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?

 

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Book Recommendation: LOVE AND RUIN

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“There were fifteen acres…but it was hard to see much of anything with all the overgrowth. The house…was Spanish-style and looked abandoned. Thick vines strangled the peeling yellow shutters, parts of the roofline, and the drained pool full of sand and empty gin bottles and tin cans. I should have run screaming, but the place had the feel of a fable…La Finca Vigia, it was called–“Watchtower Farm”…We would be two writers under one roof, hiding away from everything but each other and our work.” Paula McLain, LOVE AND RUIN

Publisher Synopsis:

The bestselling author of The Paris Wife returns to the subject of Ernest Hemingway in a novel about his passionate, stormy marriage to Martha Gellhorn—a fiercely independent, ambitious young woman who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century.

In 1937, twenty-eight-year-old Martha Gellhorn travels alone to Madrid to report on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and becomes drawn to the stories of ordinary people caught in the devastating conflict. It’s the adventure she’s been looking for and her chance to prove herself a worthy journalist in a field dominated by men. But she also finds herself unexpectedly—and uncontrollably—falling in love with Hemingway, a man on his way to becoming a legend.

In the shadow of the impending Second World War, and set against the turbulent backdrops of Madrid and Cuba, Martha and Ernest’s relationship and their professional careers ignite. But when Ernest publishes the biggest literary success of his career, For Whom the Bell Tolls, they are no longer equals, and Martha must make a choice: surrender to the confining demands of being a famous man’s wife or risk losing Ernest by forging a path as her own woman and writer. It is a dilemma that could force her to break his heart, and hers.

Heralded by Ann Patchett as “the new star of historical fiction,” Paula McLain brings Gellhorn’s story richly to life and captures her as a heroine for the ages: a woman who will risk absolutely everything to find her own voice.

My Recommendation:

As a Hemingway aficionado, and a fan of Paula McLain’s previous novels, I eagerly anticipated the release of LOVE AND RUIN. I had the pleasure of attending McLain’s launch event at Random House, and was captivated by the tales of travels and dreams that inspired and guided the writing of the book. It was a pleasure to dig in after such an introduction.

Before reading LOVE AND RUIN, I confess I knew little about Martha Gellhorn outside the context of Ernest Hemingway. It shames me to admit that, when he was only a part of roughly nine of her eighty-nine years of life. She was a war correspondent for more than ten conflicts and a writer for sixty years, publishing five novels, two short story collections, and fourteen novellas. She wrote travelogues and memoir, and her pieces on poverty for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration resulted in her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Martha Gellhorn is a strong and worthy protagonist.

I devoured LOVE AND RUIN. For me, Cuba is the heart of the book. The Finca Vigia is paradise found, then lost. Though the reader does not discover the place with Gellhorn until midway through the book, the Finca feels like the payoff for all of the world and relationship building that preceded it. It is enchanting to read about Gellhorn’s work transforming it into their writing oasis. Later, as the marriage fails, I felt the loss of the Finca just as acutely. The marriage could not last, but I’d hoped Gellhorn’s sanctuary could have.

Gellhorn deep-seated need to travel, to seek conflict and those lost in it, and to report on it is the hallmark of the novel. Her courage and her sense of adventure are astounding, and her survival: a miracle.The war scenes are riveting and revealing, but it is McLain’s tender sketches of Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway’s sons that are particularly moving, giving her character dimension.

And yet, the novel is called LOVE AND RUIN. Hemingway is the hinge upon which it swings. He is the draw, the eternal fascination, the complicated man so many love to hate, and McLain is at her sharpest when the two forces of nature meet at their full power. As she did in THE PARIS WIFE, McLain provides small interludes where Ernest is the point of view character. In the vivid revelation of his demons, these scenes redeem him when we want to despise him, proving McLain is a masterful writer.

Someone in the audience at McLain’s event asked her if she would ever again write Hemingway. Having read two of McLain’s Hemingway novels now, the story of Mary Hemingway gets my vote. Lovers of strong women, history, and yes, Ernest Hemingway, will find much to interest them on the pages of LOVE AND RUIN. Highly recommended.

Have you read it or McLain’s other novels? Which is your favorite? 

Book Recommendation: THE PHANTOM’S APPRENTICE

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“This book is the result of my questioning who Christine Daaé  might have been in all her beauty, talent, love, and darkness. In THE PHANTOM’S APPRENTICE, I weaved together both the original novel and the popular musical, and added new dimensions to characters and story alike, creating a secret world all my own.” ~Heather Webb, THE PHANTOM’S APPRENTICE

Publisher Synopsis:

Christine Daaé sings with her violinist father in salons all over Paris, but she longs to practice her favorite pastime—illusions. When her beloved Papa dies during a conjurer’s show, she abandons her magic and surrenders to grief and guilt. Life as a female illusionist seems too dangerous, and she must honor her father’s memory. 

