Book – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.
Book – Meet Helen, Grace and Ruby – young women from very different backgrounds. Each fascinating with her own set of baggage and secrets. However, they all share the same dream of fame and the three become fast friends working as dancers at the glamorous Forbidden City Nightclub in San Francisco in 1938 just as the World’s fair is set to open and rumors of war circulate. The story spans 50 years and the girls tell their own stories through alternating voices. They share in each other’s ups and downs and rely on one another through unexpected challenges and changes in financial situations.
Working at the prestigious club, these strong and independent women are looked upon as delicate “China Dolls” dressed in beautiful glittering costumes and makeup. They all hit bumps on their road to stardom, but manage to overcome the obstacles. But their bond of friendship is jeopardized with the bombing of Pearl Harbor that results in betrayal and the revelation of hidden secrets.
Well researched by author Lisa See this is a rich story of dreams, relationships, and the endurance of the human spirit.
Book – City of Thieves is, in the author’s own words, a semi-biographical look at the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. A thief and a deserter are arrested and given an impossible choice, find a dozen eggs in a city cut off from all outside supply lines or be executed. While this is a rather weak quest, Lev and Kolya bring the city and the war to life for readers.
While most ‘modern’ authors tend to write accents out phonetically so that you know they are speaking a different language, David Benioff restructured the sentences to give them a wonderful Russian cadence. Admittedly I don’t have much experience with the Russian language, but it flowed as if I was listening to Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof speak.
For those who enjoyed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, City of Thieves is a humanizing account of World War II that reminds you of the entire story, not just what you were taught in school.
Book – 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.
Book – Ruth is a writer in a rut. That is until she finds a Hello Kitty lunch box, wrapped carefully in plastic bags off the coast of British Colombia, thought to have been carried across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 tsunami. Inside are letters, a decorative wrist watch, and a diary of a teenage girl named Nao.
Nao lives in Japan, and after years of bullying and not being accepted, she has decided to kill herself. But not before she tells the story of her great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is over 100 years old.
Ruth’s life becomes engulfed with Naos. Questions arise: Is Nao still alive? Is Jiko still alive? Can Ruth do anything to help Nao and her family?
This novel allows the audience to read Nao’s journal with Ruth. We solve mysteries and gain new information together, which makes for a rather exciting read. A Tale for the Time Being has been nominated for various prizes and awards, and also won the LA Times Book Award for best fiction of 2013.
Book – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)
Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.
Book – With great pleasure I will be giving away free copies of the book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford on Wednesday, April 23rd (Shakespeare’s Birthday) for World Book Night. This is a beautiful, sentimental heartfelt story suitable for teens and adults. Set in Seattle during World War II, 12 year olds Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe form a friendship, drawn to each other since they are the only non-Caucasians on scholarship at a prestigious private school. Unfortunately the relationship is forbidden and Henry must keep it a secret from his family since he is Chinese and Keiko is Japanese. Henry is forced to wear a button reading “I am Chinese” by his father, who has a deep-hatred of Japan. Japanese residents of Seattle have begun to be shipped off by the thousands to relocation centers due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Eventually, Keiko and her family are sent to an internment camp in Idaho and Henry vows to wait for her. Forty years later, Henry learns that the Panama Hotel will be renovated and that the basement contains the belongings of many of the Japanese that were forced to leave Seattle during WW II. His fond memories of Keiko are rekindled and he relays of his friendship to his own son, in hopes of preventing the dysfunctional relationship he experienced with his own father. This is a good choice for a book club and if you enjoy this novel you may want to read Jamie Ford’s new book Songs of Willow Frost.
Book - This historical thriller will keep you turning pages in anticipation of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Set on the island of Pompeii in 79 A.D, hydraulic engineer Marcus Attilius is summoned to repair the aqueduct system that supplies fresh water to the residents. Attilius discovers a blockage that threatens to deprive a large area of the empire of water, but he is also troubled by the strange environmental occurrences that may be an indication of an impending natural disaster on a massive scale. He falls in love with Corelia who supplies him with proof that something sinister is afoot on Pompeii. As he races against the clock to make repairs, his angst increases and he is hindered by corrupt violent officials from warning the inhabitants of impending and unstoppable disaster. Will Marcus get off the island with Corelia before the volcano blows its top? This novel is well researched with rich historical details transporting us to this ancient world.
Book – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.
This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.
Book – Although I’ll read just about anything, I primarily consider myself a science fiction fan. I love the experience of exploring new worlds full of strange and unfamiliar things, people, and attitudes. Patrick O’Brien’s excellent series of Napoleonic War naval adventures scratches the same itch for me. There’s the technology, certainly – antiquated rather than futuristic, but the attention to detail is the same, and just like you don’t need to know how faster-than-light travel works in order to enjoy a science fiction story, neither do you need to understand the finer points of sailing against the wind in order to follow one of Aubrey’s fantastic chases. But there’s also the characters, a tightly-knit cast, constantly changing, of people facing physical and emotional danger of all description. The characters are what keeps me coming back to this series, again and again. (Well, and the sloth.)
The series really acts as one long book, telling the story of Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin’s friendship, from the time they meet at a concert in 1800, through a final, unfinished novel set after the Battle of Waterloo. But although the series is best appreciated in sequential order, I do sometimes recommend that for a first attempt, the reader starts with something other than the first book – Post Captain, perhaps, or The Fortune of War (one of my favorites, set during the War of 1812), or even Far Side of the World, as I did when the movie came out and I didn’t know any better. You can always go back and start over again at the beginning, and if you fall in love with the characters, you’ll probably want to anyway.