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?

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Book Recommendation: THE MOON IS DOWN

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“[H]e had been in Belgium and France twenty years before and he tried not to think what he knew–that war is treachery and hatred, the muddling of incompetent generals, the torture and killing and sickness and tiredness, until at last it is over and nothing has changed except for new weariness and new hatreds…This one will be different, he said to himself fifty times a day…” John Steinbeck, THE MOON IS DOWN

Long stretches are running between book recommendations on this site. It’s not because I haven’t been reading; on the contrary, I am devouring endless books, but it’s all research for my work in progress. The time is nearing when I’ll reveal more, but for now I can only say I stumbled across mention of THE MOON IS DOWN (which I’d never before heard of) when seeking books on the psychology of those in war.

THE MOON IS DOWN, by John Steinbeck, was written as war propaganda. He was involved in WWII intelligence organizations, and wanted to know what he could do to help. He was asked to do what he did well: to write. What emerged is this spare, fine, character study of both the conquerors and the conquered in an invaded town. Steinbeck never names it, but one can assume it’s somewhere in France, taken by the Nazis.

Over a short span of time, Steinbeck brilliantly captures the subtle transition of the conquerors’ confident mentality to one of suspicion and cruelty, while showing the cracks even small acts of resistance infuse into their foundation. These small acts inspire larger and–when the time comes for great sacrifice–the blood of the martyrs portents the victory of good over evil.

While many praised his novella, I was interested to find out Steinbeck faced severe backlash for portraying the Germans as complex men rather than “boot-clicking Hun” machines. Though he defended his work he was bruised by the criticism, and the book quietly fell to the bottom of the Steinbeck stacks, where it continues to gather dust.

But THE MOON IS DOWN certainly served to help the resistance effort in Europe. Clandestine presses from Denmark to France to Italy got ahold of it, printed and distributed it, and used the money to fund resistance efforts. It was a great psychological boon to those who read it seeking courage in the face of terror.

THE MOON IS DOWN can be read in a single sitting and packs an emotional punch. It’s clear and precise, and can be enjoyed by readers of all genres. One need not be a Steinbeck scholar or aficionado of historical fiction to appreciate it. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER

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“As he looked at her, and she looked at the house, something in the way the leaves of the maple caught the sun and illuminated the woman beneath it made his heart ache and expand and he realized that he wanted to tell her, too, that by some strange twist it was the very meaninglessness of life that made it all so beautiful and rare and wonderful. That for all its savagery–because of its savagery–war had brightened every color. That without the darkness one would never notice the stars.” Kate Morton, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER

Publisher Synopsis:

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor in rural Berkshire. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing a drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.

Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?

Told by multiple voices across time, The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss. And flowing through its pages like a river, is the voice of a woman who stands outside time, whose name has been forgotten by history, but who has watched it all unfold…

My Recommendation:

A ‘book hangover’ is a condition resulting in an inability to begin a new book because one is so absorbed by the last. THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER has given me a terrible case, and I don’t see an end in sight.

Kate Morton is the master of the multi-period mystery. Every time I pick up one of her novels, I’m eager to see if she’ll be able to weave her magic, and every time she succeeds. Morton knows her characters so intimately, the reader is safe in her capable hands to explore the mazes of time and place without getting lost. It is her deep empathy for the human condition that allows her to create such full, memorable worlds.

In THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER, each time I thought I found my favorite storyline, the next section would come and I’d think I’d again found it. Over and over this went, until the sad moment when I reached the last page. I did not want the book to end, and that is saying a lot for a nearly five-hundred page novel.

From fans of historical fiction to multi-period drama to mystery, Kate Morton’s novels are for book lovers of all genres. I caution you, however: THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER is so absorbing, you’ll get very little done once you start. Even with that word of warning and in spite of the fact that it will leave you with a book hangover, I give THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER my highest recommendation.

