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Au Natural

Au Natural

posted by:
October 20, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Sun Is GodTruth is stranger than fiction, and Adrian McKinty’s latest novel The Sun Is God is based on a true mystery surrounding the German nudists known as Cocovores. It is 1906 in Colonial New Guinea and the body of Max Lutzow, who has apparently died of malaria, has been transported to the capital city. An autopsy proves otherwise and the suspicious circumstances of the death have to be investigated. Max was a member of the Cocovores, an extreme group of nudists who worship the sun god Apollo and eat only things that grow from the tops of trees.  Will Prior had previously worked for the British military during the Boer War, and seems perfectly suited to solve this unusual crime.  Paired with a captain of the German army and a feisty female travel writer, Will heads to the isle of Kabakon to solve the murder.

 

McKinty is a thoughtful writer and skilled at crafting a really good tale. The characters are solid and he spends enough time fleshing out Will Prior’s background and current circumstances to make him an interesting protagonist. The unusual setting is described in perfect detail and the book will have many a reader peering around for a stray mosquito.  The book becomes all the more fascinating when reading the afterword, where the reader discovers that the Cocovores were an actual documented group of people living this lifestyle just after the turn of the century. Although this novel is meant to be a stand-alone, readers who enjoy McKinty’s style may want to pick up his novels featuring Detective Sean Duffy. The first in the Duffy series is called The Cold Cold Ground.
 

Doug

 
 

Between the Covers with Mary Jo Putney

Cover art for Not Quite a WifeThroughout her career, author Mary Jo Putney has received multiple RITA nominations and awards, two Romantic Times Career Achievement Awards and the Romance Writers of America’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. She also has something in common with many of our readers — she’s a BCPL customer! In Putney’s new book Not Quite a Wife, which recently hit The New York Times Best Sellers list, fate brings a couple back together for a second chance at love.
 

Putney recently took some time to answer questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about her new book, her advice for aspiring writers and her favorite things about Baltimore.

 

Between the Covers: Describe Not Quite a Wife in one sentence.
Mary Jo Putney: A long-estranged couple who never stopped loving each other must come together again to see if they can rebuild their marriage.

 

BTC: You’ve written in several genres throughout your career, but you’re probably best known for your rich historical romances. What about the Regency era inspires you most? Do you find yourself researching less now or does each book and its characters demand its own research?
MJP: The Regency was a time of change, a transition from the old regime world into what has become our modern world. The industrial age was shattering the old feudal/agricultural structure, the ideas of the enlightenment were leading to better education, more equality and individualism and reform moves like abolition and eventually women's rights. There was also the creative Romantic revolution in writing, painting, music and other areas of life. Plus, a great war against a continental tyrant: Napoleon. It gives writers so much to work with!
 

The amount of research varies. By now, I've developed a fairly broad foundation of Regency knowledge, but every book will have some new topics to research. For example, in Not Quite a Wife I was looking at things like Bristol's historic role in the slave trade and the development of steamship service on the Thames as well as studying maps of London's dockyards. That's part of what makes writing historical novels so interesting.

 

BTC: What’s a typical work day like for you? Is there such a thing as a typical work day?
MJP: Days can vary enormously! I'm more owl than lark. After breakfast, I sip coffee and check email. Three mornings a week, I go to Curves to exercise, since sitting at a computer too long is hard on the body and I need to stretch. I spend time on blogging — I'm part of a long running blog, the Word Wenches, and we all contribute regularly. (They're a great group, both as writers and as friends.)Photo of Mary Jo Putney
 

I also spend a fair amount of time working at re-publishing my older books. I love that it's now possible to make all those backlist stories available as e-books. But the closer a deadline is, the more time I spend actually writing new work. Everything else gets pushed out!

 

BTC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
MJP: Read, read, read! You need to thoroughly understand the genre you want to write in, and what you love to read and to write. You also need to work on the craft of writing. No matter how good a natural storyteller you are, you must also have enough writing skill to tell that story well. For romance writers, I recommend joining the Romance Writers of America. It's a large group with a lot of classes and opportunities to find critique. The local chapter is Maryland Romance Writers, and I've been a member since two months after I started my first book.

 

BTC: What are your favorite things about living in Baltimore?
MJP: I love the variety and history of Baltimore and Maryland. The people are nice, the weather provides four distinct and generally pleasant seasons, and there's lots of social and historical texture. Since I didn't grow up here, there are still things I'm learning despite having lived in Baltimore for many years.

 

BTC: What can readers look forward to from you next?
MJP: I've been writing a Regency historical series called the Lost Lords. All the heroes attended a school for boys of "good birth and bad behavior." Basically, as kids they were square pegs in round holes, and the school not only taught them how to adapt to society without losing their souls, but how to build deep friendships as well.
 

