Jane Smiley continues the saga of the Langdon family with Early Warning, the second installment in her trilogy. Picking up the story from where it left off at the end of Some Luck, Early Warning begins in 1953. We follow the second generation through the Cold War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King and wars across the planet. Mothers raise their children according to Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach. Fathers take jobs that make their fortunes and bend their principles. Through the social unrest of the campuses, the shifting political tides, the Jonestown Massacre and Watergate there is one constancy — the family.
Only one child of Matthew and Roseanna Langdon will choose to stay on the farm. The siblings roam the country — in some cases the world — and settle in locations from Maryland to California. The Langdons are prolific, but fortunately Smiley provides a family tree in case we get lost. Indeed, some of the characters lose themselves along the way, only to find themselves in unexpected ways. Through it all, we find ourselves sharing the joy and heartache as each Langdon child negotiates the perils of adulthood and defines their own family. Despite the foibles of the world, it is ultimately the daily challenges that affect our lives the most.
Each chapter depicts a year of the characters’ lives. Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, is a master at weaving a tale through large historical events while never losing the minutia of daily life. In Early Warning, she chronicles the story of America through the lens of 19 characters while staying true to the story and their personalities.
Daniel Torday’s new novel The Last Flight of Poxl West is so meticulously researched and convincingly written, readers will believe they’ve found the second coming of Unbroken. Similar in theme, The Last Flight of Poxl West is the story of Leopold Weisberg, a.k.a. Poxl West, a Czechoslovakian pilot who enlists in the Royal Air Force (RAF) to combat Nazis in the skies above Britain. Poxl’s story is told in portions of excerpts from his memoirs and from the present-day perspective of Eli Goldstein, Poxl’s young nephew who idolizes his uncle.
Poxl and Eli take frequent trips into town for ice cream sundaes. Over mounds of whipped cream topped with cherries and sprinkles, Poxl regales Eli with stories from a rough draft of a manuscript he’s working on, which would later become Skylock, his best-selling memoir. Eli treasures time with his uncle and is proud when Poxl’s book is released to critical acclaim, but he soon feels the sting of his uncle’s absence when Skylock flies Poxl to stardom.
Skylock is Poxl’s story of his life during World War II. He spent his teenage years watching his mother paint and his father tinker with a personal airplane, until pressure from the encroaching Reich and a familial disturbance cause him to flee to the Netherlands. The next few years of Poxl’s life are marred with love and loss and pockmarked from falling bombs. Remorse drives Poxl to enlist in the RAF and take to the skies, where he hopes to reciprocate the pain the Nazis have caused him.
In 250 words Poxl’s story sounds heroic, but what sets The Last Flight of Poxl West apart from other WWII stories or other memoirs of courage and victory is Poxl’s motivation. Depending on how readers perceive his actions, he could be a brave and selfless soldier, or he could be an obsessive and cowardly young man. It’s up to readers to decide which flight is actually Poxl’s last.
In Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, Jennifer Chiaverini proves once again that she is an amazing writer of historical fiction. She manages to capture the feeling of a particular era and also give her characters authentic voices. This time her subjects are Julia Dent Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant, and Jule Dent, lady’s maid and slave of Mrs. Grant.
Chiaverini’s story spans the years before, during and after the Civil War and is told from both Julia Grant’s and Jule’s points of view. We witness young Julia and Jule growing up together on the Dent plantation in Missouri where they seem to be best friends. However, their relationship quickly changes as the girls become young women and Julia begins to treat Jule more like a servant and less like a friend. Throughout the many years they spend together, Julia never seems aware of how much Jule would like to be her own woman, to make her own decisions and to be free. As Chiaverini portrays her, Julia believes that slaves are happy with their lot in life. When Jule expresses her desire to be a free woman, Julia is incredulous, saying to her, “You had a roof over your head and plenty to eat,” as if these are valid reasons for Jule to remain enslaved. Even after marrying Ulysses Grant, whose Ohio family are abolitionists, Julia still cannot believe that freeing slaves is a good idea.
