Book Recommendation: The Underground Railroad

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“She smiled at Chester, and Lovey and the women from her cabin, with brevity and efficiency. Like when you see the shadow of a bird on the ground but look up and nothing’s there. She subsisted on rations, in everything. Caesar had never spoken to her but had this figured out about her. It was sensible: she knew the preciousness of what little she called her own.” Colson Whitehead, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Publisher Synopsis:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Recommendation: 

National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. Oprah’s Book Club. New York Times Bestseller.

Well deserved.

Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD starts with whispers, like murmuring voices around a campfire–let us tell you this story–and grows to a roar. The novel’s nucleus is Cora, a woman enslaved in Georgia, on the run literally and figuratively. Her inheritance is abandonment, but it is what she believes about her mother’s running so many years before that gives Cora the fuel and fire she needs for her own journey.

Whitehead’s unique use of an actual underground railroad is assured, convincing, and a perfect metaphor for the continual descent into darkness and rebirth at each stop. The brutality in this novel is swift–sucker punches, heartbreak over and over, chapters that require closing and mourning before moving on. I recommend allowing that space between sections, especially as one nears the end of the novel. It makes the book more of an experience and settles it deeply in the bones.

Though set in a distant past, the novel is not only relevant but arguably necessary to the discussion of contemporary issues of race in our country. Whitehead is never sentimental or didactic, and his exploration of what we carry from our ancestors is key if there is to be hope for reconciliation in the future.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD should be taught in literature programs, put on film and shown in theaters, and included in the American literary canon. If we carry a piece of the books we read with us forever, I am glad I now carry THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. I give Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: IF I COULD TELL YOU

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“Later, when Julia lay sleepless in the tiny back bedroom where Mattie had put her up, she understood for the first time that she had tried to pay for happiness with other people’s misery. This was how the gods punished you, she finally realized. They made you live with what you had done.” Elizabeth Wilhide, IF I COULD TELL YOU

Publisher Synopsis:

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale meets Anna Karenina, a vivid and captivating novel of love, war, and the resilience of one woman’s spirit. 

England, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well-ordered life. Once a promising pianist, she now has a handsome husband, a young son she adores, and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfortable home. Then, on the eve of war, a film crew arrives in her coastal town. She falls in love.

The consequences are devastating. Penniless, denied access to her son, and completely unequipped to fend for herself, she finds herself adrift in wartime London with her lover, documentary filmmaker Dougie Birdsall. While Dougie seeks truth wherever he can find it, Julia finds herself lost. As the German invasion looms and bombs rain down on the city, she faces a choice—succumb to her fate, or fight to forge a new identity in the heat of war.

My Recommendation:

The prose in this slender novel of infatuation and war is taut, riveting, and deliberate, even bordering the poetic. It is the beauty of the language that leads the reader forward as she so desperately wishes to hold back the characters. Like a horror novel, the reader can see the devastation spooling before the characters as they make one bad decision after another, but it is the brilliance with which Wilhide portrays global catastrophe in time with personal catastrophe that makes a true symphony of the work.

“Debussy was deceptive. The refusal of the harmonies to resolve, the blurred, sonorous bass notes, the layers of voices, masked precision, each sound occupying its own rightful place.” 

Julia is a pianist, and it is often at her keyboard (or steeped in craving in the absence of it) that she realizes existential truths. But her redemption is hard fought, and it takes losing everything–being forged in the very furnace of war–to gain back a morsel of it.

These are devastatingly real men and women making bad decisions, while somehow holding our sympathy or, at least, our attention. The writing, character development, themes and subjects are reminiscent of Hemingway. I give IF I COULD TELL YOU my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: THE VELVET HOURS

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“Old books contain a history that transcends the words inscribed within their pages. The paper, the ink, even the spacing of the words. They possess an ancient soul.” Alyson Richman, THE VELVET HOURS

Publisher Synopsis: 

From the international bestselling author of The Lost Wife and The Garden of Letters, comes a story—inspired by true events—of two women pursuing freedom and independence in Paris during WWII.

As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return. 

An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path.

Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved.

