Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Bit o' the Irish

One of my favorite author discoveries in recent years is J. Courtney Sullivan. Her literary novels go back and forth through the decades of this century and the last, and the stories go deep into the hearts of loving but troubled families—often Irish-Catholic families. Whether it’s the family matriarch who's riddled with guilt or a daughter who’s recovering from divorce, I love how Sullivan takes me into the head of each family member, showing me her fears, regrets, and dreams. And, we learn as much about a character through others’ opinions of him or her as we do when we’re in a character’s own point of view.

On the surface, SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS is the story of two Irish immigrant sisters, a baby, a secret, sacrifice, and betrayal. But it’s also a peek into how the mid-twentieth century confined women, often leaving them with few choices over their own lives.

The author weaves through her past-and-present narratives issues ranging from feminism and gay rights to alcoholism and racial prejudice. Perhaps my favorite Sullivan book is MAINE, a story of three generations of women, set in a summer cottage on the beach. Characters are filled with flaws, insecurities, quirks, and passions. 

You don’t have to be part Irish like me to enjoy Sullivan’s work!

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Close-Up On Multi-Period Novels

This month’s issue of the Historical Novels Review features my article on multi-period novels. In it, I share insights from four authors who’ve written new or forthcoming books that alternate between the past and present: Chanel Cleeton, Jane Johnson, Ariel Lawhon, and James CarrollThe authors reveal the challenges they face in writing dual narrative novels and suggest reasons why readers like me devour them. Plus, my article proposes three categories into which virtually all such novels fall. 

Below, I’ve highlighted more examples of novels which fit my suggested categories. You've no doubt already read some of them, but perhaps there are a few you have not? Enjoy!

           Category #1
           Object Connects Related Characters Across Time

THE COTTINGLEY SECRET by Hazel Gaynor

THE NECKLACE by Claire McMillan

THOSE WHO SAVE US by Jenna Blum


STOLEN BEAUTY by Laurie Lico Albanese

THE LOST SISTERHOOD by Anne Fortier


A LONG TIME GONE by Karen White

THE BOOK OF SPECULATION by Erika Swyler




MRS. SINCLAIR’S SUITCASE by Louise Walters

THE LOST LETTER by Jillian Cantor


Category #2
Object Links Two Unrelated Characters


THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kadish



POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt


THE WEIGHT OF WATER by Anita Shreve

ALONG THE INFINITE SEA by Beatriz Williams

THE FORTUNATE ONES by Ellen Umansky

THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin

A PARIS APARTMENT by Michelle Gable

           
           Category #3
           Character Looks Back

THE HOUSE RIVERTON by Kate Morton

CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

THE AFTER PARTY by Anton Disclafani

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen

SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE by Susan Meissner

THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck

For a deeper analysis into books that fit Category #3, check out my post from November 2017. I'd love to hear from readers, too. What other novels fit these categories? Can you think of any past-and-present novels that don't?

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Four Books That Staggered Me


Books that take me into the darkest times in history, where human beings treat other human beings with unimaginable cruelty, both enlighten and horrify me. When the stories are told through the eyes of the young, they also reveal pain, hope, and strength in ways no other novels can.

Four such books that I highly recommend are noted below. Each has passages that dip into the past with utter vividness through memories and flashbacks—and each depicts the story’s present period without restraint. I’ve chosen to provide the opening lines to these literary works, for the lovely language in such novels is one thing that keeps me going through the roughest parts. These books are not easy reads. But I feel better for having read them. Mustn’t we know what came before us, so as to prevent atrocities in the world from recurring? And, is it not good to be reminded of the feelings we humans share, no matter the time and place . . . feelings of love, joy, fear, or regret?


Mischling tells the story of two little girls in “The Zoo,” the place where a doctor performed experiments on sets of twins in Auschwitz.

“We were made, once. My twin, Pearl, and me. Or, to be precise, Pearl was formed and I split from her. She embossed herself on the womb; I copied her signature. For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother.”
  
A girl comes of age during the Cambodian genocide in In the Shadow of the Banyan.

“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.”



The Pulitzer Prize-winning Underground Railroad follows a young slave’s escape from a cotton plantation in Georgia.

“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”




The Kite Runner centers on two boys from different backgrounds who live through devastation in Afghanistan.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Swans, Rings, and Calling Birds: Book Recs for the Holidays

When it comes to the “12 Days of Christmas,” might you or the readers in your life like some last-minute stocking-stuffers? Or, suggestions for books to read in the New Year? Below are three novels which shift between time periods. So, build a fire, snuggle up, pour some eggnog, and enjoy the season. Cheers!

