Book Recommendation: THE CHILD FINDER

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“All she knew was that evil…was alchemy built on top of opportunity. Some went searching for it. Others just waited. Either way, it was bound to happen.” Rene Denfeld, THE CHILD FINDER

Publisher Synopsis:

“Where are you, Madison Culver? Flying with the angels, a silver speck on a wing? Are you dreaming, buried under snow? Or—is it possible—you are still alive?”

Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight-years-old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.

Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl, too.

As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?

Told in the alternating voices of Naomi and a deeply imaginative child, The Child Finder is a breathtaking, exquisitely rendered literary page-turner about redemption, the line between reality and memories and dreams, and the human capacity to survive.

My Recommendation:

Engrossing, beautifully written, devastating, and redemptive, THE CHILD FINDER is the story of a private investigator, Naomi, searching the woods and fields, mountains and city scapes for missing children as deeply as she is her own past. Told from her point of view and that of a missing child, their stories and histories are meticulously woven and culminate in a breath-taking climax.

Horrifying subjects are handled deftly, with an absence of graphic details, allowing the reader to persist with the search. Characters are full, round, and complex–even the antagonists.

Fans of literary suspense will not be able to put down THE CHILD FINDER. Though this is not historical fiction, I had to share my review here. It is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I give it my highest recommendation.

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Book Recommendation: The Baker’s Secret

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“In a time of humiliation, the only dignified answer is cunning.” Stephen P. Kiernan, THE BAKER’S SECRET

From the critically acclaimed author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity comes a dazzling novel of World War II—a shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism and the resilience of the human spirit, set in a small village in Normandy on the eve of D-Day.

 

My Recommendation:

Emmanuelle is bitter. The traumas she suffers and witnesses age her beyond her twenty-two years. The war is consuming everything and everyone she loves, and she has lost all hope that the Allies will help. And yet…

Her youth and her intelligence call her to action. One small act of defiance (adding a bit of ground straw to her flour rations as town baker) allows her to increase her yield from twelve to fourteen loaves–enough bread to satisfy the demands of the Nazi occupiers, with two left over to secretly distribute to the townspeople.

Yet it is not enough.

Each deception exposes a new desire. Each desire inspires a new idea on how to undermine the Nazis to obtain it. Each little triumph keeps the spark of hope glowing in the people of the town. Even for those Emma dislikes or who dislike her, they are bound together in their shared wish to see the destruction of the oppressors.

THE BAKER’S SECRET beautifully demonstrates the power of small acts done with great care, and the ripples that expand outward from those acts. In spite of how hardened Emma has become, she is a protagonist with whom the reader forges a strong alliance. Her sorrows are ours. Her pain is ours. Her joy, ours.

Kiernan is a writer of enormous talent, and this novel is a triumph. The reader knows D-Day is coming, and can hardly wait for Emma to find out. In spite of knowing the catalyst for the climax, there are still many surprises; so much is revealed when June 6th, 1944 finally arrives.

I read the novel in a weekend, and I already know THE BAKER’S SECRET will my make my “Best of” list of 2017. I give it my highest recommendation.

 

 

 

 

I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“She wore a silver belt with stars cut out of it, so that the stars were there and not quite there–and watching them Sam knew that he had not quite found her yet. He wished for a moment that he were not so entirely successful nor Mary so desirable–wished that they were both a little broken and would want to cling together. All the evening he felt a little sad watching the intangible stars as they moved here and there about the big rooms.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Day Off from Love”

Publisher Synopsis:

A collection including the last complete unpublished short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the iconic American writer of The Great Gatsby who is more widely read today than ever.

I’d Die For You is a collection of the last remaining unpublished and uncollected short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel. Fitzgerald did not design the stories in I’d Die For You as a collection. Most were submitted individually to major magazines during the 1930s and accepted for publication during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, but were never printed. Some were written as movie scenarios and sent to studios or producers, but not filmed. Others are stories that could not be sold because their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected of Fitzgerald. They date from the earliest days of Fitzgerald’s career to the last. They come from various sources, from libraries to private collections, including those of Fitzgerald’s family.

Written in his characteristically beautiful, sharp, and surprising language, exploring themes both familiar and fresh, these stories provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career. I’d Die For You is a revealing, intimate look at Fitzgerald’s creative process that shows him to be a writer working at the fore of modern literature—in all its developing complexities.

My Recommendation:

For many reasons, it borders on the absurd that I am reviewing a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. I offer this recommendation with the full disclosure that not only am I an enormous Fitzgerald aficionado, but I am completely biased and sympathetic toward anything ‘Fitzgerald.’ Bearing this in mind…

From the editorial introductions, to a delightful collection of never before published photographs, to the rich and varied stories themselves,  I’D DIE FOR YOU AND OTHER LOST STORIES is a rare treat, and one that should be savored. Editor Anne Margaret Daniel’s arrangement and contextual description of each of Fitzgerald’s writings not only provide fresh insights into one of America’s finest writers, but also demonstrate deep understanding of and empathy for her subject.

