“A gibbous moon hung above me tonight, swollen and bright in the sable sky, illuminating all the gravestones and memorials. But somehow it was a soft moon, not the sharply detailed orb I’d seen on other winter nights. It must be because we were near the sea. I’d been to Canterbury one other time–the same journey during which I learned of my destiny. Against my will, I was told of a prophecy. It was one I feared above all else. Yet here, tonight, I stood ready to fulfill it.”
Nancy Bilyeau, THE CHALICE
THE CHALICE, by Nancy Bilyeau, is the sequel to THE CROWN, and was published last week. I read and loved THE CROWN, so I have been eagerly awaiting this novel. Simon & Schuster kindly sent me a copy for review, which I will use in a giveaway. The spine is barely cracked because I read it in four nights.
In Reformation England, young novice Joanna Stafford is still reeling from the dissolution of her priory by her distant relation, King Henry the VIII. Used as a pawn by church and state alike, Joanna retires to the town of Dartford to begin a weaving business and try to live a quiet life, but it does not appear to be her destiny. Dragged into a new scandal and at the center of a conspiracy led by prophets and politicians, Joanna must hear the tellings of three seers to learn her ultimate role in the fate of Henry VIII’s monarchy.
Traveling through Europe and back, both taken against her will and led by her sense of duty, Joanna’s life becomes inextricably entwined in the fate of the kingdom, and only a tremendous act of courage can free her and decide the future.
Tudor England and the surrounding countries never cease to fascinate, and Bilyeau deftly weaves an original and riveting historical mystery. A varied and complex group of characters navigate an intricate plot rich in historical detail, fascinating politics, and forbidden love.
Bilyeau has a gift for animating a long-ago era without burdening the reader. Her characters are so layered that it’s hard to tell whom Joanna should trust, whom she should love, and which decisions will most fulfill her. It is this relentless tension that makes the story so engaging, and elevates it above genre suspense. Her characters will linger in the reader’s mind long after finishing the novel.
If you enjoy well-written, engaging historical suspense, I highly recommend THE CHALICE. It can be read alone or after reading THE CROWN, though I suggest diving into both in succession. For a chance to win THE CHALICE, please comment below and share the post.
For more on the novel, here is the book trailer. Enjoy!
“The heart is a demanding tenant; it frequently makes a strong argument against common sense.”
Julie Kibler, CALLING ME HOME
CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler was published in February and is 336 pages. I purchased a copy because I am drawn to historical novels that explore cross-cultural relationships, and because Julie Kibler is a dear person. I can’t adequately tell you how much this book moved me.
Set in the present day and in the 1930s and 40s, CALLING ME HOME is the tragic story of a young woman from a white Kentucky family who falls in love with the black son of her family housekeeper. Raised almost side by side with Robert, Isabelle can’t help her feelings for this young man who saves her from a terrible situation, engages her intellectually, and stirs her heart. As much as he cautions her, he too falls in love, and they risk everything to be together.
In the present day and without much explanation, Isabelle asks her young black hairdresser to accompany her to a funeral in Cincinnati. Dorrie agrees, in spite of her own family troubles, and along the way Isabelle tells her ill-fated love story. At the funeral, secrets from the past are unearthed and affect all involved.
I thought I knew what happened in Isabelle’s past, and I was shaken and moved when all I’d predicted was not as it seemed. The family relationships in this novel run wider and deeper than blood, and themes of regret and loss are prevalent. In spite of the pain the reader will experience with these memorable characters, every step of the journey is well worth taking, and the messages of redemption resonate.
Fans of THE HELP will absolutely love this novel, and it would make a great book club selection. I wanted to talk to someone about character choices as soon as I finished, and this cast will linger with me long after I’ve closed the pages. I highly recommend CALLING ME HOME.
“As she watched, the darkness unfolded itself, stood and took the shape of a young black woman, barefoot, in a yellow dress. Around her hair she wore a strip of cloth torn from the hem of her dress…[S]he held out a hand towards Honor. A small, ambiguous gesture, it still had the power to untwist Honor’s stomach, for it said: Help me.” Tracy Chevalier, THE LAST RUNAWAY
Tracy Chevalier’s THE LAST RUNAWAY was published in January and is 338 pages. I received a copy for review because of my ongoing interest in Chevalier’s work, and this book might now be my favorite of her novels.
THE LAST RUNAWAY begins on a gangplank in Bristol, England as Quaker Honor Bright prepares to leave for America with her sister, Grace. Honor has been jilted in love, and her devotion to Grace and the idea that she “can always go back” inspires her to travel with her sister aboard the Adventurer to Ohio, where Grace’s betrothed waits for her.
