Book Recommendation: A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

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“Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class–and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to that hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” Amor Towles, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Publisher Synopsis:

He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

My Recommendation:

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW is a novel I’ve approached and retreated from several times since its release years ago because I had to be in the right frame of mind (not writing my own first draft), free from a certain measure of distraction (not around my children), and finished reading the pile of research books on my desk. These circumstances of perfection were achieved last week, on my 20th anniversary getaway with my husband, and afforded the book the level of attention I sensed it deserved. The verdict: I loved it so much, it has now dethroned A. S. Byatt’s POSSESSION as my favorite novel by a contemporary author.

Count Alexander Rostov is a rare gem: a man of considerable intelligence, charm and absurdity, combined with the most endearing quality of all: a sense of humor about one’s self and one’s circumstances. Sentencing him to house (hotel) arrest just before his thirty-third birthday, the system that hopes to confine him to a cage ends up opening newer and deeper interior worlds and lives to which he would have had no such access had he been allowed to continue as an aristocrat.

The Count–and the reader–begin amid claustrophobic circumstances that unfold, over time, like the opening of a peacock’s tail. Like a fine cocktail, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW must be savored. The descriptions of food and drink in the novel are particularly enticing, revealing not only character but providing an absorbing sensory experience. From the snip of a pair of scissors, to the tearing of the seat of his pants, to a thimble game of hide and seek, a pageantry of friendships, rivalries, love, heartbreak, and joy play out in the small world of the Metropol.

For a man who has been taught from a young age that if he does not master his own circumstances he will be mastered by them, the Count has to learn the lesson over and over, and often in surprising and delightful ways. In the story, it is mutability–the change we face from the passage of time–that the reader will find most relatable. The truths revealed through the characters that come and go, and come and go again, in the Count’s life are a reflection of all our lives.

I did not expect to be as moved as I was by the book; that is, I did not expect to sob for the last fifty pages (my husband teasing me while I used a beach towel to blot my eyes), nor did I expect such heights of beauty and redemption. When the reader closes the last page, she’ll need to fight the urge to stand, clap, and shout ‘Bravo!”

I struggle to find a good comparison for this novel in my recommendation. The best I can do is to say that if you enjoy a combination of Downton Abbey and Dostoyevsky, you will love A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW.  I give it my highest recommendation, and it is the best novel I’ve read in years.

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Book Recommendation and Giveaway: THE POISON THREAD

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“The victim–the sole victim, as far as the police are concerned–was a young woman whom Ruth had known for years. A pretty thing, married, not yet a mother. The body was in a dreadfully emaciated state, yet the insides were undamaged, as if supernaturally preserved. Ruth held a trusted position in the household, I have learnt, even nursing the dying woman in her illness, all the while nursing a secret in her bosom, a black serpent twisting around her vital organs.” Laura Purcell, THE POISON THREAD

Publisher Synopsis:

A thrilling Victorian gothic horror tale about a young seamstress who claims her needle and thread have the power to kill…

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy, and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor, and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work brings her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted by the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets one of the prisoners, the teenaged seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another strange idea: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread–because Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations–of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses–will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer? The Poison Thread is a spine-tingling, sinister read about the evil that lurks behind the facade of innocence.

My Recommendation:

From the outset of THE POISON THREAD, the reader is plunged into a world where the condemned prisoner is sympathetic, the visitor’s motives are suspect, and all is not as it seems. Though there are flashes of humor and absurdity to relieve the tension, prepare to go down a dark tunnel of tragedy and intrigue.

Purcell’s Dickensian settings, meticulous revelation of detail, and vivid writing bring a gray, long-ago time into searing color, making for a fine, frightening blend. I couldn’t get enough of either point of view character, and was at turns surprised, delighted, and horrified (many times over) by the twists of fate and fury experienced by each.

Fans of ALIAS GRACE will love THE POISON THREAD, but a word of warning: this novel is not for the faint of heart.

I have a copy to give away. To enter, simply comment below with your favorite work of gothic (or other) horror, and/or share on social media by Friday, June 21, noon ET. (US readers only, please.)

Book Recommendation: D-DAY GIRLS

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“On Baker Street, at No. 64, a government office was hiding in plain sight of heady wartime London, operating under a false name: Inter Services Research Bureau, or ISRB…It was special. It was secret. It fell outside the ordinary command structure of both the Civil Service and the military, answerable only to the war’s most senior planners. With Europe in the balance, this shadow organization was staffing up for the battle that would end the war.” ~Sarah Rose, D-DAY GIRLS: THE SPIES WHO ARMED THE RESISTANCE, SABOTAGED THE NAZIS, AND HELPED WIN WORLD WAR II

Publisher Synopsis:

The dramatic, untold true story of the extraordinary women recruited by Britain’s elite spy agency to help pave the way for Allied victory in World War II.