Lovers of Fitzgerald’s work will find echoes of Gatsby in stories like “Thumbs Up:”

“The two younger men started back toward shore in the dinghy and the hands that waved to them from the yacht as they gradually lost sight of it in the growing dark were like a symbol that the cruelty of a distant time was receding with every stroke of the oars into a dimmer and dimmer past.” (p. 186)

Flashes of his genius in describing the nature of his characters in “Nightmare:”

“[H]e felt dissatisfied with the physical attitude she had assumed–somehow standing in the doorway like that betrayed the fact that her mood was centrifugal rather than centripetal–she was drawn toward the June afternoon, the down-rolling, out-rolling land, adventurous as an ocean without horizons. Something stabbed at his heart for his own mood was opposite–for him she made this place the stable center of the world.” (p. 20)

And Zelda. Zelda everywhere:

“The girl hung around under the pink sky waiting for something to happen. She was not a particularly vague person but she was vague tonight: the special dusk was new, practically new, after years under far skies; it had strange little lines in the trees, strange little insects, unfamiliar night cries of strange small beasts beginning.” (p. 41, “What to Do About It”)

I confess that–like everything Fitzgerald–on these pages hangs a looming sadness. Even in the slivers of hope, knowing the whole Fitzgerald story casts a shadow. One will marvel, however, that even as Fitzgerald faced the darkness of professional rejection, personal crisis, and familial devastation, he was able to produce such an abundance and variety of material, and often infused with such hope.

I’D DIE FOR YOU AND OTHER LOST STORIES is one of the most genuine books I’ve read all year. Unfiltered Fitzgerald is a treat, and Daniel’s expertise and admiration warm the pages of the stories. The way Daniel chooses to end the collection leaves last notes of satisfaction, contentment, and yearning. Fans of short fiction and those interested in delving more deeply into Fitzgerald’s body of work will be smitten with this collection.

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Shirley Jackson, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

Publisher Synopsis:

The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre…

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

My Recommendation:

Thoroughly gothic, thrilling, and at times terrifying, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE takes the reader into a haunted house by way of a haunted narrator–one equal parts sympathetic and unpleasant. What begins as an experiment in science to validate the supernatural quickly becomes personal and dangerous for the participants. In addition to genuinely scary moments (I had to stop reading one night), what is perhaps most disturbing is how fine the line is between paranoia and warranted fear, a desire to belong and obsession, and psychotic episodes versus actual ghosts.

My only prior exposure to the writing of Shirley Jackson came through her story, “The Lottery.” THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE secures my good impression of her work. It’s a slim volume–180 pages–and can be read easily in just a few nights. I recommend picking up a copy and doing just that. It was exhilarating to get lost in a good, old-fashioned, scary story, and I am eager to read Jackson’s other writings.

 

Book Recommendation: THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO

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Publisher Synopsis:

The New York Times bestselling and legendary author of Helen of Troy and Elizabeth I now turns her gaze on Emperor Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.

Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar’s imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman—or child.

As a boy, Nero’s royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son’s inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead.

While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire. With cunning and poison, the obstacles fall one by one. But as Agrippina’s machinations earn her son a title he is both tempted and terrified to assume, Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary.

With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.

My Recommendation:

Contemporary politics looks like child’s play compared to that of Ancient Rome.

The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George, is a 506-page epic novel, and likely the first in a series. In truth, I couldn’t imagine enjoying a novel about a man like Nero. Saints Peter and Paul were executed under his rule, and the myths and rumors of Nero’s scandalous lifestyle hardly make him a sympathetic figure. Imagine my surprise when I not only could not put the book down, but was even able to comprehend how a childhood rife with assassination attempts, poisoning of loved ones, and a mother who preyed upon and used her son for political ascendancy could have produced such a man.

One of my college history professors once told her class that she could never understand why anyone thought history was boring; it was all sex and violence. Margaret George reinforces that fact in The Confessions of Young Nero. Ancient Rome, its provinces, and its people are vividly rendered in all their glory, and the plotting, scheming, successes and failures of the imperial dynasty are clear and readable. It is a true testament to George’s writing that the reader will find herself not only rooting for unsavory outcomes to benefit young Nero, but will also be moved by his challenges and triumphs.

Fans of Philippa Gregory and Diana Gabaldon will love The Confessions of Young Nero. While the reader may or may not like Nero, his intelligence, creativity, and drive cannot be denied.

My Favorite Historical Fiction of 2016!

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Here is my (much agonized over) list of the best historical novels of 2016. Some of the books were not published in 2016, but that is when I read them. My criteria for making the list:

*I read it obsessively.

*I can’t stop thinking about it.

*I can’t stop recommending it.

As always, whittling my choices down to ten was incredibly difficult. The only thing that helped was the enormous volume of research materials I read this year cut into my novel reading enough to narrow the pool. For my full reviews and endorsements, click on each book title.

Disclaimer: I did include one contemporary novel (THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS) because it was based on JANE EYRE, and it was fresh and entertaining; I hope you’ll forgive me.

Without further ado, and in no particular order:

  1. Fates and Traitors, by Jennifer Chiaverini

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  2. Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

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  3. Euphoria, by Lily King

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4. Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood

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5. Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye

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6. The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine Lowell

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7. Sisi: Empress on Her Own, by Allison Pataki

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8. Black Rabbit Hall, by Eve Chase

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9. America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

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10. Georgia, by Dawn Tripp

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What were your favorites of 2016? What are your favorites from my list? Happy Reading, and Happy New Year!