After France’s stunning defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and its near defeat in WWI, no event garnered more attention or more divided the nation than the Dreyfus Affair. Robert Harris’s new book, An Officer and a Spy, is an incredibly compelling fictional account of the long-simmering scandal, especially the rabid paranoia and anti-Semitism that fueled it.
Harris, as seen in previous works like Fatherland and Pompeii, is a master of historical fiction. In An Officer and a Spy, Harris presents us with a cast of actual historical figures in an account that reads like a spy novel. Georges Picquart is a French Army officer who is convinced of the alleged treason of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer accused of selling secrets to the hated Germans. As an award for his service in the Dreyfus Affair, Picquart is given command of the intelligence section responsible for catching spies in France. Although clearly anti-Semitic himself, Picquart slowly realizes two things: Dreyfus was not guilty, and the real spy is still on the loose. Picquart petitions his superior officers to reopen the Dreyfus case and give him leave to continue the investigation. The French High Command, unwilling to admit its own mistakes and face the political consequences, decides instead to exile Picquart to Tunisia. What follows is a smear campaign and eventually Picquart is defending himself against charges of treason. Meanwhile, over the decade that this story plays out, a solitary figure – Alfred Dreyfus – is kept prisoner on the remote Devil’s Island.
This 100-year-old scandal fits in perfectly with our modern era’s headlines of domestic spying, rendition and puppet trials. It is a novel that is unafraid of showing its hero, George Picquart, as a flawed human being. With its espionage and dramatic courtroom scenes, this novel will have you yelling “J’accuse!” at the power-mongers who would convict innocent men in order to advance their own ambitions.
The Today Show reinstated its book club in 2013, and the first two selections went on to be bestsellers. The newest selection is Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, a fascinating portrayal of the unknown woman behind a famous man. In her new novel, Horan reimagines the lives of author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Although most of us are familiar with Stevenson’s work, few people know about the smart, independent woman who was his wife.
Fanny decides to leave her husband and her life in San Francisco behind to start over. Along with her three children, she travels to Belgium planning to study art. After a tragedy occurs during her travels, Fanny goes to an artists’ retreat in France where she meets Louis, a Scottish man 10 years her junior. Louis is captivated by the beautiful, opinionated and brash American woman. Although she is initially resistant to her suitor, eventually Louis wins her over, and their tumultuous love affair begins. The story takes them across Europe and America and through the South Pacific.
Many readers will remember Horan’s wildly popular first novel Loving Frank, which was the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s love affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Horan says that she is led to these women by first becoming fascinated by the men’s lives. She shares more about what inspires her to write about the lives of these fascinating women in this video.
Lene Kaaberbøl’s Death of a Nightingale begins with Olga and Oxana, two sisters growing up in the Ukraine during the time when Stalin was considered their uncle, whether they liked it or not. During that time, it was hard to tell what was right and what was wrong because regardless of what one did, there was someone who said it was wrong. Olga and Oxana‘s family did what it had to do to get by during famine, but it’s not until years later that the reader sees the ripples of the sisters’ actions.
In the current day, Nina, a Danish nurse with the Red Cross, has taken charge of looking after the asthmatic daughter of Natasha, a woman who was convicted of attempting to kill her abusive fiancé. When Nina agreed to take extra care of this young girl, she didn’t realize protecting her from harm could include keeping her safe from people trying to kill or kidnap her. She becomes entangled in a situation far more dangerous than she could have imagined.
The timing coincides with Natasha’s escape from custody as she sets off to find her daughter and right the wrongs of her past. It is after Natasha’s escape that her ex-fiancé is found tortured and killed in a similar fashion to her ex-husband’s. Although police suspect Natasha, Nina has suspicions that something more is going on. Now she becomes ensnared with keeping Katerina safe at all costs, even if that means saving her from her own mother.
It’s not until the end of this roller coaster of a novel that the reader sees how Olga and Oxana’s past actions have created this tense situation. Though this novel can be read as a stand-alone book, it’s the third in the Nina Borg series. Those who enjoy Nordic crime novels such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are sure to find edge-of-your-seat satisfaction with this series as well.
Mark your calendars for an exciting literary event! Author April Smith will visit the Perry Hall Branch at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9 to talk about her new novel, A Star for Mrs. Blake.
