Book Recommendation: THE ECLIPTIC

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If you construct a room in paint, you haunt it. Your life rests in every stroke. So paint only the rooms that you can bear to occupy forever. Or paint the stars instead.” Benjamin Wood, THE ECLIPTIC

Publisher Synopsis:

On a forested island off the coast of Istanbul stands Portmantle, a gated refuge for beleaguered artists. There, a curious assembly of painters, architects, writers and musicians strive to restore their faded talents.

Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy is a celebrated painter who has lost faith in her ability and fled the dizzying art scene of 1960s London. On the island, she spends her nights locked in her blacked-out studio, testing a strange new pigment for her elusive masterpiece.

But when a disaffected teenager named Fullerton arrives at the refuge, he disrupts its established routines. He is plagued by a recurring nightmare that steers him into danger, and Knell is left to pick apart the chilling mystery. Where did the boy come from, what is ‘The Ecliptic’, and how does it relate to their abandoned lives in England?

My Recommendation: 

When a star dies it swells to a shimmering mass, collapses in on itself, and eventually bursts outward. That is an apt metaphor for my brain while reading THE ECLIPTIC.

Mind. Blown.

I hate to build up a book so much, but I must make an exception for this novel.

The characters: highly sympathetic and unique. You will want to spend time with them, will want to learn about their pasts, and will wish them well in their futures. If you are a creative person of any sort, read with a highlighter; you will find yourself nodding your head along with the descriptions of the processes, the cycles, the cost of the vocation. If you are not creative, you will be eager to unravel the psychology of what brought the artists to Portmantle, and how their lives are connected.

THE ECLIPTIC is a novel for book clubs. It requires thought and begs to be discussed. I suspect many will want to reread it once it’s finished, myself included. Full of insights, at times frightening, and artfully rendered, Wood has written a modern masterpiece destined to become a classic.

I should note that I was in a five-book reading slump before beginning THE ECLIPTIC, and I now have such a serious book hangover, I might need to take a break before I start anything new.

Here is a link to the book trailer. Are you intrigued? The novel releases on May 3rd.

Book Recommendation: JANE STEELE

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“Some memoirs explain social hierarchies by means of illustrative anecdotes, but mine is about homicide, not ladies’ schools.” Lindsay Faye, JANE STEELE

Publisher Synopsis:

“Reader, I murdered him.”

A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement.  Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess.

Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognito, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents—the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sardar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend. As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past?

A satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies, by a writer who Matthew Pearl calls “superstar-caliber” and whose previous works Gillian Flynn declared “spectacular,” Jane Steele is a brilliant and deeply absorbing book inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre.

My Recommendation:

I’m on a Brontë roll: two books featuring Bronte classics that are unique, absorbing, and compulsively, obsessively readable. Last week I featured THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS; this week: JANE STEELE.

And Steele she is.

This Jane is no creature of “air”; she has the heart and courage of a lion, a penchant for brutal justice, and enough vulnerability of person and circumstance to make her extremely likable. The characters and plot from JANE EYRE are magnificently reimagined in JANE STEELE in diverse and colorful ways, and this time our protagonist and the object of her affection are true heroes, each deserving of good fortune and good ends.

JANE STEELE is faithful to JANE EYRE in some ways, but makes a new creation of it in others. Blood is shed, but not (overly) grotesquely so. Romance is explored, but never delves into the saccharine. When the reader thinks she knows the story; she does not.

In short, fans of historical suspense, strong heroines, and yes, JANE EYRE, will find much to love about JANE STEELE. The novel is deserving of all the buzz it has received, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Are you a fan of JANE EYRE, or do you prefer the darker backstory imagined in WIDE SARGASSO SEA? Either way, read JANE STEELE. I’d love to hear what you think. 

Book Recommendation: THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS

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“He didn’t answer, and I thought he might be thinking of how best to fire me from school. I had written this essay at four in the morning, when I had given the finger to thinking up a legitimate argument. Orville had asked me to analyze the use of windows in a novel that had nothing to do with windows. I decided to argue that windows were not windows at all; they were all that separated the savage moorland from the civilized home, Thrushcross Grange from Wuthering Heights, even Cathy from her own self-constructed identities…It was a bullshit parade, and I was the proud mayor. I used the phrases Jungian realism and linear archetypes, and congratulated myself on achieving a level of douchebaggery I had previously only witnessed in shampoo commercials for men.” Catherine Lowell, THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS

Publisher Synopsis:

In Catherine Lowell’s smart and original debut novel—hailed by Deborah Harkness as a “charming and memorable read”—the last remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt, using only the clues her eccentric father left behind, and the Brontës’ own novels.

Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family—a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from her past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by repurposing the tools of literature and decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own novels.

A fast-paced adventure from start to finish for readers who devoured The Weird Sisters and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Madwoman Upstairs is a moving exploration of what happens when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

My Recommendation:

***We interrupt our regularly scheduled historical fiction recommendations for a contemporary novel.***

There are two reasons I decided to include THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS in this feed:

  1. Fans of the Brontë sisters’ novels will bask in the many references and correlations.
  2. It is just too good not to recommend.

Rarely is a narrative voice so charming, awkward, and hilarious as it is in THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS. I laughed out loud through the entire book. Samantha Whipple–Brontë descendant, Oxford student, grieving daughter–is delightfully inept in every possible way. She is all of us at our worst moments, and we root for her and feel for her because of it.

Though it’s hard to imagine, think of this novel as if it were a hilarious and more accessible version of Byatt’s POSSESSION. There is family drama, scholarship, conflict, and a dash of romance. Anglophiles rejoice: British humor, setting, and flavor are in full effect.

If you need a well written book that–in spite of serious themes–will lift your spirits, I cannot recommend THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS enough. I purposefully drew out the reading of this novel because I didn’t want it to end, and I’m sad every day that I can’t keep going. There is something in the book for everyone, and I will not only be a forever-fan of Catherine Lowell, but I will hand-sell THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS everywhere I go.

Have you read it? What do you think? What is your favorite British humor novel or film?

Giveaway: SISI: EMPRESS ON HER OWN

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Publisher Synopsis:

For readers of Philippa Gregory, Paula McLain, and Daisy Goodwin comes a sweeping and powerful novel by New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki. Sisi tells the little-known story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, the Princess Diana of her time, in an enthralling work of historical fiction that is also a gripping page-turner.

Married to Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth—fondly known as Sisi—captures the hearts of her people as their “fairy queen,” but beneath that dazzling persona lives a far more complex figure. In mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, the halls of the Hofburg Palace buzz not only with imperial waltzes and champagne but with temptations, rivals, and cutthroat intrigue. Feeling stifled by strict protocols and a turbulent marriage, Sisi grows restless. A free-spirited wanderer, she finds solace at her estate outside Budapest. There she rides her beloved horses and enjoys visits from the Hungarian statesman Count Andrássy, the man with whom she’s unwittingly fallen in love. But tragic news brings Sisi out of her fragile seclusion, forcing her to return to her capital and a world of gossip, envy, and sorrow where a dangerous fate lurks in the shadows.

Through love affairs and loss, dedication and defiance, Sisi struggles against conflicting desires: to keep her family together, or to flee amid the collapse of her suffocating marriage and the gathering tumult of the First World War. In an age of crumbling monarchies, Sisi fights to assert her right to the throne beside her husband, to win the love of her people and the world, and to save an empire. But in the end, can she save herself?

Featuring larger-than-life historic figures such as Bavaria’s “Mad King Ludwig” and the tragic Crown Prince Rudolf, and set against many of Europe’s grandest sites—from Germany’s storied Neuschwanstein Castle to England’s lush shires—Sisi brings to life an extraordinary woman and the romantic, volatile era over which she presided.

My Recommendation:

Allison Pataki is one of my favorite historical novelists. Her attention to period detail, her rich prose, and the fascinating figures from history she brings to life stay with the reader and continue to get better and better. SISI: EMPRESS ON HER OWN is my favorite so far. I was fortunate enough to receive an early copy for review, and offered this endorsement:

“From luscious moonlit gardens to sumptuous castles, the settings of SISI: EMPRESS ON HER OWN are as dazzling as those of Vienna’s Imperial Court Theater, and the drama enacted on its pages is no less impressive. Pataki resurrects the unforgettable Empress Elisabeth in a rich and exquisite tragedy of passion and heartbreak—a true tour de force.”

At Allison’s launch party, she discussed how her travels led her to Sisi, and that it was as if they had been on a journey together in the writing of the books. She also talked about the power of fiction to reveal the ways individuals impact the outcome of history, and to inspire readers to understand their importance in the world.

I have one copy to give away to a lucky commenter below. Please tell me your favorite historical fiction author, or your favorite of Allison’s novels. Leave your comment by Monday, March 14th at 5 PM EST, and please share on social media. (US only.)