The sixth book in the series, Not Quite a Wife, has just been released, and I'm working on the book for next year, Not Always a Saint. Though the different characters show up in different stories, basically each book stands alone by focusing on the romance of just one couple.
 

Thanks for having me here! Since BCPL is my local library, this is a particular pleasure.

Beth

 
 

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

posted by:
September 25, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Butterfly and the ViolinTwo young women connected through a painting and distanced by time are at the heart of Kristy Cambron's debut historical novel, The Butterfly and the Violin. In 1942, Adele Von Bron is the darling of Vienna society, an accomplished violinist and the doted-upon daughter of a high-ranking military officer.  Her privileged upbringing keeps her removed from the Nazi killing squads until she meets Vladimir, a fellow musician and merchant's son.  Eventually the couple's sympathies toward the Jews land them in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Adele is imprisoned to be "reeducated," and her beloved violin becomes her lifeline when she is conscripted to play in the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz.

 

Seventy years later, Manhattan art gallery owner Sera James is haunted by the one last link to her father. It is a painting she remembers from childhood of a beautiful Auschwitz prisoner, violin in hand. Escaping her own disappointing past, she embarks on a singular quest to find the girl with the penetrating blue eyes and learn her story. When Sera's  journey takes her to California to the one other person equally absorbed with finding the painting, her life is about to change. The wealthy, handsome William Hanover may be just the person Sera needs to realize more than just one dream.

 

 
Cambron, who admits to being fascinated with World War II, brings to bear the human need to create art even among the battered landscape of war. With a double narrative and shifting points of view, she captures the historical breadth of the time period with an inspirational tone. Her research included a moving interview with an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. "The experience added such a note of realism to Adele's story that I almost felt as if she was real, that she'd actually been there and fought to survive alongside the rest of the souls in that horrible place," Cambron recalled. Her second book in the new Hidden Masterpiece series, A Sparrow in Terezin, is due out next April.
 

Cynthia

 
 

Hero or Villain

Hero or Villain

posted by:
September 5, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for An Unwilling AccompliceAs World War I rages towards its close, nurse Bess Crawford is called to London to assist a former patient who is being decorated for gallantry by King George. Instead, she finds herself An Unwilling Accomplice to the hero’s escape plan in this historical mystery by Charles Todd.

 

Confident that her patient, Sgt. Jason Wilkins, is settled for the evening, Bess enjoys a rare quiet dinner in a hotel dining room with long-time friend Sgt. Major Simon Brandon. Before retiring for the evening, Bess checks her suffering patient, making him as comfortable as possible. The dawn’s light reveals an empty bed and her patient’s discarded bandages. How could a profoundly wounded man, requiring the use of a wheelchair, escape from a public building? The military police demand the answer to that question, and they think Bess is the key. Overnight, Bess’ record as a dedicated nurse known for her bravery and skill is blemished when she is implicated in his escape. Further complicating an already difficult situation, Sgt. Wilkins is a suspect in the murder of a civilian in a tiny village. Determined to clear her name, Bess and Simon must unravel the threads of the deep secrets so carefully concealed by the villagers.

 

Charles Todd is the pen name of the mother and son team Charles and Caroline Todd. Together, they capture the essence of the historical period, weaving an atmosphere of quiet desperation as soldiers and civilians alike bear the burden of the horrific war. Few authors have recreated the grave effect on a generation with the realism and sensitivity of this team of American writers. Fans of Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear and Kerry Greenwood will find a deeply satisfying read. Also recommended are the previous works in this series, which begins with A Duty to the Dead. Todd also writes a series centered on a shell-shocked soldier who resumes his position as an inspector at Scotland Yard. The Ian Rutledge series begins with A Test of Wills.

Leanne

 
 

Return from the Dead

Return from the Dead

posted by:
August 27, 2014 - 8:00am

The Lazarus CurseTessa Harris’ fourth entry in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone mysteries examines the ethics of scientific research and the tenuous laws governing slavery in Georgian England.

 

It is 1783, and for most doctors in England, bloodletting is still the preferred treatment. Philadelphia-born Thomas Silkstone is a gifted anatomist and physician whose modern treatments prove controversial. Considered a rebel and an upstart, he is welcomed by some and vilified by others. Highly respected by more progressive scientists, Thomas has been chosen by the president of the Royal College to identify and catalog almost 200 different species of Caribbean plants which may contain unusual life-saving properties. The scientists involved in the expedition have died during the voyage and their notes have disappeared. This greatly complicates Thomas’ daunting task.

