beautifully written historical fiction has the reader rooting for the courageous nurse as she forges on with nursing the wounded, pursuing threads of her identity, and ultimately facing a court trial. The audiobook is narrated by Hope Davis, and her pleasant, soothing voice matches Shreve’s spare, graceful presentation of a tragic yet intriguing story revolving around the development of psychotherapy for victims of shocking events. The courage, generosity, and intellect of individuals who aid the victims of war and prejudice are highlighted in the telling of “Stella Bain’s” story. The historical setting also provides a nostalgic backdrop for a love story that develops sweetly during this hopeful tale of rebuilding. If you enjoy this book, the library collections contain numerous novels by this award-winning author.

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)

UpDown_TitleCard2DVDs -The Library will be hosting the program Below Stairs: Meet the Kitchen Maid Whose Memoirs Helped Inspire Downton Abbey on Thursday, January 23, 7p.m.  British servant Margaret Powell wrote the best-selling memoir Below Stairs and she will be portrayed by Leslie Goddard.  Powell’s 1968 book was among the inspirations for Downtown Abbey and directly inspired the 1970s series Upstairs, Downstairs. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, I would highly recommend the series Upstairs Downstairs. Hard to believe that it first aired over 40 years ago on Masterpiece Theater.  It won seven Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody.

The series tells the stories of the residents of 165 Eaton Place a townhouse in a posh London neighborhood.  The “Upstairs” is comprised of the wealthy and aristocratic heads of household Richard Bellamy a member of Parliament and his wife Lady Marjorie. They have two children, Elizabeth who is in her late teens and James who is in his early twenties. The “Downstairs” consists of the Bellamy’s lively and devoted servants overseen by Hudson the butler and Mrs. Bridges the cook.  Other servants include parlor maids, Rose, Daisy, and Sarah, kitchen maids Emily and Ruby, footmen Alfred and Edward,  coachman Pearce, chauffeur Thomas, and Lady Marjorie’s Maid Maude.  The series covers almost a 30 year time period and shows all the characters surviving social change, political upheaval, scandals and the horrors of the First World War. Most importantly you get a sense of the relationships formed between those upstairs and downstairs and their loyalties to each other.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

Beekeeper's AppBook – A large part of the appeal of King’s award winning historical mystery series is the unique relationship of the two central characters. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s works Sherlock Holmes was a confirmed bachelor. Yet, in the memoirs of Mary Russell, which have mysteriously arrived on the author’s doorstep, a more intimate portrait of London’s most famous detective is revealed. This initial text is set in 1915, over a decade after Sir Conan Doyle had finished his accounts, and Holmes “weary of interrogating men” has retired and is quietly engaged in the study of honeybees in the English countryside. Well into his fifties, he meets our narrator, the young Miss Russell on the Sussex Downs. Scientific observation and references to theories of the progressive thinkers of the day are interspersed within their verbal sparring as it is soon revealed that unlike Holmes’s previous biographer, Conan Doyle, Mary Russell possesses an intellect and an ego that equals Sherlock Holmes. Therefore Russell writes about the detective as a peer as well as a mentor. There is a poignant moment when the mature Holmes upon realizing that a like-minded individual has finally entered his life murmurs to himself “twenty years ago, even ten, but here, now?” Russell begins a unique routine of tutelage with Holmes. She quickly deduces that Holmes is not entirely retired and their first case to track down a kidnapped American senator’s daughter brings danger. Who is the cunning adversary that is so intent on brutally ending them and their fledgling partnership?

Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder by Gyles Brandreth

Game called murderBook – Brandreth, a noted real life biographer of Oscar Wilde, has turned to fiction and brought to life a series of historical mysteries which cast Oscar Wilde as a savant of deduction and even an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s invention of Sherlock Holmes. These stories are full of biographical detail and the dialogue is inspired by Wilde’s quotable witticism and his mercurial personality. It is easy to sympathize with the narrator of these tales, the struggling young writer Robert Sherard, who was a good friend and the first actual biographer of Oscar Wilde. In this series Conan Doyle is cast as a close associate and respected friend whom assists with details of intriguing investigations. A Game Called Murder is the second in the series, yet I easily enjoyed it without having read the first installment. Individuals such as Bram Stoker, and actual events, such as the first boxing match using Queensbury rules, populate the pages of this book. This tale’s amateur detectives seek to reveal a murderer who is daily working their way down a list from a dinner party game, a list from a game that asks “Who would you murder?”, a list that includes Oscar and his wife.