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The Second Mrs. Hockaday

posted by: May 4, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Second Mrs. HockadayDear Readers,                                                                       May 4, 2017

 

I am writing to you to offer a glimpse into the book The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers. A first novel for this accomplished playwright, if you enjoy reading in letter and diary format—once you pick it up, it will be difficult to put down. A historical fiction, mystery surrounds the main character, Placidia Fincher, and through her writing you learn how it was to be a young woman left alone to face the responsibility of maintaining some type of normalcy at home despite being surrounded by the chaos of the Civil War.

 

At the start of her entries, dating back to 1865, we find out that 19-year-old Placidia has recently been arrested and is corresponding with her cousin behind bars. It is obvious that she is not willing to reveal the circumstances behind her predicament—at least not easily—which adds to the mystery. What is established, prior to Placidia being in jail, is at the young age of 17, she finds a respectable union with Gryffth Hockaday, a high-ranking confederate soldier. Adhering to the social customs of the time, this union was one where marriage came first, above love. However, before any romance blossomed, the major received his own letter calling him to the frontlines of battle.

 

Switching between different time periods, you will be anxious to find out what happened during the two years that they were separated. What you realize is that hidden within the diary entries and letters is a snapshot of life in the South during this chaotic time. Susan Rivers does not stray away from the complicated history of this time period—touching on topics such as slavery, isolation and brutality. Despite the dark aspects, the story is also one of hope and redemption, especially for the leading lady of the story. If you enjoy this style of historical writing, then you may enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer or These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy E. Turner.

 

I hope this blog finds you well.
 
Yours Truly,
Elna


 
 

The Shadow Land

posted by: May 1, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Shadow LandBulgaria, which lies along the Black Sea coast in Europe, is an ancient country whose capital city of Sofia dates from the Fifth century. Ottoman Turks, tsars and Soviet-style communists have all had a crack at ruling the country, which is now a parliamentary democratic republic. The legacy of Bulgaria’s shifting governance and political instability drives Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Shadow Land.  

 

New college grad Alexandra Boyd is an American abroad. She’s just arrived in Sofia and reaches out to help an elderly couple struggling down the steep steps of the upscale Hotel Forest. No good deed goes unpunished as a cab ride later, she realizes she’s accidentally mixed a piece of their luggage in with hers. With the help of her taxi driver, nicknamed Bobby, Alexandra starts a journey in attempt to return the bag which contains a deeply personal item: the ashes of a man named Stoyan Lazarov. And while Americans like Alexandra turn to the police for help, Bobby isn’t as trusting of the new state’s authority. As the pair crisscrosses Bulgaria tracking the elusive Lazarov family, they realize they, too, are being followed.

 

At its heart, this story is gripping historical fiction. As Alexandra and Bobby gradually piece together the life of Stoyan Lazarov, they also uncover the horror of government-sanctioned “work camps,” survivor’s guilt and unending atonement. A recent past that won’t stay hidden looms, threatening all of Bulgaria with its darkness. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a political bent, such as The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna or Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, should add The Shadow Land to their reading list.


 
 

Lincoln in the Bardo

posted by: February 8, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for Lincoln in the BardoIn the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.

 

In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.

 

Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.

 

Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.

 


 
 

The Last Days of Night

posted by: October 3, 2016 - 12:00pm

Cover art for The Last Days of NightAs far as patent disputes go, this was a doozy. Graham Moore’s excellent new historical legal thriller, The Last Days of Night, plops us right into the hotbed of technological innovation that was in situ in late 19th century America. Readers are rewarded with the wonders of invention, dubious plots, a smidgen of romance and a peek into the wiring of the greatest minds of the day set amid Gilded Age New York.

 

So who really invented the light bulb? Neophyte attorney Paul Cravath finds himself embroiled in the legal wrangling between the inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist George Westinghouse. Cravath is hired to defend Westinghouse against a patent lawsuit filed by Edison. Edison says he holds the right to electrify a country still aglow with gas lamps. There is also the dilemma of alternating current (Westinghouse) versus direct current (Edison), with the winner transforming the world. Cravath is over his head and knows it in this highly readable retelling of the War of the Electric Currents that actually took place between 1888 and 1896.