 

Examining the exotic plants introduces a whole new world to Thomas; at once fascinating and repellant. The Caribbean is the home of some of the most brutal slave plantations on earth. Called upon to treat a slave-owning planter visiting London, Thomas discovers a dark world of fear, exploitation and magic. Has an ancient ritual brought about the mistresses’ mysterious illness, or is there a medical explanation? Is it possible to bring the dead back to life, or is it mere trickery and deceit? As Thomas ponders these questions, he discovers that the eminent anatomist Hubert Izzard is suddenly obtaining an abundance of fresh corpses to dissect. In Georgian England, no person of decent family would turn over their loved one’s body for dissection. Then, Thomas learns that all of these corpses are the bodies of African slaves. Suspecting foul play, Thomas is determined to unearth the truth and achieve justice for the most vulnerable victims of all.

 

Tessa Harris has created a thoroughly researched work which brings to light a little-known aspect of English history and law. This complex tale of ambition and greed is capped by an unexpected ending. The Lazarus Curse is sure to please fans of Imogene Robertson’s Gabriel Crowther and Alex Grecian’s Dr. Bernard Kingsley.

Leanne

 
 

Family Secrets in a Changing World

When the World Was YoungAmidst the commotion of V-J Day, 8-year-old Wally Baker is enjoying the sights and sounds of a joyous Brooklyn celebrating the end of the tumultuous war; shopkeepers are handing out candy and toys, school friends are marching with tiny flags attached to pencils, and everyone is smiling, laughing and dancing in the streets. Wally’s mother, Stella, is stoically guiding her to her grandmother’s house among the boisterous throng of people, and Wally wishes to be a part of the party. What Wally doesn’t know is that this day, one that changed the lives of so many, will change her life and that of her family forever.

 

Elizabeth Gaffney’s When the World Was Young is a novel of war and its aftermath: both in wars fought overseas and by the intimate secrets that divide a family and people from themselves. Each character–from Loretta, the housekeeper who is more like a second mother to Wally (without receiving the acknowledgement that she is), to Ham, Loretta’s son, to the Baker family’s odd boarder Mr. Niederman–has something to hide, and finds war-time to be the perfect cover-up. “How many other sins and secrets had been papered over by the war?” wonders Mr. Niederman. But after the war, how can those sins and secrets stay hidden?

 

Ultimately, the novel is Wally’s story. We follow her from an 8-year-old girl obsessed with entomology to a young woman who hasn’t quite left her childish outlook behind, even as both her world and the world at large have changed over time. Sexism, racism, family crisis, suicide and other injustices shape her character, and she walks the line between being pitied and admired. Readers who are looking for a novel of definitive time and place will love the descriptions of post-WWII Brooklyn brownstones. Fans of multi-layered character novels and historical fiction, like those of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Penny Vicenzi, will welcome this new novel.

Jessica

 
 

Between the Covers with Katy Simpson Smith

The Story of Land and SeaOne of the most anticipated debut novels this fall is The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith. The novel centers on a family living in a small coastal town in North Carolina at the end of the 18th century. Anita Shreve praises the novel, saying that it will give readers “several hours of pure pleasure and a rare glimpse of grace in a fictional world.”

 

Smith recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers about The Story of Land and Sea and the fascinating inspiration for her novel.

 

Between the Covers: What inspired you to write The Story of Land and Sea?

Katy Simpson Smith: The germ of the story came from a trip I took to Beaufort when I was living in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful historic town [with] a graveyard chock full of interesting stories. One of the graves that most arrested me had a marker that read “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg”—no name, no date. Imagining this girl’s life led me to all the other characters in the novel.

 

BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about the research that went into creating this story?Photo credit: Elise Smith

KSS: I have a background in history and particularly studied the late 18th century when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school. For that project, I read so many letters and diaries and record books that the language of the time period became an almost natural rhythm in my head. That’s, of course, the hardest leap—trying to imagine not just what these people ate and wore but how they formed their ideas. But I also had to research all the small things, too: the various parts of a ship, the stages of yellow fever, the movements of the Continental Army. This is probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me. 

 

BTC: Parent-child relationships play an important part in the novel. What do you think it is about that relationship that makes it so compelling even though it’s such a common theme in fiction?

KSS: I think families are something every one of us can relate to; we’re all born into them, for better or worse, and the presence or absence of parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. can shape how we respond to our environments. Family is the lens through which we interpret what happens to us. The interactions between parents and children are so various and weighted with meaning that we could write fiction for another thousand years and never exhaust the subject.

 

BTC: You have earned a Ph.D. in history as well as a MFA, so writing a historical novel seems like the perfect way to combine your interests. Did you always want to write fiction?