Book Recommendation: BLACK RABBIT HALL

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“Black Rabbit Hall is not a house that lends itself to ‘getting on.’ any more than it does phone calls…It unfolds at its own pace, its corridors, anterooms, and the repeated pauses of its views fostering a dreamy kind of lingering, an openness to getting lost. Is this because it was build for the leisured class, she wonders, or something else?” Eve Chase, BLACK RABBIT HALL

Publisher Synopsis:

For fans of Kate Morton and Sarah Waters, here’s a magnetic debut novel of wrenching family secrets, forbidden love, and heartbreaking loss housed within the grand gothic manor of Black Rabbit Hall.

Ghosts are everywhere, not just the ghost of Momma in the woods, but ghosts of us too, what we used to be like in those long summers . . .

Amber Alton knows that the hours pass differently at Black Rabbit Hall, her London family’s country estate, where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless. Not much ever happens. Until, of course, it does.

More than three decades later, Lorna is determined to be married within the grand, ivy-covered walls of Pencraw Hall, known as Black Rabbit Hall among the locals. But as she’s drawn deeper into the overgrown grounds, half-buried memories of her mother begin to surface and Lorna soon finds herself ensnared within the manor’s labyrinthine history, overcome with an insatiable need for answers about her own past and that of the once-happy family whose memory still haunts the estate.

Stunning and atmospheric, this debut novel is a thrilling spiral into the hearts of two women separated by decades but inescapably linked by the dark and tangled secrets of Black Rabbit Hall.

My Recommendation:

Rebecca, Little Stranger, The Distant Hours

Gothic, romantic, house-centered fiction laden with family secrets is a favorite of mine. I enjoy nothing more than cozying up with a multi-period mystery, set in an unforgettable estate, peopled with men and women brought together by blood and circumstance.

Black Rabbit Hall is a welcome addition to the genre. I could see the action as if I were watching a film. The prose is elegant, the plot kept me reading late into the night, and though the story is heartbreaking, redemption comes. Prepare to be drawn to, beguiled by, and to fall in love with Chase’s moody, fascinating characters.

Fans of multi-period mystery set on crumbling British country estates will devour Black Rabbit Hall. 

What is your favorite novel in the genre?

Giveaway: AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER

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Publisher Synopsis:

In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

My Recommendation:

I loved AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER so much, I provided this blurb:

“AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER is the story of a generation caught between the past and the future of a nation, and illuminates how the actions of one woman managed to sustain a family in spite of the consequences of both privilege and poverty. Not since GONE WITH THE WIND has a single volume family saga so brilliantly portrayed the triumphs, trials, and sins of a family in the American South.”

This is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read, and I have a copy to give away to one lucky reader. Please comment below by Wednesday, March 9th at 9 PM ET about your favorite epic historical drama, or why you are interested in this period in American history to win, and please share on social media. (US only, please.) Good luck!

Oscar Night Giveaway: STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD

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Publisher Synopsis:

Los Angeles, Present Day. When an iconic hat worn by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind  ends up in Christine McAllister’s vintage clothing boutique by mistake, her efforts to return it to its owner take her on a journey more enchanting than any classic movie…

Los Angeles, 1938.  Violet Mayfield sets out to reinvent herself in Hollywood after her  dream of becoming a wife and mother falls apart, and lands a job on the film-set of Gone With the Wind. There, she meets enigmatic Audrey Duvall, a once-rising film star who is now a fellow secretary. Audrey’s zest for life and their adventures together among Hollywood’s glitterati enthrall Violet…until each woman’s deepest desires collide.  What Audrey and Violet are willing to risk, for themselves and for each other, to ensure their own happy endings will shape their friendship, and their lives, far into the future.

Giveaway:

In 1940, GONE WITH THE WIND swept the Oscars. (The Oscar statuette–purchased by the late Michael Jackson–is still in the news because it has “gone” missing.) I would love a behind the scenes glimpse of the drama that went into making one of the most beloved (and controversial) films of all time.

Susan Meissner‘s moving novels have made me a long-time fan, and STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD is high on my TBR pile. I have one copy to give away to a lucky commenter below. Please tell me your favorite Meissner novel, or who you want to see win an Oscar in 2016. Please share on social media and enter by 9 PM ET on Wednesday, March 2nd. (US and Canada only.) Good Luck!