In 1942, the Allies were losing, Germany seemed unstoppable, and every able man in England was on the front lines. To “set Europe ablaze,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was forced to do something unprecedented: recruit women as spies. Thirty-nine answered the call, leaving their lives and families to become saboteurs in France.

In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently de­classified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the thrilling story of three of these remarkable women. There’s Andrée Borrel, a scrappy and streetwise Parisian who blew up power lines with the Gestapo hot on her heels; Odette Sansom, an unhappily married suburban mother who saw the SOE as her ticket out of domestic life and into a meaningful adventure; and Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent member of French colonial high society and the SOE’s unflap­pable “queen.” Together, they destroyed train lines, ambushed Nazis, plotted prison breaks, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war.

Rigorously researched and written with razor-sharp wit, D-Day Girls is an inspiring story for our own moment of resistance: a reminder of what courage—and the energy of politically animated women—can accomplish when the stakes seem incalculably high.

My Recommendation:

D-DAY GIRLS, by Sarah Rose, represents the finest in narrative nonfiction. It’s as if Rose assigns the reader a mission, parachutes her from an airplane into Occupied France, gives her a bicycle, and fires a gun. It’s a marathon with an ever changing finish line, where runners are constantly getting yanked from the race, some never to return.

And it’s all true.

(I know it’s true. I’ve been researching the SOE and its agents for two years. I hope to tell you more about that soon.)

At turns sympathetic, relatable, inspiring, horrifying, and disastrous, the characters (real people!) and their decisions in wartime France contribute to the book’s compulsive readability. When you finish, you’ll head straight to the internet seeking more information about these people of tremendous courage, fire, and, at times, recklessness and treachery. Devoured in three nights, D-DAY GIRLS made me laugh, gasp, cry, and rage at the evil those diabolical Nazis unleashed on the world.

The question I can’t stop pondering: Could I have risked and suffered what these people risked and suffered in the name of stopping evil? Could I run into a burning building to rescue even just one innocent, or thwart plans for greater fires, knowing it was likely I would not make it out alive?

I still can’t answer that.

Thank God for those who did and still do.

If you are fan of books like UNBROKEN or DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, I highly recommend D-DAY GIRLS.

 

Book Recommendation & Giveaway: MEET ME IN MONACO

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“Each scent holds a mystery, its own story. That was the first lesson Papa taught me. ‘To be a parfumeur is to be a detective.‘” Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, MEET ME IN MONACO

Publisher Synopsis:

Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s whirlwind romance and unforgettable wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco, New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb take the reader on an evocative sun-drenched journey along the Côte d’Azur in this page-turning novel of passion, fate and second chances…

Movie stars and paparazzi flock to Cannes for the glamorous film festival, but Grace Kelly, the biggest star of all, wants only to escape from the flash-bulbs. When struggling perfumer Sophie Duval shelters Miss Kelly in her boutique to fend off a persistent British press photographer, James Henderson, a bond is forged between the two women and sets in motion a chain of events that stretches across thirty years of friendship, love, and tragedy.

James Henderson cannot forget his brief encounter with Sophie Duval. Despite his guilt at being away from his daughter, he takes an assignment to cover the wedding of the century, sailing with Grace Kelly’s wedding party on the SS Constitution from New York. In Monaco, as wedding fever soars and passions and tempers escalate, James and Sophie—like Princess Grace—must ultimately decide what they are prepared to give up for love.

My Recommendation:

Like their wonderful collaboration LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have again crafted a spellbinding historical romance. Set largely on the lush Cote d’Azur, MEET ME IN MONACO is a tale of first, missed, and second chances–of relatable women and men trying to make good lives for themselves in spite of difficult circumstances. It is a fairy tale set in post-war Europe, with an enchanting, fascinating fairy godmother: Grace Kelly.

This novel about parfumeur, Sophie Duval, has a clever arrangement, with Part One:  Head Notes (first impressions), Part Two: Heart Notes (falling in love), and Part Three: Base Notes (denouvement). Like a flower unfurling, a closed off Sophie begins to open herself to life and love. The quiet, gentle creation process she uses in crafting the perfect scent for the royal bride-to-be perfectly balances the paparazzi-laden frenzy preceding the wedding of Prince Ranier III to American Hollywood star, Grace Kelly.

It’s the kind of book the reader will devour in a few sittings. It’s a novel where a woman navigates her own business empire while a man wrestles with guilt over leaving his child. It’s a story that will send one scouring the internet archives for photographs, and the ending is unexpected yet satisfying.

MEET ME IN MONACO will not be released until July, but I have been given permission to give away my Advanced Reader’s Edition. To enter the giveaway, simply comment about the Royal Wedding that has most fascinated you, and either share the giveaway on social media or tag a friend in the comments (here, or on Facebook/Instagram) by Thursday, April 4th at 11:00 AM ETBonne chance! 