It doesn’t take long for tragedy to befall Honor, and she finds herself alone in an undeveloped world, reliant upon her talents and the aid of strangers. From outspoken milliners, to complicated slave hunters, to the Quakers who are supposed to welcome her, and the runaway slaves she’s supposed to leave alone, Honor finds that nothing is as it seems. Surprised by Americans and herself at every turn, Honor is forced to either betray her conscience or those around her.
THE LAST RUNAWAY is the kind of novel that draws the reader in, as if inviting one to hear a story or a bit of gossip, and doesn’t release its grip until the final shocking pages. Historically fascinating and unpredictable, the tension in the novel grows until it becomes nearly unbearable. All the while, the kind and steady voice of Honor Bright is a beacon. Her journey is one that is vast and satisfying, and shows both her self and the reader her incredible strength of character.
If you enjoy original and enlightening historical fiction populated by unforgettable players, I recommend THE LAST RUNAWAY. Long time Chevalier fans will gain a new appreciation for the author they have grown to return to over and over again from this intense and thought-provoking story.
Because I enjoyed THE LAST RUNAWAY so much, I’ll be sponsoring a giveaway that runs through this Friday, 2/15, at midnight, EST. Please comment about this or your favorite Chevalier novel for a chance to win, and please spread the word.
“Even though you have only been alive a few days, your story, our story, started a long time ago. Ours is a story I know, both the parts I saw with my eyes and the parts I did not. This kind of knowing comes from somewhere in my bones, somewhere in my heart. Someday, your children will ask what happened, and you will tell a new version, and this way, the story will keep living. The truth is in the telling.” Ramona Ausubel, NO ONE IS HERE EXCEPT ALL OF US
NO ONE IS HERE EXCEPT ALL OF US, by Ramona Ausubel, was published on February 5th and is 405 pages. I received a review copy from the publisher, Riverhead/Penguin, for consideration, and I’m glad I did. It was a heartbreaking literary masterpiece.
Set in a remote village in Romania in 1939, NO ONE IS HERE EXCEPT ALL OF US tells the story of nine Jewish families who make a brave and unusual decision when the encroaching effects of the Nazi’s campaign across Europe arrive in the form of a nearly drowned woman. This stranger tells of an evil army who has tortured and murdered everyone she loves, and the villagers recognize their own danger.
Together, they decide to reinvent themselves. Husbands and children are exchanged, jobs are swapped, and religious worship is reimagined. In their naivete, they convince themselves that if they recreate their myths and stories, they will begin the world again and protect themselves from outside threats.
For a period of time, their grand experiment seems to work, but the smallest action of remembrance suddenly invites the outside world in at a greater rate than it can be held out. What ensues is destruction, betrayal, and devastation, but also, great opportunities for courage, self-sacrifice, and hope.
This novel is a treasure. Ausubel’s voice is unique and evocative. Words are arranged to convey layers of meaning rich in symbol and history. Each paragraph holds weight. It cannot be read quickly, and to do so would do the prose a disservice. Once the reader enters this world, even if she wants to leave she will be held captive by the bazaar behaviors, honest feelings, suspenseful action, and ultimate destination of the book.
NO ONE IS HERE EXCEPT ALL OF US made me feel the crimes against humanity so often written about during the second World War in new ways, ways that cut deeper than ever before, and yet always kept a persistent, lingering hope. Sometimes it is elusive and seems as if it will never return, but Ausubel, a master storyteller, knows just when to give the reader relief.
The last time I felt this strongly about a book was when I read THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy. Both of these books broke my heart over and over, but the small shaft of redemption made the pain worthwhile.
If you enjoy literary novels that challenge your emotions and engage your imagination in new ways, I highly recommend NO ONE IS HERE EXCEPT ALL OF US. It is one of the most powerful and moving books I’ve ever read, and I think book clubs, in particular, would gain much from reading and discussing it.
“This much she knew: She had begun to change last night. She had climbed to the attic, and sat beside the baby, and thought, I am all you have now. And she’d felt an opening in her chest where she hadn’t known anything was closed.” Rachel Simon, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL
Rachel Simon’s THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL is 340 pages and was first published in 2011 in hardcover. It is now out in paperback, and was recommended to me by my critique partner, Jennifer Lyn King. She must know me very well, indeed, because I enjoyed it thoroughly.
The novel begins on a night in 1968, when a widow, alone in her farmhouse, meets two strangers at her door. The mute white woman and the deaf African-American man are on the run, and clearly frightened. The widow, Martha, soon learns that the young woman, Lynnie, has just given birth to a baby girl, and as the authorities from the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded come to take them back to the institution, Lynnie is able to utter two words to Martha that forever change all of their worlds:
THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL spans the next four decades as Martha responds to a call that asks so much more of her than she ever thought herself capable. It traces the lives of those who were institutionalized in the sixties and beyond, who were often treated poorly, and who sometimes had far more intelligence and ability than their caretakers understood. It shows the tests and triumphs of adversity, and the results of a lifetime of hope.