KSS: I’ve been writing since I was tiny! Stories about fairies, stories about little girls with a dozen siblings, mawkish poems. I think it just took me many years to realize that making up stories could be more than a secret passion. Taking that first step from history to fiction was remarkably scary, but it turns out that doing what you love really is the best feeling in the world.

 

BTC: The Story of Land and Sea is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?

KSS: Everything has been pretty exciting, but I think I was giddiest when I flew to New York to meet with editors. Not only did I get to walk around New York, feeling like an awestruck country mouse, but I discovered that all these big-time publishing people aren’t scary at all—they’re simply regular people who love books an awful lot, just like me. As for what’s been surprising, again, it’s kind of everything! I hope one day that I’m an old hand at all this, but I can guarantee it’s going to take a long time for the novelty to wear off.

 

BTC: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

KSS: I’m actually working now on my second novel, which is also historical and set in the South. It’s been good to have a project to bury my head in during the craziness of the publishing process!

Beth

 
 

Between the Covers with Susan Vreeland

Cover art for Lisette's ListGreat art "is capable of grabbing a person," explains one of the characters in Lisette's List, the equally enthralling new historical novel by bestselling author Susan Vreeland. Fans of Ms. Vreeland and her well regarded art-inspired fiction will not be disappointed with this story of a young woman's defining journey into the ordinary life of a rural French village and the power of art that beckons her amidst a world war. Recently, Susan Vreeland answered questions for Between the Covers about her latest effort.

 

Between the Covers: In Lisette’s List, you introduce readers to one of the most beautiful villages in France and to the organic nature of art in this sweeping story of self-discovery set around World War II. Unlike your previous art-related novels, this story explores more than one work of art. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea and the setting for this latest book?
Susan Vreeland: It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist's friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters who I wanted to embrace.
 

Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.

 

BTC: Lisette tells her own story. What made you decide on a first-person narrator?
SV: First person was a natural choice. I wanted Lisette's realizations and discoveries to be revealed in her own voice. I thought that would lend an air of authenticity to the story if she would be the one to deliver it. Also, this point of view lent itself to her writing of her “List of Hungers and Vows.”

 

BTC: As a writer of historical fiction, how do you reconcile the facts of the time period with your characters’ development?
SV: One has to be careful with this. A writer of historical fiction cannot stray too far away from recorded fact. Integrating a fictional character is not hard when that character encounters events of history, as in this case, World War II. In fact, the wealth of information about that war helped me invent peripheral characters, like Bernard. An enigma for much of the novel, he ends up illustrating the conclusion that in war, particularly a long war, no one comes out unstained. That applies to Maxime as well.
Photo of Susan Vreeland

BTC: Inspired to “do the important things first,” Lisette creates a list of vows to herself. Are you maker of lists yourself?
SV: I suppose I am: lists of ideas for novels and poems, lists of books to read, lists of things I want to learn, lists of places I want to go. However, I don't keep a superficial bucket list, as common parlance calls it, nor should we think of Lisette's list as a bucket list. I consider it to be deeper, at least most of the items on it. They are designed to show the inner Lisette to us.

 

BTC: At what moment did you realize the power of art could be conveyed through your stories?
SV: This happened very early on. Let's take my first art-related novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Lisette's List as examples. Both involve the Second World War, and large-scale pillage of art as well as small-scale theft. In writing the separate stories that comprise Girl, I realized that art could be coveted, that art could betray a secret, that art could exonerate bad behavior, that it could be seen as a commodity, that it could be loved by the unfortunate and uneducated as well as the fortunate and educated, and that it could be loved in a pure sense of awe at its beauty. If you reread Girl, you'll see that I have described each chapter this way.
 

Now, with Lisette's List, I move deeper in developing the theme of the power of art. While the uneducated (Pascal) also adores paintings, it is the educated (Maxime) who sees in them the scope of art history and for what they do for people. Great art, he says, “is capable of grabbing a person...and holding him in a trancelike state of union with the subject until he sees who he is or who we are as human beings more clearly...Being completely absorbed by a piece of art, he becomes minutely different than he was before, less limited to his previous, narrower self, and this equips him to live a better life and to avoid getting swallowed by the world's chaos.”

 

BTC: Of the works you have researched do you have any favorites?
SV: As difficult a question as choosing which of one's children one loves most. Certainly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party comes to mind, for the joie de vivre of 14 of Renoir's friends enjoying an afternoon on a terrace overlooking the Seine, and so openly allowing me to tell their stories. From Lisette's List, I favor Chagall's exultant Promenade with Marc holding up Bella on one hand as she flutters sideways in the sky, too exuberant after the October Revolution in Russia to remain on the earth. And from The Forest Lover, Emily Carr's monumental painting of a Red Cedar, “…more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that brought her this far: reaching.”

