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.

 

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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: 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.

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.

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!