In 1929, Congress passed the Pilgrimage Bill, a piece of legislation that allocated $5 million to help mothers and widows of fallen World War I soldiers travel to France to visit their graves. During the project, 6,693 women made the journey to their loved ones’ graves. Cora Blake is a single mother whose 16-year-old son lied about his age to enlist in the Army near the end of the war. He was killed in action, and she made the difficult decision to have him buried in France. In 1931, Cora is invited to travel to France with a group of American Gold Star Mothers to visit her son’s grave. Although the mothers come from very different backgrounds, they share the common link of their lost sons. The novel follows Cora and her group on their remarkable journey, which changes their lives in surprising and indelible ways.
This beautiful story would be an excellent choice for book clubs. Smith brings this little-known piece of American history to light with warmth and sensitivity. The novel, which is a departure from Smith’s Ana Grey mystery series, is getting a lot of national media attention, and BCPL is delighted to offer our customers this opportunity to meet Smith and learn more about this fascinating story.
Betty Dean is 10 when she moves to the island of Guernsey to live with Arlette, her mother’s boyfriend’s mother in Lisa Jewell’s Before I Met You. Arlette is in her mid-80s, but still independent, stylish and intimidating. Despite the decades that separate the elderly spitfire and the little girl, they become fast friends. When Arlette’s health deteriorates, it is Betty who remains with her, providing loving care while forgoing college, boyfriends and jobs. Following Arlette’s death, Betty is provided with a small amount of money, a fabulous collection of vintage clothes and a chance to finally start living. A bequest to an unknown and unfound woman named Clara Pickle leaves the family puzzled and Betty determined to track her down. Betty quickly moves to SoHo determined to find the mysterious Ms. Pickle and kick start her life in the process.
In searching for Clara, Betty also uncovers truths about Arlette and herself. Jewell simultaneously shares the stories of two young women coming of age in two very different Londons. Arlette is a beautiful and charismatic shop girl in a post-World War I London awash with artists and free thinkers. She is swept up in the bohemian movement and her friends include an impoverished artist and a jazz musician. In Betty’s London, it is 1995 where jobs are scarce and rent is high. She secures employment at Wendy’s and also becomes nanny to the children of notorious rocker Dom Jones. Both young women are balancing independence and good times with work, others’ expectations and romantic entanglements.
As the story glides between the two women, readers will be absorbed by the intrigue of Clara Pickle and embrace the fun and feisty Arlette and Betty. Jewell masterfully paints the portraits of two appealing young women struggling with genuine problems that transcend time. Forbidden romance, family dynamics and finding one’s self are at the core of this engaging and unforgettable novel of two inspirational women connected by fate.
Nora de Jong is a successful brain surgeon and single mother of a beautiful 6-month-old girl. She lives a quiet and happy life in Texas where she shares a home with her widowed mother. Upon returning from work one afternoon she is horrified to discover that her mother has been murdered and her daughter stolen. Frantic to discover a clue to explain this tragedy and locate her baby, she unearths a small box which has been hidden in the attic. The contents are unfathomable, indicating that her mother was a member of the Nazi party in Holland during World War II and that her father had been wanted for murder. Nora is convinced that the answers to who took her daughter are tied to her parents’ past. The Tulip Eaters by Antoinette van Heugten is an intense, fast-paced novel combined with an intriguing work of historical fiction. Through journal entries and recounted memories, the reader is transported to Nazi-occupied Holland. The insidious isolation of the Jews and the heroic actions taken by the members of the Dutch resistance come to life through the author’s insightful writing.
Ms. Van Heugten’s fascination with this time period started close to home. Both of her parents grew up in Holland during the occupation and were members of the resistance. Typical of that generation, they were hesitant to describe their experiences; however, their activities inspired the author to learn more. She spent time in Amsterdam researching at the Dutch War Institute where she was immersed in the daily life and hardships of the war, as told through letters and diaries. The end result is The Tulip Eaters, a thoroughly investigated, action-packed adventure.
In 1600’s England, politics and religion are inextricably intertwined. Times are dark and violent, and morality is judged by all. Those who defy the church or the government are branded as witches and killed. Many flee into the darkness to await better times, but one woman dares to remain in the light. Her story drives The Daylight Gate, the new novella by award-winning author Jeanette Winterson.
Alice Nutter is a youthful, strong and well-respected woman. She believes her wealth allows her freedom to live as she pleases, making friends and allies without political or moral consequences. Her choices are not beyond the notice of local officials, however, and they quietly start rumors about her competence. These rumors eventually force her to reveal her secrets and unleash her powers on those who would destroy her. Winterson is an intelligent storyteller, and her spare prose moves the story along at lightning speed. Graphic and violent, The Daylight Gate is a quick dip into a nightmare that just might keep you awake at night.