Concerned for her welfare, family friend Professor Delacroix secures an audition for her at the Opéra de Paris—the most illustrious stage in Europe. Yet Christine soon discovers the darker side of Paris opera. Rumors of murder float through the halls, and she is quickly trapped between a scheming diva and a mysterious phantom. The Angel of Music. 

But is the Angel truly a spirit, or a man obsessed, stalking Christine for mysterious reasons tangled in her past?

As Christine’s fears mount, she returns to her magical arts with the encouragement of her childhood friend, Raoul. Newfound hope and romance abounds…until one fateful night at the masquerade ball. Those she cares for—Delacroix, the Angel, and even Raoul—aren’t as they seem. Now she must decide whom she trusts and which is her rightful path: singer or illusionist. 

To succeed, she will risk her life in the grandest illusion of all.

My Recommendation:

Phantom fans rejoice! This reimagining will not only bring to life everything you love about the play, but will take it deeper into the darkness behind the music, the yearning, and the opera’s secrets.

It is a great joy to savor the passive heroine reimagined as a driven, complex woman. All of the characters have depth, and throughout the narrative Webb keeps the reader guessing about who can be trusted. The settings are rich and sensual, and the movement between salons, seasides, and stages keeps the action fresh and captivating, propelling the story to an unforgettable climax.

Fans of gothic historical fiction and, of course, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, will adore THE PHANTOM’S APPRENTICE. If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

 

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE SILENT COMPANIONS

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I am not dead. Elsie recited the words as her carriage sluiced through country roads, churning up clods of mud. The wheels made a wet, sucking noise. I am not dead. But it was hard to believe, looking through the rain-spattered window at the ghost of her reflection: pale skin, cadaverous cheeks; curls eclipsed by black gauze.

Outside the sky was iron grey, the monotony broken only by crows. Mile after mile and the scenery did not change. Stubble fields, skeletal trees. They are burying me, she realized. They are burying me along with Rupert.” Laura Purcell, The Silent Companions

Publisher Synopsis:

When newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, what greets her is far from the life of wealth and privilege she was expecting . . .
                  
When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But with her husband dead just weeks after their marriage, her new servants resentful, and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure—a silent companion—that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of the estate are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition—that is, until she notices the figure’s eyes following her.

A Victorian ghost story that evokes a most unsettling kind of fear, The Silent Companions is a tale that creeps its way through the consciousness in ways you least expect—much like the companions themselves.

My Recommendation:

At an ancient English estate, alternating between 1635 and 1865, The Silent Companions is a dual narrative about a house whose evil history rendered it haunted. Because the events at the estate following Elsie’s husband’s death have driven her to St. Joseph’s Hospital for the Insane, the story is slowly revealed during her therapy.

The pervading tension and ominous warnings, the dangerous explorations of the troubled house, and the slowly unraveling grip on reality of those dwelling within its walls make for captivating, frightening reading. The time periods are equally interesting, and the climax is gruesome and disturbing.

Notes of Poe, hints of Shirley Jackson, and an overall Hitchcockian sense of the macabre pervade The Silent Companions and firmly place Purcell with the masters of Gothic storytelling. If you enjoy a scary, atmospheric tale, I highly recommend it.  

Historical Fiction Giveaway!

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Historical fiction lovers: I have one advanced reader copy of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, by Sara Ackerman, to giveaway to one lucky reader. Due to my own research reading and writing, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading it, but I hope to change that very soon. In the meantime, I didn’t want to let this pub day pass.

To win a copy, simply comment below about your favorite WWII historical fiction, and share the post on social media by Tuesday, Feb. 20th, 9 PM EST, when I’ll select one winner (US only, please) via random.org. Good luck, and happy reading!

Publisher Synopsis:

Hawaii, 1944. The Pacific battles of World War II continue to threaten American soil, and on the home front, the bonds of friendship and the strength of love are tested.

Violet Iverson and her young daughter, Ella, are piecing their lives together one year after the disappearance of her husband. As rumors swirl and questions about his loyalties surface, Violet believes Ella knows something. But Ella is stubbornly silent. Something—or someone—has scared her. And with the island overrun by troops training for a secret mission, tension and suspicion between neighbors is rising.

Violet bands together with her close friends to get through the difficult days. To support themselves, they open a pie stand near the military base, offering the soldiers a little homemade comfort. Try as she might, Violet can’t ignore her attraction to the brash marine who comes to her aid when the women are accused of spying. Desperate to discover the truth behind what happened to her husband, while keeping her friends and daughter safe, Violet is torn by guilt, fear and longing as she faces losing everything. Again.