My Recommendation:

I know I can always count on Alyson Richman’s stories to have gorgeous prose, a compelling plot, and rich and fascinating subjects. Her latest novel, THE VELVET HOURS, both follows and elevates her pattern in what is her finest work to date.

Reading the pages of THE VELVET HOURS is like leafing through old letters or lifting old garments and artifacts from a trunk. Each piece holds such fascination, such history, it is worth lingering to gather their essence. Richman deftly makes a global narrative set in two wars into an intimate rendering of family and society. Her description of physical objects grounds the reader in the pages, and makes for a consuming sensory experience.

All of Richman’s characters are complicated and human. It is difficult to make a courtesan into a noble figure, but Richman does just that, and it is this courtesan–Marthe de Florian–who is the pulsing heart of the work. My only complaint is that the book ended. The story that follows the story is worthy of a novel, and I hope Richman picks up where she left off to give the reader more.

I feel as if I have been to the Parisian apartment-turned-time-capsule that inspired this novel, and I’d like to linger. If you enjoy beautifully written historical fiction, I highly recommend THE VELVET HOURS.

Have you read the book, or any of Richman’s previous novels? 

Book Recommendation: FATES AND TRAITORS

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“He had nowhere to go but into the arms of his vengeful enemies. Supporting his weight on the crutch, he made his way to the door, wincing as a shower of sparks flew too close before his face. The crutch slipped from beneath his outstretched arm as he reached for the latch, but he let it fall. He would face the soldiers standing, defiant and proud on his own two feet.” Jennifer Chiaverini, FATES AND TRAITORS

Publisher Synopsis:

The New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker returns with a riveting work of historical fiction following the notorious John Wilkes Booth and the four women who kept his perilous confidence.

John Wilkes Booth, the mercurial son of an acclaimed British stage actor and a Covent Garden flower girl, committed one of the most notorious acts in American history—the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The subject of more than a century of scholarship, speculation, and even obsession, Booth is often portrayed as a shadowy figure, a violent loner whose single murderous act made him the most hated man in America. Lost to history until now is the story of the four women whom he loved and who loved him in return: Mary Ann, the steadfast matriarch of the Booth family; Asia, his loyal sister and confidante; Lucy Lambert Hale, the senator’s daughter who adored Booth yet tragically misunderstood the intensity of his wrath; and Mary Surratt, the Confederate widow entrusted with the secrets of his vengeful plot.

Fates and Traitors brings to life pivotal actors—some willing, others unwitting—who made an indelible mark on the history of our nation. Chiaverini portrays not just a soul in turmoil but a country at the precipice of immense change.

My Recommendation:

It takes a writer of great skill to animate a man as notorious as John Wilkes Booth into a character so fascinating the reader can scarcely look away; Chiaverini has succeeded. I admit, I was not keen on reading a book about Booth, but Chiaverini’s use of the women around him to tell his story was brilliant.

Booth’s parents, his siblings, his love interests, and coconspirators are a cast like no other. Viewed from the present day, their bad choices clearly and obviously set them on a path of destruction, but Chiaverini demonstrates how such errors were made in their present time. She does not romanticize the traitors, and is unflinching in her portrayal of them.

If many readers are like me, my knowledge of what happened ended with the assassination of Lincoln. The chapters following the terrible deed are every bit as shocking as those that preceded it. Though FATES AND TRAITORS is a novel, fans of the work of Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand will love how this story reveals so much more history than we thought we knew.

Breathless pacing, historical figures of enormous influence, and unspeakable acts of treason make FATES AND TRAITORS one of the most riveting works of historical fiction I’ve read so far this year. I give it my highest recommendation.

Have you read this or any of Chiaverini’s previous novels? This is my first, but it will not be my last.

Book Recommendation: FALLING

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“It starts with a house…This house, this dated, fusty house, is entirely within her budget, precisely because it is so dated and fusty. It is the perfect size–two bedrooms…And best of all there is a garden, or rather more than enough space for one…She imagines a long, rustic table, a small group of friends sitting around, bottles of rosé and candles interspersed with galvanized steel pots of lavender running down the center. Laughter. Happy faces. Everyone lit by the glow of summer and love.” Jane Green, FALLING

Publisher Synopsis:

The New York Times bestselling author of The Beach House, Jemima J, and Summer Secrets presents a novel about the pleasure and meaning of finding a home—and family—where you least expect them…

When Emma Montague left the strict confines of upper-crust British life for New York, she felt sure it would make her happy. Away from her parents and expectations, she felt liberated, throwing herself into Manhattan life replete with a high-paying job, a gorgeous apartment, and a string of successful boyfriends. But the cutthroat world of finance and relentless pursuit of more began to take its toll. This wasn’t the life she wanted either.