 

BTC: Libraries have played a significant role in your growth as a writer and researcher. Can you share a favorite memory?
SV: Ah, libraries, my second homes from grade school to adulthood, and the groundwork of my fiction. It was a librarian who found for me a dissertation from the Sorbonne on 19th century boating on the Seine which authenticated scenes in my novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.
 

And it was a librarian who located for me Chagall's historic "Letter to the Paris Artists, 1944," a thrilling discovery. Reading this important letter led me to see that the novel I was writing, Lisette's List, was more than a narrow story of a woman retrieving her family's seven paintings, hidden and lost during the Occupation. Her experience was a microcosm of the vast and systematic seizure of Europe's art by what Chagall called "satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul — the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity." By focusing on one character's loss, I could represent the larger issue of vast art theft, hidden hoarding and threats to national patrimony which are still concerns today.
 

Books give birth to books, you see, and librarians are vital to that creativity. We don't know what important research is being done today, what projects are underway in our cities — in the arts, the humanities, the sciences — but librarians get glimpses, and that's what must make them so dedicated to helping their researching patrons.

Cynthia

 
 

Love Letter to Poirot

Love Letter to Poirot

posted by:
August 14, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for The Monogram MurdersAuthor Sophie Hannah, with full permission from Agatha Christie’s family, has sharpened her little grey cells and put pen to paper to create a brand new mystery featuring Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s best-loved sleuths. The Monogram Murders begins in 1920 as Poirot escapes the bustle of the city by enjoying a cup of coffee in a small coffee house. There, he meets the distraught Jennie who is in fear for her life and spinning a tale of murder and justice. Before he can discover the full story, Jennie flees the coffee shop and is nowhere to be found. Three dead bodies are soon discovered in a nearby hotel, each with a cufflink stuffed into its mouth. Poirot senses a connection. Can the little Belgian detective solve the murder and find Jennie before it is too late?

 

Agatha Christie fans will rejoice that Sophie Hannah is able to continue the adventures of their beloved obsessive detective. Agatha Christie featured Poirot in 33 novels and 50 short stories, including Cards on the Table, where a game of bridge turns deadly, and Death on the Nile, where a honeymoon vacation abruptly comes to a halt. Every one of the stories and novels were filmed by the BBC and feature actor David Suchet. The final films can be seen in Poirot: Series 13, a collection of five films, including Elephants Can Remember and Dead Man’s Folly.

 

With over four billion novels sold, Agatha Christie has become the best-selling novelist of all time, and it is only natural for fans to want more. Sophie Hannah, already a successful crime writer, tackles the challenge with panache, and captures Poirot’s voice and mannerisms perfectly. The novel has colorful suspects, devious twists and turns, and the introduction of a new young detective named Edward Catchpool who is ready to assist Poirot in his efforts to solve the crime. The Monogram Murders will appeal to anyone familiar with Christie, but will also serve as a good introduction to new readers who can then delve in to the works of the true queen of crime.

Doug

 
 

Magic and Memory: A Tale of Two Tricksters

Cover art for The ConfabulistMartin sits in a doctor’s office.

 

He experiences disquiet bordering on irritation as the doctor laboriously details the characteristics of his diagnosis. Later, his mind drifts and he is relieved from the intolerable present by the welcome intrusion of a memory. That picnic from a summer’s day so long ago; the hum of the bees, the drone of his parents’ languid conversation; the soft edges of a single cotton ball cloud scudding overhead. It is a memory worth keeping, even if it never happened.

 

He sighs. It’s been getting more difficult to know the difference these days….

 
Martin’s recollection of the past is changing. Increasingly, confabulations are taking the place of his real memories, and he knows it won’t be long before the truth of what happened in the distant past is lost. But what is truth and what is illusion? What happens when the line separating the two becomes permeable? In The Confabulist, Steven Galloway plays with these questions as he explores the fateful connection between the humble Martin Strauss and Harry Houdini, the greatest illusionist who ever lived.

 

Like so many illusions up the magician’s sleeve, The Confabulist is replete with misdirection and second guesses. From the first pages, Galloway puts us on notice that the narrator cannot be implicitly trusted. The story that follows is therefore as much a game of detective work for the reader as it is a work of historical fiction. Galloway’s skillful interplay between past and present, confabulation and real memory, will keep the reader speculating throughout the intertwining tales.

 

Readers who enjoy Galloway’s treatment of the themes of memory and Victorian spiritualism may also enjoy Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing.
 

Meghan