 

 

 

 

Book Recommendation: CODE NAME VERITY

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“I AM A COWARD…After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you everything you ask, everything I can remember Absolutely Every Last Detail…Von Linden has said I have two weeks and that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort…I’m just damned. I am utterly and completely damned. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do, because that’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. After I write this confession, if you don’t shoot me and I ever make it home, I’ll be tried and shot as a collaborator anyway. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and this is the easy one, the obvious one…The others are too frightening to even look down.”

Elizabeth Wein, CODE NAME VERITY

Publisher Synopsis:

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

My Recommendation:

I found CODE NAME VERITY at the library with a yellow post-it note inside that said:

“THIS IS AN AMAZING BOOK!!”

I was so tickled by the note, I prepared myself for an absorbing war story told in an engaging way that must have a delightful ending–something along the lines of THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY.

CODE NAME VERITY is absorbing and engaging in every way.

It is also GUT-WRENCHING.

I was sick over it for days. Absolutely destroyed.

I walked around in a daze for a week and only just yesterday–after skim-rereading the novel–was able to acknowledge its absolute brilliance enough to be able to write this somewhat spoiler-y, half-coherent recommendation.

To prepare the next reader, I have added “Yes, but also GUT-WRENCHING!!” to the post it-note. It was my duty.

I give the book my highest recommendation.

Have you read CODE NAME VERITY? If so, I’d love your thoughts. I need to talk to someone. I’ll never get over it. If you haven’t, will you dare? 

Book Recommendation: SO MUCH LIFE LEFT OVER

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“[They] suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel immensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death. Neither of them missed the killing…but still they yearned for the passionate oblivion of the hunt.” Louis de Bernieres, SO MUCH LIFE LEFT OVER

Publisher Synopsis:

They were an inseparable tribe of childhood friends. Some were lost to the battles of the First World War, and those who survived have had their lives unimaginably upended. Now, at the dawn of the 1920s, they’ve scattered: to Ceylon and India, France and Germany, and, inevitably, back to Britain, each of them trying to answer the question that fuels this sweeping novel: If you have been embroiled in a war in which you confidently expected to die, what are you supposed to do with so much life unexpectedly left over? 

The narrative unfolds in brief, dramatic chapters, and we follow these old friends over the decades as their paths re-cross or their ties fray, as they test loyalties and love, face survivor’s grief and guilt, and adjust in profound and quotidian ways to this newest modern world.

At the center are Daniel, an RAF flying ace, and Rosie, a wartime nurse. As their marriage is slowly revealed to be built on lies, Daniel finds solace—and, sometimes, family—with other women, and Rosie draws her religion around herself like a carapace. Here too are Rosie’s sisters—a bohemian, a minister’s wife, and a spinster, each seeking purpose and happiness in her own unconventional way; Daniel’s military brother, unable to find his footing in a peaceful world; and Rosie’s “increasingly peculiar” mother and her genial, shockingly secretive father. The tenuous interwar peace begins to shatter, and we watch as war once again reshapes the days and the lives of these beautifully drawn women and men.

My Recommendation:

Prepare for infatuation and heartbreak.

In SO MUCH LIFE LEFT OVER, the reader holds in her hands an entire world where she will become intimates of the men and women on the pages. These characters are both traumatized and cause trauma. They make awful decisions–from the small and foolish to the epically cataclysmic–and yet they are profoundly endearing because of their enormous capacities for love.

De Bernieres titles each chapter, making little stories of them. Narrators and points of view change, style and structure shift, settings and times switch, threads left open are later picked up, hearts are broken, mended, and broken again, and yet the reader is never left confused or unmoored because of the assured storytelling.

I was left a sobbing mess by SO MUCH LIFE LEFT OVER. If you love stories that consume you and leave you a little broken, I highly recommend it. This novel will win awards.

Have you read any of Louis de Bernieres other work? (This is my first.) Can you recommend which book of his I should read next? 