On March 11, 1948, a fire raged through the main building of North Carolina’s Highland Hospital, killing nine female patients trapped in a locked ward on the fourth floor. Victims included Zelda Fitzgerald, a dancer, artist and writer like her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Highland was a residential treatment facility for the mentally ill and considered quite progressive in its treatment methods. Author Lee Smith takes inspiration from the hospital, the tragic fire and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own life in her newest book Guests on Earth.
Smith’s narrator is 13-year-old New Orleans native Evalina Toussaint. Evalina refuses to eat after the death of her mother and is packed off to Highland for a cure. Now an orphan, the resort-like hospital becomes Evalina’s home, and its caregivers and patients her family. Fresh air and exercise, music and art: Evalina thrives under the care of the enlightened psychiatrist Dr. Carroll and develops into a talented pianist. Swimming and songs aren’t the only therapies employed at Highland, though, and as Smith reveals the darker secrets in the lives of Evalina, Zelda and other patients, she also explores the more invasive and seemingly barbaric treatments employed upon the mentally ill.
Smith, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, imbues her writing with the atmosphere of rural Appalachia. She draws upon both the folklore of the mountains as well as the culture of southern high society in creating compelling characters and an absorbing story. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” Guests on Earth allows a few of the guests to share their memorable tale.
Dukes frequently appear as heroes in historical romances. These two new novels share that common plot element, but with their strong writing and fresh stories, they are far from clichéd. In Victoria Morgan’s The Heart of a Duke, Lady Julia Chandler decides to take matters in her own hands to bring her long-time fiancé, the Duke of Bedford, to the altar. She is tired of being a laughingstock, so she finds him and kisses him, ready to push for a wedding and soon. There’s just one problem: she mistakenly kisses his twin brother Daniel, who has just returned from 10 years in America. Daniel came home to find out who set the fire that nearly killed him after receiving a mysterious note from his late father’s solicitor that read, “It is time. Come home and claim your destiny.” Daniel doesn’t want Julia to marry his brother, but his attention may put her in his enemy’s crosshairs. Morgan is a talented new voice in historical romance.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, the third novel in RITA-winner Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels quartet, brings us the story of Temple, a duke marked by scandal. He’s known as the Killer Duke because 12 years ago, he woke up covered in blood in the bed of his father’s beautiful, young fiancée. Everyone presumed that he murdered her, though her body was never found. Now, a notorious fighter and co-owner of the infamous Fallen Angel gaming hell, Temple is stunned when Miss Mara Lowe, the woman he is believed to have murdered, shows up on his doorstep ready to bargain with him. If he forgives her brother’s gambling debts, she will show herself in society, proving that he isn’t a murderer. MacLean writes sexy historical romance with wit, warmth and a modern sensibility. The book ends with the revelation of a shocking secret about the identity of Chase, the fourth partner in the Fallen Angel. That secret will leave readers desperate to read the final novel in the series!
Sadness frequently visited Kamala, but seldom was there time to succumb to its undertow. Like the monsoon that wiped out her Bengali village and claimed her family, Kamala's turbulent life was an unpredictable force leading her to reinvent herself over and over. In Sujata Massey's eloquent new historical novel The Sleeping Dictionary, India's struggles to free itself from British imperial rule coalesce with one woman's efforts to become independent even as racial and class barriers stand in the way.
Kamala was not always her name. As a child she was called Pom, born into the lowest caste in India. After a wave destroys her village, the 10-year-old orphan is rescued, embarking on what seems like a lifetime of difficult transitions. Christened Sarah, she is now content as a servant at an all-girls boarding school, where she has her dear friend, Bidushi, and her love of language and books. When she is accused of a theft she did not commit she flees, only to disembark in the wrong city, where a degrading experience awaits. By the time she arrives in Calcutta in search of a reputable position and new identity, she is hiding many secrets from her employer, a kindly British Indian civil service officer who only knows her as Kamala, well-born and well-read.
Massey, whose father was born in Calcutta, calls upon lovely descriptive language and a strong sense of place to evoke the troubled peasant life and colonial society of the 1930s and 1940s Raj India that is the center of Kamala's bumpy journey. With astute social commentary of women's roles and layers of Indian history, culture and language, she creates an authentic voice in Kamala that is as complex as the identities she has assumed. Betrayal, love, espionage and tragedy all find their way into Massey's story. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, best known for her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, has more in store for readers with her new Daughters of Bengal series. Here's looking forward to the next one.