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.

 

 

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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/.

 

 

Book Review: THE PARIS WINTER

“They established themselves on the floor of Sylvie’s room, Maud pinning her oil sketching paper to a deal board to support it then choosing her tints, squeezing each onto the palette in abstemious amounts, attaching the little tin cup with its reservoir of linseed oil to its edge, setting out her hog-hair and sable brushes. As she did so, Sylvie prepared her [opium] tray with a similar satisfaction, and Maud was aware that the ritual was important to them both. Then each settled to their addiction.” Imogen Robertson, THE PARIS WINTER

Publisher Description:

A deep, dark and opulent tale of Belle Epoque Paris, and the secrets and dangers hidden beneath its luxurious facade.

Maud Heighton came to Lafond’s famous Academie to paint, and to flee the constraints of her small English town. It took all her courage to escape, but Paris eats money. While her fellow students enjoy the dazzling joys of the Belle Epoque, Maud slips into poverty.

Quietly starving, and dreading another cold Paris winter, Maud takes a job as companion to young, beautiful Sylvie Morel. But Sylvie has a secret: an addiction to opium. As Maud is drawn into the Morels’ world of elegant luxury, their secrets become hers. Before the New Year arrives, a greater deception will plunge her into the darkness that waits beneath this glittering city of light.

My Recommendation

This is a breathtaking novel, or rather, breath stealing.

From the quiet dignity of the art school, to the hazy chambers of the rich and careless in 1909 Paris, Robertson draws the reader in with her Poe-like tale. Shocking and dark, meticulously crafted, and complex, THE PARIS WINTER, succeeds in creating a world of layered characters in a sensuous and often dangerous dance with one another, that pushes its cast to the brink of madness and back.

Interspersed throughout the text are descriptions of art from a contemporary catalogue, foreshadowing the central moments of each section with brilliant precision, and slowly instructing the reader how to view each scene as if taking in a painting, making careful use of lighting, placement, and focus.

If you enjoy chilling tales of mystery and revenge in fascinating historical settings, you will love THE PARIS WINTER. Though it is surely not for the faint of heart, I give this book my highest recommendation.

Book Review: THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS

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“Outside the open window, Cristina heard her mother and father speaking with Francesca on the terrace. Francesca was telling them about the visit from the two soldiers….Beside her, Alessia chirped happily that her grandfather and grandmother were back and raced downstairs. And so Cristina submerged her ears beneath the water and the world grew a little quieter; her hair fanned out atop the plane and she ran her fingers through it and was reminded of a goddess in a Renaissance painting. Her mind wandered far from the villa and the ruins and her unshakable sense that her world was about to change.” Chris Bohjalian, THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS

Publisher Synopsis

From the New York Times best-selling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls comes a spellbinding novel of love, despair, and revenge—set in war-ravaged Tuscany.

1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills south of Florence, the Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. Eighteen-year-old Cristina spends her days swimming in the pool, playing with her young niece and nephew, and wandering aimlessly amid the estate’s gardens and olive groves. But when two soldiers, a German and an Italian, arrive at the villa asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility is shattered. A young German lieutenant begins to court Cristina, the Nazis descend upon the estate demanding hospitality, and what was once was their sanctuary becomes their prison.

1955: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence police department, has her own demons. A beautiful woman, Serafina carefully hides her scars along with her haunting memories of the war. But when she is assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer targeting the Rosatis, murdering the remnants of the family one-by-one in cold blood—Serafina finds herself digging into a past that involves both the victims and her own tragic history.

My Recommendation

Many of my fellow bloggers have long been recommending Bohjalian’s work to me, and for reasons I cannot explain, this is the first of his novels I have read. It most certainly will not be my last.

Bohjalian is a writer of the highest caliber. His faraway historical settings are transportive and intoxicating, and his characters are realistic and flawed. THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS is one of those rare gems whose compelling plot is conveyed with richly readable and evocative prose.

I was entranced by life at the Villa Chimera before and during the war, and the losses of the family are felt acutely in the depiction of the ruins in the “present” of the book, 1955. The narratives run parallel for most of the novel, until the past catches up to the present in the form of a truly terrifying and vicious serial killer. (Note that the book is quite graphic.) Readers will stay up long after their bedtimes to reach the conclusion of this excellent work of literary suspense.

I give THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS my highest recommendation.

http://www.chrisbohjalian.com/

Book Review: TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES

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“…Lucille Smith was standing in her room in the servants’ quarters back of the house, buttoning the belt of a new white uniform. She touched her mouth lightly with lipstick.

‘You’re starting all over again, Lucille.’ she told herself in the mirror. ‘You’re going to have a happy, useful life from now on, and forget everything that was before.’

But there went her eyes too wide again, as though to deny her words. Her eyes looked much like her mother’s when they opened like that, and her mother was part of what she must forget. She must overcome the habit of stretching her eyes. It made her look surprised and uncertain, too, which was not at all the way to look around children.”

Patricia Highsmith, ‘The Heroine’

From Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, Edited by Sarah Weinman

Publisher Description

Fourteen chilling tales from the pioneering women who created the domestic suspense genre

Murderous wives, deranged husbands, deceitful children, and vengeful friends. Few know these characters—and their creators—better than Sarah Weinman. One of today’s preeminent authorities on crime fiction, Weinman asks: Where would bestselling authors like Gillian Flynn, Sue Grafton, or Tana French be without the women writers who came before them?

In Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, Weinman brings together fourteen hair-raising tales by women who—from the 1940s through the mid-1970s—took a scalpel to contemporary society and sliced away to reveal its dark essence. Lovers of crime fiction from any era will welcome this deliciously dark tribute to a largely forgotten generation of women writers.

My Recommendation

I generally refuse books from publishers if they are not historical fiction, but I was intrigued by this collection for a number of reasons. First, I’m falling in love again with short stories. To paraphrase Edgar Allan Poe, it is best to read a story in a single sitting. In my increasingly busy life, I have a new appreciation for fiction that allows me to do this. Also, each story is selected and introduced by editor Sarah Weinman, who has an excellent Twitter account (@SarahW) dealing mostly with publishing and current events.

In Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, Weinman introduces each story with a brief bio and historical context. The biographies of the women featured in the collection are every bit as interesting as their chilling tales, and will inspire the reader to want to learn more about them and read more from them. They are arranged loosely by age of subject, and from the terrifying teen in the opening story to the home-bound elderly woman in the last, each tale explores a different dimension of madness and crime.

One does not need to love the suspense genre to enjoy Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. If you have an appreciation for stories of psychological terror or are interested in women writers from the past who opened doors for their contemporary counterparts, you must read this collection.

http://www.sarahweinman.com/confessions/