The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

indexBook – The Signature of All Things is an epic saga of the Whittaker family that takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This work of fiction is a new venture for non-fiction author Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Pray, Love and will delight readers.

Henry is a wealthy American import tycoon whose ambition left behind his life of humbleness and poverty in England. His daughter, Alma is bestowed with all the benefits of money; a good education and fine material possessions. Though she is scholarly and has a passion for learning about the natural world, especially botany, she is rather plain in her looks and socially awkward. Having lived a sheltered life, she is thrilled when almost middle-aged, she meets Ambrose Pike an artist, spiritualist, and dreamer who shares her love of flowers and plants that he expresses in his artwork. They soon get married and Ambrose whisks Alma, who has never been out of Philadelphia, on a ship to exotic Tahiti. Though the story reveals insight into the couple’s relationship, it mainly focuses on Alma’s love and impact on science and emerging theories on evolution. Well researched, this is a fascinating story, not to be missed about a woman who was well ahead of her time.

When asked about the title, in an interview the author explained, “The Signature of All Things is the title of a 16th century botanical/divine theory posited by a German shoemaker-turned-mystic named Jacob Boehm, who believed that God so loved the world that He had hidden in the design of each plant on earth some clue for humans as to that plant’s usefulness. (For instance: Walnuts are good for headaches, and are also—helpfully—shaped like brains).”

 

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

6174e2-23JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not.  Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her.  If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother.  Simple as that.

Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well.  While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that.  If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action.  Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next!

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

17668473Book-It was a dark and foggy night. Gretchen Müller was in the car with her brother and friends when a Jew was seen walking across the street not too far ahead. Without warning, Kurt decides it speed up in order to hit the Jewish man. When that attempt failed, the boys left car with the sole purpose of beating the man to death. Why? Because to Gretchen and her friends, Jews were evil people. That is what Adolf Hitler told them and ‘Uncle’ Dolf would never lead them astray. Hitler was the man who took Gretchen and her family in after her father was killed saving Hitler’s life. They owed him everything.

But that night, instead of reveling in the idea of taking out the cancer of Germany, Gretchen found herself really looking at the Jewish man. His eyes were full of terror as he was about to be attacked by two members of the Nazi party. Going against everything she was taught by her parents and Hitler, Gretchen ran after the boys in order to stop them.

That night was the first small step on a journey of self-discovery that Gretchen goes on throughout this book. She takes her next step when a young Jew tells Gretchen that her father did not die to save Hitler’s life, he was murdered. In her pursuit of the truth, Gretchen learns some startling facts about Hitler and his party. Now she has to decide if her loyalties truly lie with Hitler and her family or Daniel, the Jew.

You can find Prisoner of Night and Fog on the Lincoln Award Shelf and on the Lincoln Award Kindle. Once you read it, check out the sequel Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

indexBook The Light in the Ruins is a wonderful blend of historical fiction and a murder mystery.  The story starts during World War II at the Rosati Villa in Monte Volta, Italy. The Nazis have a keen interest in an Etruscan tomb on the property and coerce the family into helping them seize Italian works of art.  Unfortunately, this cooperation and the fondness between Christina Rosati and one of the German officers is seen as betrayal to some of the locals.  What they did not realize is that the Rosatis also secretly sheltered partisans on their estate.

Years later in Florence in 1955, Francesca Rosati is found murdered with her heart cut out and displayed.  It is up to Serafina, a young detective to solve the crime.  Things are further complicated when the matriarch of the family, Beatrice is murdered in the same fashion.  The detective determines that this is a vendetta against the Rosatis and wonders if the family’s activities during the war had somehow triggered these killings.  It also appears that Serafina, who is severely scarred by burns received during the war, may also have had some sort of connection to the Rosati’s.

Heartbreak abounds during the war and as a result of the homicides for the remaining family.  The Villa is no longer grand but falling into ruin, since the Rosatis cannot afford its upkeep. The suspense builds as Serafina races to catch a murderer, before another Rosati is killed.

I think this book would appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale and Chris Bohjalian’s other works such as Sandcastle Girls.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

19367226Book– In the vein of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (which uses Conan Doyle’s characters), Sophie Hannah has set out to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the permission of Agatha Christie’s estate. When a contemporary author sets out to reanimate the legendary characters of a deceased author’s canon, she has a tall task ahead of her and a lot of expectations to meet that do not apply to a wholly original novel, but I tried to be fair when I read her attempt.

Hannah does not do a great job of imitating Christie’s characters. For example, bumbling police inspector narrator, Catchpool (an original character), who exists as a reader surrogate for Poirot to be smart at, is afraid of dead bodies due to an apparently traumatic incident at his grandfather’s funeral. Barring how silly it is for a police inspector to fear murder victims, Catchpool is also gratingly incompetent and has all kinds of tiresome (if justifiable) doubts about his fitness for police work. Poirot is not rendered pitch perfect either. He overuses some typically Poirot-esque mannerisms, such as “little grey cells” and gratuitous French, but for reasons I cannot pinpoint, does not hit the mark.