Whether or not Julia Grant took quite so long to comprehend the evils of slavery, Chiaverini uses her as a representation of what many slaveholders of the day may have felt. After the Civil War ended and all slaves were freed, these newly emancipated people faced a very uncertain future as demonstrated by Jule. She struggles to make her own way in the world, and although it is not an easy path, she reflects that at least she now is free to choose which path to take.
Another great thing that Chiaverini does in her book is include the titles of the sources she used to research her subjects so the reader can find out more about Julia, Jule and the other historical characters that are referenced. As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws to a close, this book is a great way to understand how the events during that time period effected both famous and everyday people’s lives.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen is a deeply poignant story of love, friendship and the true rewards of life.
Madeline Hyde is a member of high society, and as such, it is expected that she and her husband deport themselves with at least a little dignity. But Maddie and her husband Ellis, along with their best friend Hank, enjoy an extravagant lifestyle filled with parties and pranks. One fateful New Year’s Eve night in 1945, they go too far and the disgrace is too much for Ellis’ parents. Maddie and Ellis are thrown out of the parent’s palatial home and forced to live on a pittance. Determined to get back into his father’s good graces, Ellis plots to redeem his father’s reputation. For Colonel Hyde has a scandal of his own; he claimed to see the Loch Ness Monster, and all of his evidence was later proved fraudulent. Designated physically unfit for military duty, Ellis and Hank are free to pursue their mad scheme, achieve fame and work their way back into Ellis’ fortune.
Ellis, Maddie and Hank endure a perilous sea voyage and arrive at a remote Scottish village to encounter the reality of war-torn Europe. Abandoned by Ellis and Hank for weeks at a time, Maddie discovers rationing, shortages and “making do or do without.” Left to her own devices, Maddie is enlightened to some harsh truths and forms genuine relationships. She also discovers that not all monsters are at the water’s edge.
Sara Gruen is a magical storyteller, immersing the reader in visions of extreme privilege and desperate hardship. This is a riveting tale of self-discovery, an examination of female friendship and the effects of of war on a small community. Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Water for Elephants, Ape House, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes.
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini take you on a journey as twisted and complex as the streets and alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown in their latest work The Body Snatchers Affair. John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, former Pinkerton detectives now operating an independent detective agency, have seemingly unrelated cases. John is searching the back alleys for illicit opium dens in the hope of finding a prominent attorney who has gone off the rails. Sabina is trying to retrieve a corpse snatched from the vault of a recently bereaved wealthy family and foil the blackmailers’ ghoulish scheme. Operating in Chinatown under the imminent threat of a tong war, John and Sabina must negotiate the corruption in both the police department and the city’s underworld. They are also negotiating their increasingly complicated relationship as Sabina is wooed by a prominent gold engineer and John deals with his jealousy. Lurking in the shadows is a crackbrain character claiming to be Sherlock Holmes.
Rich with the atmosphere of late 1890s San Francisco, the author’s passion for the city’s culture and history shines through every page. They are the only living married couple to be named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America. Marcia Muller is considered to be the mother of the female hardboiled detective genre, introducing Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. Bill Pronzini is known for his Nameless detective series set in San Francisco. The Body Snatchers Affair is the third entry in this series, but is an excellent read even without reading the previous titles. Fans of Shirley Tallman, Victoria Thompson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will enjoy the period, while fans of Agatha Christie will enjoy the plot twists and turns.
Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
In an English village, a son awaits the undertaker after the death of his beloved mother. In a Serbian town, the murder of an archduke sends turbulence throughout Europe. Little does Inspector Ian Rutledge know how profoundly these deaths will affect his life.
Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day carries us back to 1914, before the war forever damaged a young inspector and an entire European generation. Resented by his superior for his upper class credentials, Rutledge must convince the obtuse, results-driven Chief Superintendent Bowles there is a pattern in seemingly unconnected murders. On the face of it, they all committed suicide. No one would drink that much laudanum unless they intended to end their life. But too many men of property are dying for no reason. Despite instructions, Rutledge resolves to unearth the common denominator before more innocent people lose their lives. While doing so, he must convince his fiancé that his profession is a true calling, not simply a whim easily discarded.