On the move again, Emma settles in the picturesque waterfront town of Westport, Connecticut, a world apart from both England and Manhattan. It is here that she begins to confront what it is she really wants from her life. With no job, and knowing only one person in town, she channels her passion for creating beautiful spaces into remaking the dilapidated cottage she rents from Dominic, a local handyman who lives next door with his six-year-old son.

Unlike any man Emma has ever known, Dominic is confident, grounded, and committed to being present for his son whose mother fled shortly after he was born. They become friends, and slowly much more, as Emma finds herself feeling at home in a way she never has before.

But just as they start to imagine a life together as a family, fate intervenes in the most shocking of ways. For the first time, Emma has to stay and fight for what she loves, for the truth she has discovered about herself, or risk losing it all.

In a novel of changing seasons, shifting lives, and selfless love, a story unfolds—of one woman’s far-reaching journey to discover who she is truly meant to be…

My Recommendation:

Summer is that delicious time when I dip into the pile of contemporary novels I neglect for historical fiction the other seasons of the year. I have been a long-time fan of Jane Green, and I couldn’t wait to read FALLING: A LOVE STORY. This is her 18th novel, and it might be her best.

FALLING is a story of faith: a woman takes a risk to create the life she always thought she wanted, and finds much more in the process. It is a family drama that is relatable on many levels, with characters real enough step off the page. You will grow to love these characters. Be sure to have a box of tissues handy.

I finished the book at midnight last night, and lost sleep thinking about Emma. My greatest hope is that Green writes a sequel. I need MORE.

Because we share a publisher, I was able to snag a couple of copies of FALLING to give away. For a chance to win, comment below with your favorite Jane Green novel or contemporary novelist, and share the giveaway on social media. You have until 9 PM EST on Monday, August 22nd to win. (US only, please.) Good luck!

Book Recommendation: THE HEIRESS OF WINTERWOOD

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“If you are a fan of Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, you will love Sarah E. Ladd’s debut.” —USAToday.com

Publisher Synopsis:

Darbury, England, 1814

Amelia Barrett gave her word. Keeping it could cost her everything.

Amelia Barrett, heiress to an estate nestled in the English moors, defies family expectations and promises to raise her dying friend’s baby. She’ll risk everything to keep her word—even to the point of proposing to the child’s father—a sea captain she’s never met.

When the child vanishes with little more than an ominous ransom note hinting at her whereabouts, Amelia and Graham are driven to test the boundaries of their love for this little one.

Amelia’s detailed plans would normally see her through any trial, but now, desperate and shaken, she’s forced to examine her soul and face her one weakness: pride.

Graham’s strength and self-control have served him well and earned him much respect, but chasing perfection has kept him a prisoner of his own discipline. And away from the family he has sworn to love and protect.

Both must learn to have faith and relinquish control so they can embrace the future ahead of them.

My Recommendation:

I was seeking uplifting, Austen-esque romance (escapist fiction) when I found this well-reviewed and widely-read novel. It was a delight.

THE HEIRESS OF WINTERWOOD has all the components of a Jane Austen novel: a spunky, frustrated, endearing protagonist, a brooding, complicated love interest, and plenty of drama. It kept me turning pages late into the night and had a satisfying ending. In short: it was everything I wanted it to be.

Of note: I did not realize THE HEIRESS OF WINTERWOOD was *religious* historical fiction when I purchased it. There are some who do not enjoy references to prayer in their fiction, but not only did I find those references a breath of fresh air, but also a detail that made the story historically authentic. The religious life of people in the past is often ignored by contemporary authors in order to keep in realm of the “politically correct,” but its inclusion had a very light touch and only enhanced my enjoyment of the characters’ developmental arcs.

I recommend this novel to fans of sweet, historical, romantic suspense.