Book Recommendation: Where the Wild Cherries Grow

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“In the morning light the house looks sad, softly decaying. The yellow stone around the doors and windows is crumbling and green with lichen, but once it must have glowed, radiating the heat of a summer’s day. The creepers choking the walls must once have been climbing flowers, the wilderness of grass a lawn for games and picnics. All around, the trees echo with birdsong. Would Emeline Vane have heard the same songs, fifty years ago?” –Laura Madeleine, WHERE THE WILD CHERRIES GROW

Publisher Synopsis:

How far must you run to leave the past behind you?

It is 1919 and the end of the war has not brought peace for Emeline Vane. Lost in grief, she is suddenly alone at the heart of a depleted family. She can no longer cope. And as everything seems to be slipping beyond her control, in a moment of desperation, she boards a train and runs away.

Fifty years later, a young solicitor on his first case finds Emeline’s diary. What Bill Perch finds in the tattered pages of neat script goes against everything he has been told. He begins to trace an anguished story of love and betrayal that will send him on a journey to discover the truth.

What really happened to Emeline all those years ago?

My Recommendation:

There is nothing that so enchants the imagination like a dual period story of ghosts and loss, empty old houses, decadent sensory details, and rich shores of color in faraway lands. WHERE THE WILD CHERRIES GROW is an absolute buffet of these novel ingredients.

The story of the reluctant protagonist of 1969 is every bit as interesting, compelling, and moving as the tale of the heroine of 1919. The reader will not be able to turn pages fast enough as the lives of the solicitor charged with proving a woman dead so the family might sell an old house, and the journey of a woman fleeing the family who wishes to lock her up rather than seek her healing, converge on the shimmering shores of Cerbère–the last French town before Spain.

The contrasts of William’s and Emeline’s lives before their travels move from black and white to luxurious color, waisted frames to healthy bodies, hollow spirits to those overflowing with life. In spite of bad decisions and missteps, these characters triumph and find redemption, and the conclusion of the novel is both surprising and deeply satisfying.

At times reminiscent of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE to BEAUTIFUL RUINS to LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, WHERE THE WILD CHERRIES GROW is a rich, memorable story with a cast of characters the reader won’t soon forget. As one of my favorite reads of 2018 so far, I give the novel my highest recommendation.

The publisher has kindly offered two books for a giveaway to US and Canadian readers. For a chance to win a copy, simply comment below with your favorite historical or multi-period novels, and share this post on social media by Friday, February 16th at 5 PM ET. Good luck!

 

Book Recommendation: FROM SAND AND ASH

 

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“I was rebelling even then, pushing back against the fear, though I didn’t recognize it. Rebellion was always my biggest ally, though I sometimes hated her. She looked like me and hurt like me, but she wouldn’t let me give up. And when fear took my reasons for fighting, rebellion gave them back. 

My father told me once that we are on earth to learn. God wants us to receive everything that life was meant to teach. Then we take what we’ve learned, and it becomes our offering to God and to mankind. But we have to live in order to learn. And sometimes we have to fight in order to live.” ~Amy Harmon, FROM SAND AND ASH

Publisher Synopsis:

Italy, 1943—Germany occupies much of the country, placing the Jewish population in grave danger during World War II.

As children, Eva Rosselli and Angelo Bianco were raised like family but divided by circumstance and religion. As the years go by, the two find themselves falling in love. But the church calls to Angelo and, despite his deep feelings for Eva, he chooses the priesthood.

Now, more than a decade later, Angelo is a Catholic priest and Eva is a woman with nowhere to turn. With the Gestapo closing in, Angelo hides Eva within the walls of a convent, where Eva discovers she is just one of many Jews being sheltered by the Catholic Church.

But Eva can’t quietly hide, waiting for deliverance, while Angelo risks everything to keep her safe. With the world at war and so many in need, Angelo and Eva face trial after trial, choice after agonizing choice, until fate and fortune finally collide, leaving them with the most difficult decision of all.

My Recommendation:

FROM SAND AND ASH is a tender, agonizing, and redemptive story of love and war.  From its first page, author Amy Harmon spellbinds the reader, and makes us ask over and over again: What would I do?

The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, the relationships are intense, and the exploration of the spiritual lives of Eva and Angelo make for full-bodied, well fleshed out characters. Passionate and powerful men and women lie at the novel’s heart, and the story is told with great honesty and detail.

This is a book that will make you lose sleep, and the characters will stay with you long after you close its pages. If you loved The Thorn Birds or The Nightingale, I highly recommend FROM SAND AND ASH.

Have you read any other novels by Harmon? If so, I’d love to hear what I should read next.