Philipp Meyer’s new novel spanning nearly 200 years of the American West, The Son, opens with the transcription of a 1934 New Deal WPA recording of 100-year-old Eli McCullough’s reminiscences. Eli, also known as the Colonel, discusses his imminent death: in one breath, comparing himself to Alexander the Great and, in the next, dismissing women and marriage. From vests fashioned of scalps, Aztecs as “mincing choirboys,” and vaqueros to Texas rangers, ranchers and oil wells, the Colonel has seen it all and is not shy about sharing his opinions.
Meyer alternates narrators and timeframes by chapter, giving voice to Eli as well as to his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne. Born in 1834, the same year in which Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Eli’s story is the backbone of the book. As a boy, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his mother, brother and sister by a band of Comanche who take Eli captive and eventually incorporate him as a member of their tribe. Eli’s later choices reflect his determination to survive despite the torturous customs of his captors. His conduct also mirrors the rapacious actions of a government and its people relentlessly expanding westward into territory already occupied. The Colonel has a contentious relationship with his son Peter, whose chapters play the role of a conscience, ruminating on injustice and cruelty. As the only descendent of the Colonel interested in taking over the family legacies of ranching and oil, great-granddaughter Jeanne reflects on her struggles as a woman managing a vast business in a Texas-style man’s world.
Jeanne muses, “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean…” The Son dispassionately recounts the barbarous atrocities committed by settlers and natives alike. Like the western novels of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, Meyer’s writing is notable for its lack of romanticism about its subject. Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, has written a family saga packed with adventure and drama in which the sins of all the fathers have consequences reverberating down through generations.
She was the quintessential southern belle who married a reckless young writer, took New York by storm and became the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties’ flapper. In Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler envisions the dramatic, heartfelt life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, working through the entanglement of images, rumors and speculations which have been tied to this intriguing woman since her introduction into New York’s and Europe’s artisan circles over 90 years ago. What emerges is a portrait of a young woman full of life, an Alabama transplant with quick wit and plenty of sass.
Through the modern-day lens Fowler applies to her writing, Zelda’s challenges, including her battle with mental illness and her supposed unhealthy obsession with ballet, are reexamined. Fowler also highlights what is often overlooked — Zelda herself was an accomplished writer, even penning a review of her husband F. Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, but much of her writing was overshadowed or published jointly with his name, so as to make it more acceptable with editors of the time.
Zelda and F. Scott have remained intriguing, due in large part to their fast rise to fame, nomadic existence and self-destructive downfall. Readers will appreciate this insightful reconstruction of their lives during the heyday of the 1920s. Fans of Fitzgerald’s novels will also see bits of the couple’s lives and conversation which were later incorporated into his stories. Z is the latest in a string of historical fiction about wives of famous men, including The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife, and this lively tale would make an excellent travel companion or book club pick.
Love learning new things while also reading a page-turning historical thriller? Check out David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art. Set in Victorian England, Morrell’s “hero” is the essayist Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater.
A heinous crime is committed in 1854, England. The gruesome methods of the crime are lifted directly from a De Quincey essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” As it happens, De Quincey and his daughter Emily were in England at the time of the murder. He suddenly becomes a prime suspect. With the help of a couple of Scotland Yard detectives, it will be up to De Quincey and Emily to prove his innocence and find the killer.
De Quincey is a fascinating historical figure. He wrote about the inner psyche decades before Sigmund Freud and was surrounded by artistic friends such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Murder as a Fine Art is one part novel and one part history lesson. Scotland Yard was still relatively new, and investigative techniques were still rather primitive. Morrell gives his readers a real sense of Victorian England, with its straight-laced exterior hiding a dark underbelly of vice.
For additional historical thrillers set in the Victorian era, check out The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Alex Grecian’s The Yard. For an excellent nonfiction treatment of crime in the Victorian era, see Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.
Between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 orphaned or abandoned children were transported from Eastern cities to the Midwest on what came to be known as “Orphan Trains.” The hope was that these children would find loving families to adopt them. Although this was the reality for some, for others it led to a life of mistreatment and servitude. In Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, Vivian Daly was one such child. Born into poverty, the majority of her family was killed in an apartment fire in the late 1920s, and she was put on a train bound for Minnesota. There, she passed through several unhappy homes before the kindness of a teacher led her to better prospects.