Rutledge, destined for a brilliant career at the Yard, is in love with Jean Gordon. He is determined to marry her despite advice against it. The daughter of a career Army officer who believes there is no greater glory than to serve King and Country, Jean urges Rutledge to claim that glory quickly, before the war ends. After all, it will all be over by Christmas.
This is the 17th entry in the Inspector Rutledge series by mother and son writing team David Todd Watjen and Carolyn L.T. Watjen. If you are new to the series, it’s the perfect introduction to one of the best characters in historical fiction today. For current readers, it’s deeply poignant to see Ian as he was before the war; idealistic, insightful, confident, composed. The Watjen’s have won the Barry Award and were finalists for the Anthony, Edgar, Dilys, Macavity, Agatha and Nero awards. As we honor the memories of those who served 100 years ago, this outstanding historical fiction truly brings a lost generation to life.
Poet, playwright and novelist Greer Macallister inspires intrigue with The Magician’s Lie. While Macallister’s plays have been performed at the American University and she has been published in periodicals such as the North American Review, this is her debut novel.
The Amazing Arden is one of the few female magicians in the early 1900s, which is controversial enough without her being wanted in question for her husband’s murder. Virgil, a down on his luck police officer, stumbles upon Arden and, though he is able to restrain her, he is unsure of her. As the capture would substantially boost his status, Virgil is conflicted about how to proceed.
After bringing the magician to his office and restraining her with several pairs of handcuffs, he allows her to recount her story before deciding how to move forward. Arden’s story is so captivating that Virgil can’t help but be taken in by her resilience and attention to detail. It’s in the midst of the narrative when Virgil learns that Arden may just have something to offer Virgil that he can’t get elsewhere, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
Macallister is able to use Arden’s story to pull the reader into history and what life was like for a young woman with few options in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With Arden’s success she is able to challenge the traditional gender roles for woman of the time, transforming her character into an inspiration. If after reading this you are looking for another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist, look to Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.
Jane Austen apparently got the idea for Pride and Prejudice from an 80 year old minister named Mansfield. At least, that’s the general premise in Charles Lovett’s novel First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen which delves into possible connections between Austen and Mansfield. Told in chapters that jump back and forth between Austen’s time and the present, Lovett’s modern day heroine, Sophie Collingwood, is part Austen scholar and part amateur sleuth.
Sophie’s world has centered on her beloved Uncle Bertram who introduced her to great writers such as Austen. When Bertram dies of an alleged accidental fall down his stairs, Sophie begins to suspect that someone may have wanted her uncle dead. It all seems to be related to an obscure book in her uncle’s collection written by Mansfield that may shed some light on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice. However, as she digs into the mystery of her Uncle’s death and the missing manuscript, Sophie puts herself into a very dangerous situation.
Lovett is at his best when he is engaged in the modern day writing of the conflicts and crises in Sophie’s rather than Austen’s world. While this book is a work of fiction, there are some historical facts mixed in. After finishing this book, readers may want to do some research on their own to discover which parts are invented and which parts are true.
When faced with a tragedy, it is common to reflect on what might have been if only we had done or said something differently. This is the theme explored by German author Jenny Erpenbeck in The End of Days. Set in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, the story begins with the sudden accidental death of an infant girl. The tragedy tears the family apart. But what if her parents could have found the baby in her cradle in time, and by some miracle had managed to bring life back into that little girl? What path would their lives have taken if only their baby hadn’t died?
Erpenbeck’s story is written in five parts, exploring the possible paths that this one life could take if only something different had happened. While the first part is her death as an infant, the second part begins with the girl as a teenager in Vienna just after the end of World War I. Her fate stems from her choices made as a rebellious youth, getting mixed up with the wrong boy and paying for those choices with her life. What would have happened if different choices had been made? Each of the following parts explore those possible lives, and by the fifth telling, her life spans almost a century.
Readers who enjoy the works of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy may be interested in this book for its complex style of writing and bleak, haunting themes. I was drawn to this book because of the thought-provoking subject matter and because I enjoy historical fiction set in Europe. It is human nature to think about what might have been, and Erpenbeck deftly explores this subject with grace.