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.

Binge-worthy: Z: THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING

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“Nothing could have survived our life.” ~Zelda Fitzgerald, in a letter to Scott

Amazon Studios has released a new series based on Therese Fowler’s bestselling novel, Z, called Z: The Beginning of Everything.  When I watched the pilot early last year, I couldn’t quite reconcile the casting with the two luminous persons who had so long lived in my imagination. Within two episodes, however, Christina Ricci (Zelda) and David Hoflin (Scott) grew into their characters with such force, power, and unflinching honesty they beguiled me, and would no doubt impress and unnerve those whom they portray.

Z: The Beginning of Everything, created by Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, is a first-class production. Even in the scenes in which Zelda is not featured, she is the anchor, the true north; one judges every moment on how Zelda will react to and change as a result of what happens. Her clothing alone is striking enough to make her stand out, but it is the full, tragic understanding of how life broke Zelda that gives extra weight to Ricci’s performance.

Every character has a well-developed arc and clearly supports the themes explored in the lives of the Fitzgeralds. The series manages to weave in Zelda and Scott’s fascinating circle of peers–including scene-stealer Tallulah Bankhead, played by (Christina Lind)–while never losing sight of or distracting from the true heart of the work, Zelda Fitzgerald.

I often had to pause the film to take in the visually stunning and artistic scene renderings. With just thirty minutes an episode, not a moment of dialogue, music, transition, wardrobe, or lighting is wasted. It is a testament to the production quality that even moments of lighthearted joy are shadowed with the foreknowledge of the ways Scott and Zelda will fall. It is especially moving when the young Fitzgeralds run to the ocean, hand-in-hand–their laughter trailing–not knowing how mercilessly the sun will scorch the Icarus-like, waxen wings of their youthful arrogance.

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If you want a period piece you in which you may get lost, I cannot recommend Z: The Beginning of Everything enough. I hope the series is renewed; I can never get enough Zelda. If you’ve seen it, I would love to hear what you think.

Holiday Signings and News

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Seasons Greetings!

It’s hard to believe the holidays are nearly upon us. I have news, updates, and upcoming signing information to share. I hope to see you in the coming weeks, and wish all of you a healthy, peaceful holiday season.

  • If you need a hostess and/or holiday gift, I’ll be signing books at the following events:
    • Thursday, November 17th, 6-9 PM, Girls’ Night Out. Turn the Page Bookstore (Nora Roberts’ Shop), Boonsboro, MD. Free champagne. Do you need any other reason to attend?
    • Saturday, November 26th, 11 AM-1 PM, Small Business Saturday. Annapolis Bookstore, 53 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, MD. (*New store location.*)
  • If you are not local to Maryland, I’m happy to send signed bookplates. Email me at info [at] erikarobuck [dot] com with your mailing address and what you’d like inscribed. (US & Canada only, please.)
  • On November 1st, AUTHOR IN PROGRESS—an essay collection for writers to which I contributed—was published by Writer’s Digest Books. It debuted as a #1 new release in Fiction Writing Reference on Amazon! If you have a writer in your life who needs empowerment, encouragement, and practical advice, I highly recommend it.
  • Book Clubs: My kids’ busy schedules make participation in person difficult these days, but it’s always worth a try. At the very least, I might be able to FaceTime your book club. Email me at info [at] erikarobuck [dot] com if you’d like to schedule an in-person or virtual visit with your book club.
  • Finally, if you are so inclined, please consider leaving an online review of one or more of my books. And please feel free to share this post with the book lovers in your life.

Happy Holidays!

Erika

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.