Book Recommendation: LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS

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“Those of us who are lucky enough to find a letter on the doormat devour the words inside with the appetite of a starving man. Those of us whose doormats remain empty must somehow find the courage to step over them and go out into a world we no longer recognise.” Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS 

Publisher Synopsis:

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Recommendation:

If you have had an ache of longing since you finished reading THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY, or since the conclusion of DOWNTON ABBEY, this novel is just the tonic.

LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS: A NOVEL OF WORLD WAR I, is an epistolary novel. Told in letters, telegrams, and newspaper dispatches, the marvelous, tragic, romantic, and fascinating story of Evie and Tom is one for the ages. Readers will not be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out the fates of their beloved characters, all while trying to savor the delightful exchanges.

At turns ebullient and heartbreaking, and often in quick succession, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS is a true gem in historical fiction. Gaynor and Webb wrote the book in their own kind of letter exchange, giving it a special air of authenticity.

This was the first novel I read in 2018, and I’m afraid the bar has been set very high for whatever follows. If you are searching for a book to fall in love with, I cannot recommend LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS enough.

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Best Books of 2017

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Here is my much agonized over list of the best novels of 2017. (Notice, some of these are not historical; I’m broadening my horizons.) Some of the books were not published in 2017, but that is when I read them. My criteria for making the list:

*I read it obsessively.

*I can’t stop thinking about it.

*I can’t stop recommending it.

Whittling down my choices is always a challenge. I only feature the best of the best on the blog, so these are the best of the best of the best. Also, as always, I do an enormous amount of research reading, so I did not get to as many books for pleasure as I would have liked.

Without further ado, and in no particular order (my full reviews are linked to each title):

  1. If I Could Tell You, by Elizabeth Wilhide
  2. The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld
  3. The Baker’s Secret, by Stephen P. Kiernan
  4. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  5. Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

What were your favorites of 2017?

 

Book Recommendation: Beartown

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“She always thinks it was the forest that taught the people of Beartown to keep their mouths shut, because when you hunt and fish you need a way to stay quiet so as not to scare the animals, and if you teach people that lesson since birth, it’s going to color the way they communicate. So Ana has always been torn between the urge to scream as loud as she could, or not at all.” Fredrik Backman, BEARTOWN 

Publisher Synopsis:

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

My Recommendation:

In truth, it took me several attempts to get through BEARTOWN. I kept thinking it was the book, but I realized on the third try–after countless trusted recommendations that I read it immediately–the problem existed in me.

For the last decade–as long as my oldest son has played the sport he found on his own–I have been haunted by ice hockey. From the danger and violence of the game, to bullying coaches, clusters of horrible parents, and a near-fatal injury my son suffered in November from a skate blade to the throat, I am traumatized. While in the ambulance, I thought, “At least we’re finished with hockey,” just as my son asked the EMT (applying just enough pressure to slow the bleeding, while allowing my son to breathe) when he could play hockey again. My son’s current coach calls the sport a “healthy addiction.” I don’t know if I agree.

And then there’s #HOCKEYSTRONG, a satire I wrote about youth sports parent insanity.  My own take on the dark side of youth sports nearly gives me an anxiety attack to read. With a series of strange similarities, BEARTOWN is equally horrifying. BEARTOWN could take place five years in the future for my fictional team of “bears,” parent types overlap, and the bizarre mentality of the “race to nowhere” pervades, but what Backman captures far more poignantly is the group psychology of teams on the micro and macro levels, and the simultaneous loving and loathing of the sport.

“There’s hardly anything that can make Peter feel as bad as hockey can. And, absurdly, there’s hardly anything that can make him feel better.” ( p 93)

Distilled, this is the essence of the sport, but it can apply to any sport–to any “healthy addition”–that involves teams, families, and communities. The deep breakdown occurs when the lines between sport and living are blurred, when the sport becomes identity, when “for the good of the team or club” trumps reason, common sense, and eventually what is good and moral.

For these reasons, my mind could not accept BEARTOWN on the first two attempts, but I am grateful to my trusted friends for urging me forward. It turned out to be the best book I read this year.