Despite these complaints, I would still recommend this book. The mystery itself is elegantly constructed, with plenty of red herrings, and a beautiful resolution at the end. I did not correctly guess the murderer early on, which I typically do, and actually needed the scene at the end where Poirot explains the plot to everybody to wrap my head around how the murders went down. The Monogram Murders was a much better experience once I decided to read just for the plot, which is excellent, rather than the characters, which were not.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

13158378BookTop Chef meets Pirates of the CaribbeanCinnamon and Gunpowder is a fun adventurous seafaring tale that mainly takes place on a pirate ship called the Flying Rose in 1819. Owen Wedgwood is the renowned personal chef to Lord Ramsey, the wealthy owner of the Pendleton Trading Company.  The ruthless pirate is Captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who murders Owen’s employer and has her right hand man Mr. Apples kidnap the chef.  Though the ship has a cook, Hannah feels that she deserves a gourmet meal once a week and tells Owen that she will spare him his life as long as he obliges her.  Though his culinary skills are extensive, even Owen is challenged to create edible fare with the limited supplies on board, such as gruel, rat meat, and moldy potatoes.  Though a prisoner, Owen dines with Hannah weekly and learns that her mercenary pursuit of another rogue pirate, the Brass Fox, might be for noble reasons.  As time goes on his cooking skills evolve with the help of provisions picked up along the journey and the reader’s mouth will water with the delicacies he creates.  This swashbuckling read is a pure delight!

Sano Ichiro series by Laura Joh Rowland

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indexBook- Set in 17th-century Edo (now called Tokyo), this mystery series follows the career of Sano Ichiro, a samurai investigator who rises from an ordinary policeman to the Shogun’s Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. This position does not come without some attendant danger. In addition to the obvious dangers of police work, Sano must navigate the viper-pit of nobles, courtesans, and hangers-on that wield the weak-willed shogun’s power for him and who view Sano as a threat. The primary conflicts in the series derive from Sano’s strong idealized moral consciousness and samurai principles clashing with the actual degradation and corruption of the Tokugawa shogunate that he serves.

The series includes tons of fascinating historical details and personages and paints such a strong visual image that, despite the uncommon setting, it is not hard to picture Sano’s world. These novels will appeal to fans of other mystery series with a strong sense of place, such as Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mystery series. Sano Ichiro’s adventures are finished, clocking in at 18 volumes altogether, so there’s no agonizing wait for a sequel. Start with Shinju and see if you like it!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

17333319Book – Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of murder, and in the spring, she will be executed. The governor has decided that it’s too expensive to send her to the seat of government in Denmark, so she’s been sent to the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, to live there with his family until the execution date can be set.

Between scattered documents – real translations; this is based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland for murder – detailing the problems the government is having in getting an execution set for Agnes and her two co-defendants, we learn more about the family hosting her and about Agnes’s own life. She grew up practically an orphan, working for her keep in a variety of small farms, before falling in love with Natan – the man she’s been convicted of murdering.

This was a moving story, stark and bleak but beautifully told, of a woman who is famous but not very sympathetic in her home country. Hannah Kent helps us to understand Agnes, who has been so terribly isolated for much of her life, who fell in love with the wrong kind of man, who lost a life she had never been very successful at in the first place.

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Book- This collection is comprised of fourteen stories revolving around themes of immigration, travel, and drifting throughout North America. As an immigrant herself from the UK to Canada, Donoghue has a particular emotional insight into these topics. Emma Donoghue’s short stories (and, in fact, her novels) often stem from a small historical detail, such as the 1864 murder of a slave master by his slave and mistress, which becomes a fleshed out story, as in “Last Supper at Brown’s” in this collection. Particularly strong stories in Astray include “Man and Boy,” which chronicles the relationship between a zookeeper and his elephant, “The Hunt,” where the topic of war crimes during the Revolutionary War is explored, and, my favorite, “Snowblind,” which details the harsh first winter of two gold mining partners in the 1890s.

The audiobook version of Astray is a real treat, with several different narrators throughout to suit the disparate characters, and a part at the end narrated by Donoghue herself sharing the process by which she developed each story. I found that on audiobook, the stories were a perfect length for a shorter drives so you don’t have to keep jumping in and out of the plot as you would with a novel. These stories will appeal to fans of other historical fiction with keenly observed details, such as The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

indexBook – When I started reading this book, I didn’t know much about it, other than that it had a glow-in-the-dark octopus on the cover. And really, what else do you need to know? The octopus, fortunately, is a character (although he doesn’t glow in the dark) – Katsu, a mechanical octopus made by the titular watchmaker, Mori, a Japanese nobleman who has moved to England to practice the art of making tiny things out of even tinier gears. We meet him through Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphist recently recruited by Scotland Yard, who is being used by his superiors to investigate Mori as a suspect behind a high-profile bombing.

This is fantasy only by the thinnest hair, and steampunk only because of the prominence of Mori’s fantastic clockwork creations (and their proximity to Japantown’s fireworks shops). The plot circles around the investigation of the bombing, but Thaniel and Mori’s relationship is the real core of the book, growing slowly through mistrust and uncertainty into a deep, heartfelt connection. I was a little iffy about it for the first few chapters; by the end, I was entirely in love.