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin: I confess, although I was vaguely familiar with Truman Capote before reading this novel, I knew almost nothing about his work and life. Benjamin's historical fiction immerses us in the high society scene of 1950s New York City. The story follows Capote’s rise to literary fame, his circle of friends he calls his swans—and his subsequent fall from grace when he crosses them. Setting part of her book in the contemporary 1970s as her characters reflect, the author offers a fascinating take on the socialites’ glamorous lifestyle . . .  but also the expectations that they strive to fulfill and the inner yearnings and even loneliness from which they suffer.

             The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger: The author imagines the circumstances that surrounded the lives of Italian artist Raphael and the woman he loved. Inspired by the actual discovery of a 500-year-old ring embedded in the dried paint of one of the master’s sensual paintings, the story uncovers Rome's papal climate and the passionate relationship between Raphael and a baker’s daughter who modeled for his most well-known works.

             The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman: Spanning more than 40 years in the 20th century, this is another tale of a painter, his past, and the women’s lives he influenced. This mysterious story takes us into the heads and hearts of two sisters who end up missing—a beautifully written story that’s rife with secrets and jealousies. 

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

When Aging Characters Look Back: 12 Titles to Read Now


It’s November! Yep, I’m turning another year older. So it’s the perfect time to recommend novels that have a main character who’s, uh, “getting up in years” and where something triggers her memories of long ago—often memories of tragedy and survival.

Of all the novels that alternate between the past and present, those with aging characters who look back are among my favorites. Given the distance of time, a character can examine her life with the wisdom of new eyes.

Check out below a dozen novels I suggest, books filled with secrets and lies, love and betrayals, and regrets and redemption.(Click each title to learn more about the book.)

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline –This is a tale of an elderly woman who as a child was sent by rail across the country to an uncertain future, along with other Irish immigrants. Shifting between Depression-era Minnesota and contemporary Maine, it reveals the woman’s painful past—and how, late in life, she befriends a troubled, teenage foster child.

My take: Orphan Train does what past-and-present books do best: it skillfully intertwines two stories that can each stand on their own, but that are made more powerful because of their parallels.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – Ninety-something Jacob Jankowski lives a lonely existence in a nursing home. But when the circus comes to town, it spurs memories of his youth when he ran off with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Told in flashback, this novel is a story of animals, great love, and heroism.

My take: I didn’t expect this book to make me cry, but it did!

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – Alternating between 1990s Oregon and German-occupied, war-torn France, this is a heart-wrenching saga of two sisters, of choices and deception, and of mistakes and sacrifice.

My take: In one word? Unforgettable.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler – Eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister asks her young, African-American hair dresser to take her from Texas back to Cincinnati where she will confess her longest-held secret. This is a tale of forbidden love and tragic consequences in a time of horrendous racial discrimination.

My take: Given this book was partly inspired by the life of the author’s own grandmother, it makes reading it all the more heartbreaking and memorable.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon – The story begins in a bar in 1969, where Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. This historical fiction is inspired by the true mystery of Judge Crater’s disappearance in New York City, during the politically corrupt era of the 1930s.

My take: The author writes the period setting so well, I could hear the jazz music and smell the smoke. She put me right there!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid – Aging and reclusive Evelyn Hugo is at last ready to spill the truth about her scandalous past as a 1950s Hollywood icon. At age 79, she summons to her luxurious Manhattan apartment a virtually unknown journalist and asks her to report on her life . . . after she’s dead.

My take: I was new to Jenkins Reid’s work but found this book a total, effing, page-turner.

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy – Spanning sixty years and ranging from Nazi Germany to modern El Paso, Texas, this emotionally-charged story of Elsie Schmidt’s life sheds light on the last year of WWII—and reveals how illegal alien families are handled at the U.S. border.

My take: McCoy’s novel is a wonderful example of how dual narratives can open a reader’s mind to world events in both the past and present.

Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner – Set in England and alternating between present day and the 1940s, the story unfolds when an American scholar interviews Isabel MacFarland, an elderly woman with long-held secrets of the choices she made during the war—choices driven by youthful ambition and the terrible destruction that Hitler hurled on London.

My take: Meissner brings great empathy to her characters; you feel the protagonist’s internal conflict as she wrestles with unimaginable choices.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton – It’s the summer of 1924 in England. Grace Bradley is a servant for a family hosting a glittering party at their country estate. Only when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living in a nursing home—and a film director requests a visit—will she be driven to speak of the long-ago night in which a poet shot himself at the party. . . .

My take: This novel marks Morton’s literary debut, and I’ve rushed to read every one of her books since.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield – Vida Winter is a renowned, reclusive author when, now that she’s old and ailing, she contacts a bookseller’s daughter to whom she’ll finally tell her life’s story. But does she reveal the whole truth?

My take: Atmospheric and beautifully written, this haunting book demands multiple reads.

The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky – Before WWII, the Zimmers, a Viennese Jewish family, owned a beloved painting. The Soutine painting eventually makes its way to America. Many years later, Rose Zimmer, recalls the days of her childhood during the war, while a young woman in modern L.A. also mourns the loss of the Soutine (for the painting’s gone missing again). Can the two women band together to find the lost work of art?

