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/

 

 

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Book Recommendation: THE ADDRESS

 

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“Around her was treeless farmland and cattle grazing in muddy fields. It was as if the landscape had been flattened by an enormous gust of wind and only now was coming back to life…This was New York?” Fiona Davis, THE ADDRESS

Publisher Synopsis:

After a failed apprenticeship, working her way up to head housekeeper of a posh London hotel is more than Sara Smythe ever thought she’d make of herself. But when a chance encounter with Theodore Camden, one of the architects of the grand New York apartment house The Dakota, leads to a job offer, her world is suddenly awash in possibility—no mean feat for a servant in 1884. The opportunity to move to America, where a person can rise above one’s station. The opportunity to be the female manager of The Dakota, which promises to be the greatest apartment house in the world. And the opportunity to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else…and is living in The Dakota with his wife and three young children.

In 1985, Bailey Camden is desperate for new opportunities. Fresh out of rehab, the former party girl and interior designer is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey’s grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. But the absence of a genetic connection means Bailey won’t see a dime of the Camden family’s substantial estate. Instead, her “cousin” Melinda—Camden’s biological great-granddaughter—will inherit almost everything. So when Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, despite her dislike of Melinda’s vision. The renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment Theodore Camden himself lived in…and died in, after suffering multiple stab wounds by a madwoman named Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

One hundred years apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages—for Sara, the opulence of a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; for Bailey, the free-flowing drinks and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City—and take refuge and solace in the Upper West Side’s gilded fortress. But a building with a history as rich—and often tragic—as The Dakota’s can’t hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers in its basement could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden—and the woman who killed him—on its head.

With rich historical detail, nuanced characters, and gorgeous prose, Fiona Davis once again delivers a compulsively readable novel that peels back the layers of not only a famed institution, but the lives—and lies—of the beating hearts within.

My Recommendation:

The construct of novels set in multiple time periods lends a natural suspense, but it is rare that each time holds the same level of intrigue for the reader. THE ADDRESS, by Fiona Davis, however, succeeds where many other dual period novels fail; both story lines are fully developed and equally compelling.

Lovers of New York City will thrill over period details–delighting in imagining the beginnings of the Dakota and the city at large–and will enjoy learning about the famous men and women who lived within the great halls of one of its most famous landmarks.

Through dialogue and description, Davis moves with ease between the centuries, clearly showing the challenges of each time while illustrating the connections between the past and the present. Her characters make bad decisions, but they remain sympathetic, earnest, and endearingly human, and some of their struggles are particularly moving and relatable.

Davis is an assured and gifted storyteller, and I look forward to reading more of her work. Those who enjoy dual period novels and stories from the Gilded Age will devour THE ADDRESS.

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE UNDERGROUND RIVER

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“A strange feeling came over me then, as though we’d entered a dark, secret world. We crept along the north side of the river and the banks seemed to squeeze in on us while the river itself churned up mud. We passed a stand of bleached white oak trees, dead but still standing guard…the mist floated upward into a dirty strip of gauze across the sky.” Martha Conway, THE UNDERGROUND RIVER

Publisher Synopsis:

Set aboard a nineteenth century riverboat theater, this is the moving, page-turning story of a charmingly frank and naive seamstress…

My Recommendation:

I find I am in the bizarre position of having to cut off the publisher synopsis. It reveals far too much about the book and steals some of the surprises, of which there are many.

The heart of THE UNDERGROUND RIVER is May Bedloe, an honest-to-a-fault, practical, and endearing young woman. This story is about her coming of age, overcoming loneliness, and the development of her courage. We learn about her world as she does, and author Martha Conway does a brilliant job embodying May, firmly placing the reader in her shoes and rooting for her success.

The book is less about abolitionists and more about the heroine’s journey. Adventures and challenges are numerous and riveting, and each obstacle faced and overcome adds to May’s development, and the growth (or regression) of those around her.

It was hard to put down THE UNDERGROUND RIVER. The story is moving, and as it ends–in some ways–it feels as if it’s just beginning. I hope Conway considers writing a sequel because I want more of these characters.

Fans of historical fiction, pre-Civil War era literature, and suspense will enjoy THE UNDERGROUND RIVER. For more on the book and the author, visit http://marthaconway.com/.

 

 

Giveaway: Where the Light Falls

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“He hears them before he sees them, a swell of thousands, young and old, male and female, clamoring from the other side of the prison walls. They sound impatient, shrill with the heady prospect of fresh blood to wet the newly sharpened guillotine blade.” Allison and Owen Pataki, Where the Light Falls

Publisher Synopsis: 

A rich and sweeping novel of courage, duty, sacrifice, and love set during the French Revolution from New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki and her brother Owen Pataki

Three years after the storming of the Bastille, the streets of Paris are roiling with revolution. The citizens of France are enlivened by the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette has been dismantled—with the help of the guillotine—and a new nation is rising in its place. Jean-Luc, an idealistic young lawyer, moves his wife and their infant son from a comfortable life in Marseille to Paris, in the hopes of joining the cause. André, the son of a denounced nobleman, has evaded execution by joining the new French army. Sophie, a youngaristocratic widow, embarks on her own fight for independence against her powerful, vindictive uncle.

As chaos threatens to undo the progress of the Revolution and the demand for justice breeds instability and paranoia, the lives of these compatriots become inextricably linked. Jean-Luc, André, and Sophie find themselves in a world where survival seems increasingly less likely—for themselves and, indeed, for the nation.

Featuring cameos from legendary figures such as Robespierre, Louis XVI, and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, Where the Light Falls is an epic and engrossing novel, moving from the streets and courtrooms of Paris to Napoleon’s epic march across the burning sands of Egypt. With vivid detail and imagery, the Patakis capture the hearts and minds of the citizens of France fighting for truth above all, and for their belief in a cause greater than themselves.

My Recommendation:

From its opening scene at the guillotine to the battlefield at Bois de Valmy, WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS immerses the reader in the violent and chaotic world of the French Revolution. While there is plenty of bloodshed and villainous plotting, the noble men and women at the heart of the novel demonstrate that integrity and honor are essential to righting the course of history.

While readers new to the subject will learn much, cameos by famous Parisians will thrill the Francophile. Of particular fascination is Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, whose own history sounds worthy of a novel.

The publisher was kind enough to offer a copy of WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS for a giveaway. To enter, simply comment below and share this post on social media by Friday, July 14th (Bastille Day.) Bonne chance!

 

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?