Book Recommendation: LEARNING TO SEE

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“I lean over to open a drawer and retrieve a file. California, 1936. Black-and-white photographs spill out across my worktable. Faces of men, women, and children. All as dry, dingy, and cracked as the land in the background. I glance at the other folder tabs. New Mexico, 1935. Texas, 1938. Arkansas, 1938. Arizona, 1940. I’ve visited many states, taken thousands of photographs. They gave a face to the masses struggling to make ends meet. They started conversations. Few would argue that my work wasn’t important and useful. And while I don’t regret my choices, I’m saddened that I’ve hurt people dear to me. Can I find peace with the sacrifices I made?” ~Elise Cooper, LEARNING TO SEE

Publisher Synopsis:

In 1918, a fearless twenty-two-year old arrives in bohemian San Francisco from the Northeast, determined to make her own way as an independent woman. Renaming herself Dorothea Lange she is soon the celebrated owner of the city’s most prestigious and stylish portrait studio and wife of the talented but volatile painter, Maynard Dixon.

By the early 1930s, as America’s economy collapses, her marriage founders and Dorothea must find ways to support her two young sons single-handedly. Determined to expose the horrific conditions of the nation’s poor, she takes to the road with her camera, creating images that inspire, reform, and define the era. And when the United States enters World War II, Dorothea chooses to confront another injustice—the incarceration of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans.

At a time when women were supposed to keep the home fires burning, Dorothea Lange, creator of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, dares to be different. But her choices came at a steep price…

My Recommendation:

Elise Hooper is a writer whose talents at clarity and empathy bring out the humanity of her historical subjects. Like her debut novel, THE OTHER ALCOTT, Hooper’s LEARNING TO SEE is an intimate portrait of one of history’s great, shadowed, female artists, photographer Dorothea Lange.

Most readers will be able to draw to mind the iconic Depression-era image of the poor, exhausted mother–gaze toward an uncertain future–flanked by dirty children. LEARNING TO SEE tells the journey of the woman who captured that image and hundreds like it. We see a girl of courage and spunk become a life-hardened woman of integrity and fire. The images Lange captures through her lens inform her growth, her choices, and the American public.

Hooper deftly balances the fascinating historical fabric of the novel with the personal life of its complicated protagonist. What results is a vivid and deep story that will send the reader to the internet seeking more.

Fans of Dawn Tripp’s GEORGIA and Depression to WWII-era historical fiction will be enthralled by Elise Hooper’s LEARNING TO SEE. I give it my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: THE BLUE

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“A brilliant blue butterfly, stuck with a pin, stares back at us, wings frozen mid-flight…’Remember, blue is the rarest color on earth. This is one of the few living creatures the color exists on…’ The light from the nearby window reflects off the delicate blue of the creature’s wings…The butterfly is faceless, sightless. It does not seem possible that it ever lived. At that moment I do not feel that I’ve agreed to a spying-for-money scheme but something finer, something extraordinary. The quest for blue.” Nancy Bilyeau, THE BLUE

Publisher Synopsis:

In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities; fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.

For Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, porcelain holds far less allure; she wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London. If only she could reach Venice.

When Genevieve meets the charming Sir Gabriel Courtenay, he offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse; if she learns the secrets of porcelain, he will send her to Venice. But in particular, she must learn the secrets of the color blue…

The ensuing events take Genevieve deep into England’s emerging industrial heartlands, where not only does she learn about porcelain, but also about the art of industrial espionage.

With the heart and spirit of her Huguenot ancestors, Genevieve faces her challenges head on, but how much is she willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of the color blue?

My Recommendation:

Is there any reading more enjoyable than historical mystery that blends fact and fiction, and sends one straight to the internet seeking images to illuminate the already colorful prose between its pages? There is not, and THE BLUE, by Nancy Bilyeau, is just that kind of read.

Set in eighteenth century Europe, THE BLUE tells a fascinating and informative tale of hedonism, power, and how corrupt we mortals can become for our shiny objects and idols. The characters are spirited and flawed–there’s not a perfectly good egg in the bunch–but that makes them all the more relatable and memorable. The protagonist Genevieve is a gem whose missteps endear her to the reader, and the antagonist is captivating and complicated. Even the cover of the book needs mentioning: it’s exquisite. My preciousssss… 

Nancy Bilyeau writes books the reader may buy on release without knowing a thing about but may be certain will be worth the time and investment. THE BLUE is no exception. I was in a severe reading drought but THE BLUE ended it. I give it my highest recommendation.

Have you read any of Nancy Bilyeau’s other novels? Which is your favorite? 

 

Best Books of 2018

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Here is my much agonized over list of the best historical novels of 2018. Some of the books were not published in 2018, 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. I WAS ANASTASIA, by Ariel Lawhon
  2. WHERE THE WILD CHERRIES GROW, by Laura Madeleine
  3. THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER, by Kate Morton
  4. LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
  5. FROM SAND AND ASH, by Amy Harmon

What were your favorites of 2018?