You need not be a hockey fan (or even a sports fan) to enjoy BEARTOWN. It is a deeply woven, complex, family drama. The book is brutal, but redemption emerges from rock bottom, justice finds a way, the good of the “team” of the greater community triumphs.

“What can the sport give us? We devote our whole lives to it, and what can we hope to get, at best? A few moments…a few victories, a few seconds when we feel bigger than we really are, a few isolated opportunities to imagine that we’re…immortal. And it’s a lie. It really isn’t important…The only thing the sport gives us are moments. But what the hell is life…apart from moments?” p 109

Though the book takes place in Sweden, it could easily be anywhere in the US. The families, the troubles they face, and the situations of darkness and light are all of ours. If you are looking for a rich, challenging, and satisfying read, I cannot recommend BEARTOWN enough.

Even for traumatized hockey parents.

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Giveaway – Jennifer Chiaverini

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Publisher Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini illuminates the fascinating life of Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace—Lord Byron’s daughter, the world’s first computer programmer, and a woman whose exceptional contributions to science and technology have been too long unsung.

The only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the most brilliant, revered, and scandalous of the Romantic poets, Ada was destined for fame long before her birth. Estranged from Ada’s father, who was infamously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Ada’s mathematician mother is determined to save her only child from her perilous Byron heritage. Banishing fairy tales and make-believe from the nursery, Ada’s mother provides her daughter with a rigorous education grounded in mathematics and science. Any troubling spark of imagination—or worse yet, passion or poetry—is promptly extinguished. Or so her mother believes.

When Ada is introduced into London society as a highly eligible young heiress, she at last discovers the intellectual and social circles she has craved all her life. Little does she realize that her delightful new friendship with inventor Charles Babbage—brilliant, charming, and occasionally curmudgeonly—will shape her destiny. Intrigued by the prototype of his first calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and enthralled by the plans for his even more advanced Analytical Engine, Ada resolves to help Babbage realize his extraordinary vision, unique in her understanding of how his invention could transform the world. All the while, she passionately studies mathematics—ignoring skeptics who consider it an unusual, even unhealthy pursuit for a woman—falls in love, discovers the shocking secrets behind her parents’ estrangement, and comes to terms with the unquenchable fire of her imagination.

In Enchantress of NumbersNew York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini unveils the passions, dreams, and insatiable thirst for knowledge of a largely unheralded pioneer in computing—a young woman who stepped out of her father’s shadow to achieve her own laurels and champion the new technology that would shape the future.

***

ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS sounds like a gem, and Chiaverini will be visiting A Likely Story Bookstore in Sykesville, MD on December 10th to talk about this fascinating woman from history.

The publisher has offered one copy of the book for a giveaway. For a chance to win, simply comment below with your favorite Chiaverini novel or awesome woman from history, and share on social media. The winner will be selected on Friday, December 8th. Good luck!

Book Recommendation: THE CHILD FINDER

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“All she knew was that evil…was alchemy built on top of opportunity. Some went searching for it. Others just waited. Either way, it was bound to happen.” Rene Denfeld, THE CHILD FINDER

Publisher Synopsis:

“Where are you, Madison Culver? Flying with the angels, a silver speck on a wing? Are you dreaming, buried under snow? Or—is it possible—you are still alive?”

Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight-years-old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.

Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl, too.

As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?

Told in the alternating voices of Naomi and a deeply imaginative child, The Child Finder is a breathtaking, exquisitely rendered literary page-turner about redemption, the line between reality and memories and dreams, and the human capacity to survive.

My Recommendation:

Engrossing, beautifully written, devastating, and redemptive, THE CHILD FINDER is the story of a private investigator, Naomi, searching the woods and fields, mountains and city scapes for missing children as deeply as she is her own past. Told from her point of view and that of a missing child, their stories and histories are meticulously woven and culminate in a breath-taking climax.

Horrifying subjects are handled deftly, with an absence of graphic details, allowing the reader to persist with the search. Characters are full, round, and complex–even the antagonists.