In present day, Molly Ayer is a foster child who has bounced from one family to another. She’s not happy with her current living situation but figures it has to be better than the juvenile detention center where she’s in danger of heading unless she finds a way to do 50 hours of community service. Her only option appears to be helping a now 91-year-old Vivian clean her attic. When their two worlds collide, Molly and Vivian find common threads in their pasts and subsequently help each other move forward into the next phase of their lives.
The inner strength and survival instincts of the two main characters, whose stories are both heartbreaking and hopeful, make for an engrossing story. Quietly suspenseful, readers especially will be hoping for a good outcome for all of the train riders who made the fateful journey with young Vivian. Kline explores both the seeming randomness of situations and circumstance, and the fateful ways lives can intersect to resolve past and present problems. Despite the weighty subject, this impressive work of historical fiction will make a good summer read. It’s also ready for adoption by a book club, containing discussion questions, an author interview and information about orphan train riders.
As reform-minded voters were casting their ballots in Iran’s election last month, Iranian-born author Sahar Delijani was publishing her first novel. In her ambitious debut, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, opposition to the repressive regime led to a generation of displaced children in post-revolutionary Iran. Delijani gives voice to those left behind by the ensuing bloody purge that claimed thousands of lives. With her own family's experience close to heart, Delijani weaves together beautifully written and intimately entwined stories spanning from 1983 to 2011 of those lives forever changed for elusive freedoms past and future.
This was a revolution gone astray. Revolutionary guards, policemen, and morality guards patrolled the streets. So called "brothers and sisters" could not be trusted. The children of political activists, who ended up incarcerated or in mass graves, were left behind. They included Neda, born under horrific conditions while her mother was imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. There is Sheida, whose mother keeps hidden her father's execution for fear her daughter will follow the same path 20 years later. There is three year-old Omid, whose parents' "papery lives" of forbidden books, poems, leaflets, led to their arrest straight from the kitchen table. There are the caregivers, too, like Leila, who tends her sisters' children while their mothers serve out jail sentences.
Delijani, who was born in an Iranian prison, connects her many well-drawn characters through shared experiences, as they wrestle with a past that repulses as much as it begs not to be forgotten. It is the symbolic Jacaranda tree, with its stunning purple-pink panicles, that serves as a reminder to fight for, and free, the tree inside. For those who enjoyed Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan the weight of history upon the next generation will look familiar, as will the determination to move forward.
What does the future hold for three young girls when their father dies expectantly? Well if the year is 1878 and you are living an impoverished neighborhood on the lower slope of Montmartre in Paris, the answer would be despair. These are the circumstances framing the setting of The Painted Girls, the newest novel by Cathy Marie Buchanan. In this story we meet the van Goethem sisters and follow their struggles as they put their childhood behind them and are forced to earn a wage to prevent being thrown penniless into the streets. The main role of caregiver is taken on by Antoinette, the eldest sister, filling in for their mother who is more interested in drinking absinthe than raising the children. Middle sister Marie abandons her education to join the Paris Opera with her youngest sister Charlotte. Training for the ballet pays seventeen francs a week, though it is still barely enough to put food on the table. Once she is discovered by Edgar Degas, Marie starts on a journey that will culminate in one of the artist’s most famous creations, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
This is an absorbing story based on the lives of individuals during this period of history. The author’s attention to detail paints the dire circumstances the girls find themselves in as well as the dark and seedy elements that threaten to engulf them. By observing how the sisters grow throughout the story and the importance of their love for each other, Buchanan creates a remarkable novel, as captivating as it is enlightening.
Leave it to Joyce Carol Oates to pull together several unusual elements, well-known historical figures, a dash of the paranormal and tremendous historical detail. In her new novel, The Accursed, we meet the Slade family, who seem to be suffering the effects of a terrible curse. The daughter Annabel falls under the spell of a smooth-talking Southern gentleman named Axson Mayte, who may be more than he appears to be. Annabel’s brother Josiah will go to great lengths to protect his sister from harm. Wilhelmina Burr, their cousin, is plagued by visions of serpents while away at school. While the Slade family suffers, Woodrow Wilson, the current president of Princeton University, struggles to keep his post from a keen usurper bent on knocking him from his pedestal. But there are other figures lurking around Princeton as well. Grover Cleveland, suffering terribly from the death of his child, sees visions of her in dark hallways. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, is convinced that the shadowy figure he spies leaving in a carriage with a man is his wife. Murder and mysterious deaths are plaguing New Jersey. There is talk of the legend of the “Jersey Devil,” but most residents remain convinced it is only a story to frighten children. But as 1905 becomes 1906 and the strange events continue, more questions are raised as to the validity of the curse.
Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer with a tremendous love for language, so The Accursed is not a quick read. The plot often meanders and you discover much about the characters living in the area. Many of the historical figures are not looked upon kindly and readers will see an unfavorable side to many of them. Oates creates a sinister atmospheric tone that runs through the novel, and her very detailed text offers footnotes as the narrator/historian weaves the tale. The use of diary entries and letters help to round out the novel and make it a very thoughtful read.
Travel to San Francisco, 1894 to meet a pair of delightful detectives in The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. This first in a new historical mystery series by two Grand Master Award winners (who just happen to be married), introduces partners Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon. Sabina is a former Pinkerton operative and John honed his skills in the Secret Service. The two combined forces to establish a successful agency in the quickly developing city of San Francisco. Sabina is widowed and dedicated to her job, and John is a bachelor hoping for a more personal relationship with his lovely partner.
The two are working on separate cases while also following press reports of the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, who has miraculously returned to life and picked San Francisco as his new base of operations. Sabina’s case involves the hunt for a slippery lady pickpocket who finds her marks at a large amusement park and other crowded venues. Quincannon is on the trail of a burglar who is targeting the homes of wealthy residents. He finds himself traveling to seedy bars and parlors in the disreputable Barbary Coast while tracking his elusive thief. Eventually, the two realize their cases are connected and the criminals have stepped up their game to include murder. The detecting duo find themselves working feverishly to capture these lawbreakers before additional crimes can be committed, all while dealing with the Sherlock Holmes pretender who has become a surprising rival.
Muller and Pronzini have both entertained readers with their memorable characters Sharon McCone and The Nameless Detective respectively. With this series, this talented couple offers two intrepid detectives in an intriguing historical setting. Readers will be anxious to follow the next case these two embark upon and curious about whether the romantic sparks will continue to fly.
Lawyer Lina Sparrow instantly knew she was staring at a drawing that transcended time. The young African American man at its center stood in a Virginia field with his hands at his side, waiting. More than 150 years may have passed, but Lina knew that the charcoal put to paper that day said as much about the subject as it did about the artist who created it. In Tara Conklin's shifting, stirring debut, The House Girl, two worlds coalesce, as the winds of past sins expose the fight for freedom and family identity that reach from present day deep into America's past.
In the plush law offices of Manhattan’s prestigious Clifton & Harp, first year litigation associate, Lina Sparrow, has just been handed the class action case of a lifetime involving historic reparations for slavery. In locating a slave's descendant to act as lead plaintiff, she stumbles upon the story of artist Lu Anne Bell and her house girl, Josephine, who sometimes painted alongside her mistress. Josephine was seventeen in 1852 when she escaped from the failing Bell tobacco plantation. Now Mrs. Bell’s paintings are highly regarded for their sensitive portrayal of her husband's slaves, but recent speculation has questioned their authenticity. Lina, herself the daughter of artists, delves deeper into the searing plight of Josephine. In doing so, she begins to question her personal life and her own sense of place.
Conklin, a lawyer by training, exploits the double narrative as the means to weave together a historic time period with the legal perspective of twenty-first century restitution. As the prose expands, uncovered correspondences lay bare the horror of slavery. Readers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini will enjoy this moving connection to the troubled past.
Widely regarded as one of the best spy writers alive, Robert Littell is often compared to John LeCarre and Alan Furst. In his new novel Young Philby, readers are treated to an absorbing fictional biography of the notorious double agent. Anyone interested in spies and Cold War history will certainly know the name Hadrian Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern espionage. He was a high ranking British double agent and one of the members of the infamous Cambridge Three. While spying for the Russians, Philby managed to have a successful career in both the British and American intelligence agencies. He caused incalculable damage with the secrets he shared.
Littell explores Kim Philby’s life story as a young man, including his early attraction to communism. Littell also tells of the Soviets tapping Philby, and details the methods they used to make him look attractive to the British Secret Service. Littell’s narrative is particularly compelling because he tells his subject’s story through the lens of a various people who knew him throughout his life. We get to know “Philby the man” through his lovers and his father, and “Philby the spy” through the eyes of his Soviet handlers. But even with the distinctly different views into this notorious spy, Kim Philby remains an enigma. As with Littell’s other novels, Young Philby manages to be both a well-researched historical novel as well as a riveting read.