Like Martha, the reader will feel the expansion of her heart and capacity for empathy and understanding growing while she reads the novel. THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL is one of those rare books that while portraying human darkness, stunningly illustrates the capacity we have to love. This book broke and healed my heart many times over, and I was left with a new understanding of those with developmental disabilities or differences that has changed me.
I can’t overstate how much our society needs books like THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL. In this culture of death, violence, and the objectification of human persons, novels like this that touch the reader on such an emotional level have real power to heal broken places in our world. If you have not yet read this outstanding work of fiction, I highly recommend THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL.
“Even now, I think of flying as a refuge; gliding with the birds on the currents, the sky a great silent cathedral surrounding you. And although I know differently–my ears sometimes ring with the memory of the roaring of those early engines–I imagine him crossing the ocean in silence, a young man, his hand on the control stick and his foot on the rudder, alone with just his thoughts; for the first and only time in his life, free from expectations. Free from the burden of living up to the legend that awaits him a mere twenty or so hours away, in a primitive airfield just outside of Paris.” Melanie Benjamin, THE AVIATOR’S WIFE
THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin will be published tomorrow and is 396 pages. I loved Benjamin’s first historical novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, so I was eager to read her latest, and picked up an ARC at a book festival.
Benjamin’s novel is the epic story of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh, and the joys and tragedies of their long marriage, including the kidnapping of their son. Like many women of her time, Anne’s role is considered in tandem to the men in her life. She is the ambassador’s daughter until she becomes the aviator’s wife, and then the mother of the aviator’s children. It isn’t until she survives some of her own remarkable achievements and true tragedy that she begins to emerge from the shadow of those around her.
From the opening chapters of the book when young Anne meets the serious and mysterious young pilot, Lindbergh, and becomes his flying crew on his many travels, I was spellbound. The period detail, the incredible tales of adventure Anne and Charles faced in their early marriage–including the relentless hounding of the paparazzi–and the devastating abduction of their eighteen-month-old son, make THE AVIATOR’S WIFE impossible to put down. Anne is a dynamic and likable protagonist who struggles to balance the need to forge her own identity while staying loyal to her husband. She makes mistakes along the way, but her self-knowledge and loyalty become the very traits that account for her literary successes and eventual claim on her life and its definition.
From plane crashes, to Nazi Germany, to the literary scene in New York, THE AVIATOR’S WIFE is a multi-generation novel that book clubs and readers of historical fiction will devour. Fans of THE PARIS WIFE and LOVING FRANK have a new story to add to their list of favorites. I give THE AVIATOR’S WIFE my highest recommendation, and because I loved it so much, I’m hosting a giveaway. Please comment below by midnight on Thursday, January 17th for a chance to win, and please spread the word. The winner will be announced on Friday, January 18th.
“For seventeen-year-old Christine Bolz, the war began with a surprise invitation to the Bauermans’ holiday party. On that brilliant fall day in 1938, it was impossible to imagine the horrors to come.” Ellen Marie Wiseman, THE PLUM TREE
Ellen Marie Wisemen’s novel, THE PLUM TREE, was published in December of 2012, and is 304 pages. Ellen is in my writer “support” group, Book Pregnant, and I’ve been following her process with interest because of my enthusiasm for historical fiction.
Set in Germany during the second world war, THE PLUM TREE, is the story of a young, poor, Christian woman who falls in love with her wealthy employer’s son, a young, Jewish man named Isaac. As their secret love blooms, Hitler’s dark shadow begins to spread over the land by way of anti-semitic posters, propaganda, and oppressive laws, including the Nazi proclamation that Christians could no longer work for Jews.
Torn apart as their love is just beginning to bloom, Christine and Isaac believe their bond cannot be broken by physical separation alone, and vow to find each other after the war. But as the increasing horrors of living in war-time Germany build, Christine and Isaac find themselves facing the unimaginable hell of the Nazi concentration camps, where every moment of every day means the difference between life and death, survival and destruction.
THE PLUM TREE is powerful and highly evocative. Memorable and honorable characters populate its pages, and Wiseman provides a window into the lives of ordinary German citizens as horror struck by the Nazis as the rest of the world. Her attention to research and historical detail is clear and fascinating, and I learned so much about the German people at that time that I’d never known. Christine and Isaac are worthy protagonists, facing hardship with humanity, determination, and vast but believable courage, and the portrayal of the bonds of family in THE PLUM TREE is particularly moving.
It’s no easy task to write a novel set during the second World War that explores new territory with characters of the greatest worth and hope, but Wiseman has done so to great effect. I was moved to tears many times during THE PLUM TREE, and its characters will stay with me long after I’ve finished reading the book. If you enjoyed Tatiana de Rosnay’s SARAH’S KEY or Jenna Blum’s THOSE WHO SAVE US, you will love THE PLUM TREE. I give it my highest recommendation.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.