My take: I enjoy books where I’m forced to ask: to whom does this painting really belong? In this vein, another book to try is Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind.

Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams – When a rare, vintage Mercedes sells at auction, two women will become inextricably connected . . . one is a young beauty in the 1960s with a scandalous secret, and the other carries secrets of her own from a time when the German automobile rolled through Nazi Europe.

My take: Beatriz Williams never fails to draw me in with a spunky character’s voice, beginning in paragraph one!

The list could go on. What past-and-present books with aging characters do you love?

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Atlanta Novelists—A Tradition Continues


The South has a rich literary tradition, from author Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner. Though I was born and raised in the Midwest, for almost 20 years as a Georgia girl, I’ve been blown away by the writing chops of the many authors who also make metro-Atlanta their home.
        
   
I'm with Lynn Cullen at FoxTale Book Shoppe
Today is Halloween, so let’s begin with Lynn Cullen whose literary historical fiction earned her a spot as a guest expert on PBS’s recent American Masters TV episode, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive. Cullen had undertaken exhaustive research for her 2014 bestselling novel, MRS. POE.
            

        A few years before, Vanity Fair magazine featured a few of our fair city’s women authors—from thriller writer Karin Slaughter and debut superstar Kathryn Stockett to Joshilyn Jackson with her unforgettable voice and Emily Giffin who's got legions of fans. You gotta love how the ladies are all fitted out in dazzling belle attire.
     
        Audible fans will find Atlanta authors to love, too. There's Martha Hall Kelly’s THE LILAC GIRLS: A NOVEL, a fictionalized story surrounding real New York socialite Caroline Ferriday during WWII. Kelly’s debut has been compared to Kristin Hannah’s book club phenomenon, THE NIGHTINGALE. 

        I also enjoyed Susan Rebecca White’s A PLACE AT THE TABLE, a beautifully written, touching story about an African-American woman who suffered from racism growing up and a gay man in Georgia who’s ostracized by his own family.
        
        Of course, my blog post would not be complete without highlighting an Atlanta author's novel that alternates between the past and present.

Karen White is prolific in writing novels that shift between time periods. I first got hooked on her books in 2009 when I came upon THE LOST HOURS. Here are the book's opening lines: “When I was twelve, I helped my granddaddy bury a box in the back garden of our Savannah house. I didn’t ask him what was in it. The box belonged to my grandmother….” Who can resist reading on? Not me.
            
        To learn more about authors who reside around Atlanta—or other authors who flock for the city’s many literary events or even for books with stories set in this region—I highly recommend Alison Law’s new podcast series, Literary Atlanta. Check it out!

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Appreciating Art Through Fiction


I still remember seeing Girl With A Pearl Earring displayed at Barnes & Noble many years ago. One look at that cover, and as a lover of historical fiction, I had to snap the book right off the shelf and head for the cashier. During that period, I also discovered Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, another novel that imagines a Vermeer painting. This story traces a portrait’s ownership back in time to WWII and ultimately to Amsterdam when the artist created it. I was saddened to learn Vreeland died last month—and shocked to hear she’d passed the same day I presented my spare copy of her novel to a friend as a gift.

Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland spurred my love of novels about art and artists. What is it about these books that fascinates me (and other readers) so much?


  In the Historical Novels Society's (HNS) series called Art in Historical Fiction, Stephanie Renee Dos Santos interviewed Vreeland some time back. The author had this to say about fiction that ties in art: “While an art history can give us an appreciation of a painter’s work, the view is from the onlooker, while fiction invites us into the artist’s inner nature, takes us to his bosom, and makes us feel the artist’s strong emotions for ourselves.” 

I would add that feeling strong emotion as we read also holds true when getting in the head of someone obsessed with an artwork, such as with the protagonist of The Goldfinch

           Vreeland went on to say, “Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it’s a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.”

HNS asked Cascade author Maryanne O’Hara why fiction about art matters to readers. The contemplation of art enriches fiction, I think. And to quote Alice Walker: ‘If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.’”
  
I’ve been captivated by books that take me into a painter’s studio centuries ago. I’ve been enlightened by stories that reveal the horrors committed against Jews—and the fate of their stolen treasures. I’ve been swept away by novels of lost masterpieces, of women who dared to hold the brush rather than pose for the master, and of forgeries and muses and love.

           Novels that alternate between the past and present are fertile ground for stories about artists and masterworks, as well, from Lauren Willig's That Summer to Jojo Moyes' The Girl You Left Behind


           To explore books that deal with art, check out some that are pictured from my collection. Also, you might find the following online articles of interest: 11 Novels Every Art History-Lover Should Pick Up and 10 Great Fictional Artists in LiteratureThe latter piece is written by Dominic Smith, author of The Last Painting of Sara De Vosmy top pick as posted on this blog last March.

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