 

Book Recommendation: The Lake House

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“She made her way back quickly through the woods, careful to avoid the boathouse and its memories. Dawn was breaking as she reached the house; the rain was light. The lake’s water lapped at its banks and the last of the nightingales called farewell. The blackcaps and warblers were waking, and far in the distance a horse whinnied. She didn’t know it then, but she would never be rid of them, those sounds; they would follow her from this place, this time, invading her dreams and nightmares, reminding her always of what she had done.” ~Kate Morton, THE LAKE HOUSE

Publisher Synopsis:

Living on her family’s idyllic lakeside estate in Cornwall, England, Alice Edevane is a bright, inquisitive, and precociously talented sixteen-year-old who loves to write stories.

One midsummer’s eve, after a beautiful party drawing hundreds of guests to the estate has ended, the Edevanes discover that their youngest child, eleven-month-old Theo, has vanished without a trace. He is never found, and the family is torn apart, the house abandoned.

Decades later, Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a long successful career as a novelist. Miles away, Sadie Sparrow, a young detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. While out walking one day, she stumbles upon the old Edevane estate—now crumbling and covered with vines. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone…yet more present than ever.

My Recommendation:

Kate Morton has done it again. (And again. And again.) She manages to create nuanced, layered, multi-period mysteries with large casts of rich, sympathetic, memorable characters who haunt the reader long after the pages of the book are closed.

From past to present, THE LAKE HOUSE is lush and dark, enticing readers to enter each building, estate, and forest passage, following characters closely, watching over their shoulders, trying to unravel the mysteries of year and place along with them. Every character–no matter how difficult–is fully human and relatable in some way, making Time the true antagonist.

Unique to Morton’s stories are the way they engulf the consciousness. Through her spellbinding prose she hypnotizes the reader at each sitting. Whether one has ten minutes or an hour to read, it will be an immersive experience.

For those looking for escapist fiction, I highly recommend THE LAKE HOUSE, or any of Morton’s works.

Have you read it? What is your favorite Kate Morton novel? 

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE DANTE CHAMBER

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“[H]e began to believe there was something different about Dante…Not only the subject matter of the afterlife, which most writers were too wise to approach. Dante had done what so many writers could only imagine–turned poetry into a living power, and a living power was something no one could cage inside the covers of a book.” Matthew Pearl, THE DANTE CHAMBER

Publisher Synopsis:

Memories, fears, the fog of nightmares…

Five years after a series of Dante-inspired killings stunned Boston, a politician is found in a London park with his neck crushed by an enormous stone device etched with a verse from the Divine Comedy. When other shocking deaths erupt across the city, all in the style of the penances Dante memorialized in Purgatory, poet Christina Rossetti fears her missing brother, the artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti, will be the next victim.

The unwavering Christina enlists poets Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes to decipher the literary clues, and together these unlikely investigators unravel the secrets of Dante’s verses to find Gabriel and stop the killings. Racing between the shimmering mansions of the elite and the seedy corners of London’s underworld, they descend further into the mystery. But when the true inspiration behind the gruesome murders is finally revealed, Christina must confront a more profound terror than anyone had imagined.

A dazzling tale of intrigue from the writer Library Journal calls “the reigning king of popular literary historical thrillers,” The Dante Chamber is a riveting journey across London and into both the beauty and darkness of Dante. Expertly blending fact and fiction, Pearl gives us a historical mystery like no other that captivates and surprises until the last page.

My Recommendation:

Delicious, dark, and dreamy historical thrillers are Matthew Pearl’s specialty, and he again delivers with THE DANTE CHAMBER. Though it is preceded by THE DANTE CLUB, the book stands alone as a world contained.

The fascinating London literati of the mid-nineteenth century populate the pages, and are an utter delight because of their absurdity, their egos, and their unique views of the world. Christina Rossetti is the heart of the book, at once intimidating, otherworldly, and sympathetic. Tennyson, Browning, and Holmes come alive, each remarkable and strange, certain to inspire readers to revisit their works or learn more about them.

The mystery is unique and captivating. Readers will gain new insights into Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY, and the implications for how criminal or obsessive minds could corrupt its message. THE DANTE CHAMBER is not a simple read–it is layered, complex, and dense. I recommend it to readers who enjoy deep character development and rich explorations of time and art.

Have you read any of Matthew Pearl’s previous work? What is your favorite historical mystery?