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.
Keeping secrets is a tricky business and can be the death knell of a relationship. Two new romance novels present characters conflicted by secrets which threaten their happy-ever-after.
Sarah MacLean concludes her Rules of Scoundrels series in spectacular fashion with Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. Lady Georgiana’s fall from grace before her first season was colossal. Pregnant and unwed, she was cast from society but rebounded with the help of three other ruined women and created The Fallen Angel, London’s most successful gaming club. But life in the fast lane is hampering her daughter’s future and Georgiana needs to marry well to clean up her reputation and re-enter society. Handsome newspaper tycoon Duncan West agrees to assist Georgiana in her efforts by using his resources as an outlet for planting articles shining her in a glowing light. As the two grow close, their chemistry intensifies and readers will be rooting for this dynamic couple to find forever love all while being shocked by the secrets revealed.
Marcus is the dissolute Duke of Rutherford in Megan Frampton’s The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior, the promising start to the Dukes Behaving Badly series. Marcus is stunned when 4-year-old Rose, his unknown child, arrives on his doorstep. He hires governess Lily to care for his newfound daughter and finds himself quickly attracted to Lily’s quiet beauty. His feelings are so strong that he vows to change his wicked habits and requests Lily’s help in becoming a proper gentleman in the hopes of one day securing her love. But Lily has a secret that could change everything, especially her future with Marcus. Readers will fall in love with Marcus and Lily who share quick wit, thoughtful conversations and a common love for Rose, all while their physical attraction grows impossible to ignore.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
Life has always been in the details for Addie Baum, the 85-year-old protagonist in Anita Diamant's new historical novel, The Boston Girl. When her youngest granddaughter asks her to tell her life story, Addie starts at the beginning. Born at the turn of the century, this daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants endures disappointments and obstacles along the way to living a full life defined by plucky resolve and passion. In Diamant's capable hands, Addie's first person narrative is a gentle and lovely rewinding back to the soul of another time and place.
Coming of age as a Jewish woman in the 20th century, Addie endures the endless harping of her suspicious mother who sees America as the wrecker of young women. Home is in a tenement in the north end of Boston, where there is just enough money for food and rent. Staying in school becomes Addie's dream despite her mother's low expectations. It's her love of reading that opens doors to the world she will eventually inhabit. When she lands an invite to join the Saturday Club girls at their camp at Rockport Lodge, she forms friendships along with opinions and new experiences. For Addie, it is time of Parker House rolls and keeping boys from getting "fresh." When she tries on long pants for the first time she can't believe how liberating it feels.
Diamant, whose previous works include the highly regarded The Red Tent, wades through a significant period in American history, including sweat shops, the flu epidemic, World War I, the Depression and feminism, just as Addie matures and exploits her own personal potential. While this latest novel may be a lighter read than Diamant's previous works, readers will enjoy the plot-moving short chapters that capture the intrinsic nature of the early 20th century immigrant experience in America. The Boston Girl should make an excellent book club selection for those examining the breadth of connections that sustain us.
Imogen Robertson invites readers on a journey to Paris, 1909, the height of La Belle Epoque, where the alluring excess of the era comes to vivid life in The Paris Winter. Robertson introduces readers to three fiercely independent young women whose friendship is built on a common love of art, but who are quickly ensnared in a sinister plot.
For Maud, a destitute art student at the Académie Lafond, life is anything but decadent. Her inheritance only covers rent and tuition, leaving her no choice but to go hungry. School friends Yvette and Tanya quickly notice their proud friend’s state and secretly intervene to get her a job as a companion to wealthy Christian Morel’s sickly sister Sylvie. Maud can hardly believe her fortune as the position includes a warm, clean room and plenty of hot meals. The security of her employment also allows her to focus her energy on her art. But all is not well in the House of Morel as the private lives of the siblings are vastly different from their public personae. Sylvie is hiding an opium addiction and Christian’s aura of intrigue feels threatening.
Maud embraces their secrets as her own, but before long finds herself embroiled in sinister plots which take her and her friends from the gritty underbelly of Paris to the haunts of the upper class. The three young women grow as they work together to uncover the truth amidst so much deception. Robertson’s characters are memorable and her colorful, detailed descriptions serve to create a strong sense of place and time. Art lovers, history buffs and armchair sleuths won’t be able to put this thriller down.
Award-winning author Molly Gloss’ newest novel has a transitional setting that begins on a ranch in Oregon in 1938, but the narrator looks at the past and whispers of present day. Falling from Horses is a layered work of fiction that strategically weaves together a man’s whole life by looking at the events that helped define it.
The protagonist, Bud Frazer, is the son of humble tenant ranchers. His upbringing instilled in him a way of life that Bud decides to use for a career, though not in the way his parents anticipated. Upon leaving home as a new adult, he tries his hand in the rodeo circuit before deciding to move to Hollywood and become a stunt rider for Western films. Eager to rub elbows with all the big names of the day, Bud packs his bags and hops a bus south. En route to Hollywood, Bud meets Lily, an aspiring screenwriter, and in their short time together on that bus trip they fall into a platonic relationship that spans a lifetime.
Those that have enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses should pick this one up and give it a go. Like McCarthy, Gloss’ work is a character-driven narrative of a young man trying to find his path in the twisting and turning maze of life.
Truth 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.
Throughout 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.)
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.
Two 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.
As 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.