 

Moore, author of The Sherlockian and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, actually recreates the time period from 1888 to 1890. Along the way, we are introduced to familiar names, like J.P. Morgan, Alexander Bell and Viktor Tesla, as well as the birth and controversy of the modern electric chair. Cravath’s love interest, the singer Agnes Huntington, develops into a surprising multi-hued personality that adds the merest trifle of melodrama.

 
With a calibrated dose of legal and technical jargon, Moore’s fast-moving narrative is certain to carry broad appeal for readers wanting to get inside the heads of brilliant and visionary giants. For those wanting the real story, try the excellent Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, George Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by historian Jill Jonnes. A film adaption of The Last Days of Night is also in the works, starring actor Eddie Redmayne as Paul Cravath.


 
 

The Book of Harlan

posted by: August 18, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Book of HarlanMusic and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
 

I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.

 

Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.

 

McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

 


 
 

The Ballad of Black Tom

posted by: June 13, 2016 - 7:00am

The Ballad of Black TomWhat happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.

 

The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and  completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."

 

If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.


 
 

The Summer Before the War

posted by: May 12, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Summer Before the WarThe 100th anniversary of the War to End All Wars has created a proliferation of popular fiction set during World War I. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd is Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.

 

Agatha Kent has a well-ordered life as the wife of a British diplomat. She has travelled the world, and resides contentedly in the coastal Sussex town of Rye. Agatha is confident that her husband will succeed in his efforts to quell the quarrel in the Balkans and looks forward to a visit from her two nephews. Hugh is a brilliant young surgeon just finishing his studies. Daniel, the apple of his aunt’s eye, is a burgeoning poet of great promise. The only potential tempest on the horizon is Agatha’s arrangement to hire a female Latin instructor for the local school.

 

Beatrice Nash has lost her beloved father and must find a way to support herself. Her inheritance has been tied up in a trust controlled by relatives who do not believe a single woman should be without the protection of a man. Fleeing their plans to marry her off, she has accepted the position of Latin instructor in an insular English village. The daughter of a respected writer, Beatrice is well-traveled and highly educated. Her new role, as well as her independence of spirit, presents a challenge to the rigid hierarchy of the town. As the summer deepens, everyone must face a far greater threat to their way of life; the German invasion of Belgium brings reality as well as refugees.

 

Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an international bestseller. The Summer Before the War is an insightful, witty, haunting portrait that will surely captivate its readers.


 
 

Georgia

posted by: May 11, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for GeorgiaDawn Tripp’s Georgia is an arresting, sensual novel that offers a startling and realistic picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, inspirations and influences.

 

The novel is mostly a close examination of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, noted photographer and curator who was an early champion of her art. As each period of her art passes, and their relationship develops, we feel her frustration with how others perceive her deeply personal work as an extension of Stieglitz’s art: how the photos he’s taken of her are linked in critics’ minds to her work itself. This imbalance threatens their marriage and, more importantly, O’Keeffe’s ability to create.

 

It's when O’Keeffe is on her own on her self-directed retreats that we feel her freedom to take her work in an entirely different direction. “When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt,” she said.

 

Georgia is a work of fiction and, while the rich descriptions of O’Keeffe’s art are well-written, reading about them will inspire you to look up O’Keeffe’s actual works. Georgia O’Keeffe: An Eternal Spirit by Susan Wright offers a great overview and pictures of her most famous paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction by Barbara Haskell and E. Bruce Robertson is a great companion to the novel as it focuses on some of her often-overlooked art. Also worth watching is this brief video about her life and work from the O’Keeffe Museum.

 


 
 

Grant Park

posted by: April 19, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Grant ParkOn March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.

 

On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.

 

Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.


 
 

The Girl with Ghost Eyes

posted by: April 14, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Girl with Ghost EyesImmigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.

 

Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes —  the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.

 

The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.

 

This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.

 


 
 

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