Fans of literary suspense will not be able to put down THE CHILD FINDER. Though this is not historical fiction, I had to share my review here. It is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: THE OTHER ALCOTT

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“All these years, her family had humored her artistic aspirations: Father built her a tiny art studio off his office; Marmee let her draw on the walls of her bedroom; Louisa permitted her to illustrate Little Women. But May always suspected, deep down, they didn’t believe she was an artist, not in the same way that Louisa had always been considered one. Was it because Louisa suffered for her writing? Must one suffer for art? May certainly hoped not.” Elise Hooper, The Other Alcott

Publisher Synopsis:

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

Stylish, outgoing, creative, May Alcott grows up longing to experience the wide world beyond Concord, Massachusetts. While her sister Louisa crafts stories, May herself is a talented and dedicated artist, taking lessons in Boston, turning down a marriage proposal from a well-off suitor, and facing scorn for entering what is very much a man’s profession.

Life for the Alcott family has never been easy, so when Louisa’s Little Women is published, its success eases the financial burdens they’d faced for so many years. Everyone agrees the novel is charming, but May is struck to the core by the portrayal of selfish, spoiled “Amy March.” Is this what her beloved sister really thinks of her?

So May embarks on a quest to discover her own true identity, as an artist and a woman. From Boston to Rome, London, and Paris, this brave, talented, and determined woman forges an amazing life of her own, making her so much more than merely “The Other Alcott.”

My Recommendation: 

This is the second novel of May Alcott I have read, and I enjoyed this every bit as much as the other. Both stories focus on different aspects of May, highlighting times and places in unique ways, with THE OTHER ALCOTT giving special attention to the relationship between the sisters: May and Louisa.

Hooper has done a marvelous job showing a flawed character who is a delight, even when she stumbles. Like Jane Austen’s Emma, May is charming and her struggles are relatable. Her need to carve an identity of her own is palpable and drives her brilliant arc as an artist and a woman.

Lovers of history will be intrigued by the sketches of figures both well known and unknown, and Hooper gives just enough detail to enhance the story without overburdening it. I spent hours online looking up the supporting and leading characters of the novel, and was fascinated by the talented men and women in the Alcotts’ lives.

If you enjoy biographical historical fiction about women that spans the globe, you will enjoy THE OTHER ALCOTT. This is Hooper’s debut, and I am eager to hear what she’s working on next.

For more on the book or the author, visit: http://www.elisehooper.com/

 

 

Book Cover Contest

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News!

  • I have a new book releasing in the fall called #HOCKEYSTRONG. It’s a satire about sports parents insanity. (We all know those parents–never ourselves, of course.) 😉
  • #HOCKEYSTRONG will NOT appeal to my historical fiction fans.
  • It will appeal to people who enjoyed THE NANNY DIARIES, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE, or TV and film like BEST IN SHOW, DADDY’S HOME, BAD MOMS, and THE OFFICE.
  • I’m writing satire as “E. Robuck” instead of “Erika Robuck”–a subtle distinction.
  • I’m still actively writing historical fiction.

Contest:

  • Designer extraordinaire, Eric Wilder, came up with three cover concepts, and I want my readers to choose their favorite. (Synopsis below.)
  • Voting will automatically enter you to win a copy of the book.
  • Feel free to share on social media.
  • Voting closes at noon on Friday, August 11th.

Synopsis:

If you fail at Pee-Wee Hockey, you fail at life. Right?

Charlie and Kate Miller are involved, supportive parents who have always loved to watch their little athlete play. Until now.

When their son Brett makes a competitive U12 ice hockey team, they have no idea how fully it will engulf their lives. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that to the dad-coach and parents around them youth hockey isn’t just for fun—it’s a way of life.

While the Millers attempt to keep perspective, they slowly find themselves spending endless hours of idle time at the rink, jockeying for the affections of a sadistic coach, keeping up on social media, and interacting with parents—including Real Housewives-like Justin and Piper and super-spirited team parents Bill and Tina—whose shared life goal seems to be Pee Wee Hockey immortality.

Irreverent and acerbic, #Hockeystrong explores the culture of youth sports, suburban politics, and parents behaving very, very badly.

So, which cover is your favorite? A, B, or C?