Susan Voake, former librarian at the Marion Cross School, lives in Norwich with her husband and springer spaniel. She collects antique dolls, buys and sells Victorian ladies' sentimentalia and ephemera, bakes cookies and enjoys summer days visiting her daughters, treasure hunting, or working in her perennial garden.
Yes, I admit I’m a sucker for novels set in libraries and bookstores, but among its peers, The Storied Life is a standout. Liza and Penny will chuckle at the spot- on portrayal of “Independent Bookstore circa 2014” with its stacks of unread galleys, quirky author readings, and staff pick wall. They will not identify with A.J, the curmudgeonly 30-Something owner. How his New England island bookstore has survived since the death of his wife is a mystery, particularly to Amelia, the eager new sales rep visiting him for the first time. Enter a baby in a basket left on the doorstep, the town police chief who reads only Jeffery Deaver mysteries, and life begins to imitate art for A.J. Satisfyingly laced with references to titles and texts, this is a novel about love and the transformative power of books. It’s full of surprises and a few predictable moments, but you’ll laugh and cry nevertheless.
Kate Alcott knows how to create a powerful novel from an historical event. The suspicious death of a young woman who worked in the textile mills of Lowell, MA amidst the religious evangelism of the 1830’s is the germ of this story. Alice Barrows, an independent young woman excitedly gets her first job at the mill. Throughout her term of employment, and her experiences, Alcott opens a window to many of the characters of the time—the frustrated mill girls, the arrogant mill owner, his children torn by what’s right and what’s profitable, the conflicted town doctor indebted to the owners but confronted with the ill health of the girls, and the evangelicals. After you’ve finished, pick up her earlier novel, The Dresssmaker.
What an extraordinary book! A baby born with wings? A pastry shop that feeds the psyche, as well as the stomach? You have not met characters like Ava Lavendar and the haunted Roux family before, and I guarantee you’ve never read a tragic love story quite like this. Contemporary mythology and magical realism abound in its images and sensory detail. You’ll love the lyrical prose. Yes, it’s listed as YA but it’s for adults too. Treat yourself!
Perhaps you remember Great Expectations from 8th grade English or your freshman seminar? It’s time to revisit and enlighten that experience with Havisham. What drove beautiful, intelligent, powerful Catherine Havisham to the perennial silk wedding dress and crumbling wedding breakfast feast? Who was that mysterious Compeyson character? Ronald Frame masterfully returns us to the world of Pip and Estella with his tone, language, and style, but the modern sensibility and psychological insights that pervade the novel make it especially satisfying. You’ll be checking Dickens out of the library soon after you turn the last page.
Five Gold Star Mothers – women who lost their boys during WWI- travel to France to visit the American cemetery at Verdun in in 1931. It’s a once in a lifetime trip for all of them but it is the Deer Isle, Maine librarian, Cora Blake, whose story we follow most closely. Inspired by the diary of a newly graduated West Point colonel who accompanied just such a group, and whose path in life was changed by the experience, A Star for Mrs Blake is tender and touching, but also unflinching in its view of the social and political issues of the time and how they affect these women.
A beautifully written historical novel that illuminates both the life of the 19th c abolitionist and women’s rights crusader Sarah Grimke and the imagined life of Hetty Handful, the young slave given to Sarah as a gift on her 10th birthday. Told in their two voices over thirty-five years, we live in the big house and the quarters, Charlestown and Philadelphia. This book has stayed with me for weeks since I turned the last page in tears and led me to others, notably Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway , which presents another view of the underground railroad, abolitionist movement and life in the 19th c Pennsylvania Quaker community. Read them back to back.
What a little treasure!! I only wish Marta McDowell had written this book 30 years ago before I made my pilgrimage to Hilltop. How it would have enhanced my trip. We all know Beatrix Potter the writer, and if we treasure her tiny books from childhood or child raising, we likely know of her lonely years in London, her secreted wild pets, her drawings, and her letters. So much that I didn’t know (and didn’t learn while visiting) is included here. And the illustrations!! Pairing Potter’s enchanting watercolors and botanical drawings with the photographs of people and places takes this book from the end table to the coffee table where you will peruse it for visual pleasure long after you finish reading it the first time.
For the sake of the American educational system, I wish Matthew Goodman would become a textbook writer. Students would gobble up their history and beg for more. The lives and world record journeys of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, while the center of this book, also provide a framework for Goodman's account of the individuals and social conditions they encountered on their trips. From the lives of Chinese railroad workers to a snapshot of Jules Verne's study, we are privy to unforgettable details of life in the 1890's. (Did you know there were 38 time zones in Wisconsin before the advent of the railroad?) There is scrupulous documentation and an extensive bibliography. Give this to the folks who loved David McCullough's The Greater Journey.
Seventeen-year-old Josephine, house slave to ailing, childless artist Lu Anne Bell in 1858, has tended her mistress since she was a small child and, in turn, has been taught to read, paint and think for herself. Twenty-five-year-old Lina Sparrow, motherless daughter of aging artist Oscar Sparrow, is a first year litigator for a New York law firm in 2004, and is charged with constructing a brief claiming reparations for the descendents of American slaves from private companies that benefited from slave labor. Lina needs a plaintiff and it might be a possible descendant of Josephine Bell. The legal and art worlds connect and collide as Tara Conklin slowly unrolls Josephina and Lina’s histories in alternating chapters. Unexpected twists, some graphic detail, and and an ending that should not have surprised me (but did nevertheless!), make this a very interesting winter read.
As you watched, mesmerized by Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln in the recent film, you may also have been intrigued by others in that cast of characters peopling the White House. One of these, the demure, gentle handed seamstress to Mrs. Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, is the central character in Jennifer Chiaverini’s new novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Mrs. Keckley’s personal story is compelling. A house slave who used her sewing skills to buy her freedom and subsequently moved to Washington where she created gowns for women throughout the city, Mrs. Keckley became not only the dressmaker but also the trusted confidant and friend to the First Lady. It is not simply Mrs. Keckley’s life that draws one into this book however, it is her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln with her observations and insights into the behavior of the First Lady in and out of the White House that is so interesting. I found it to be an engaging and illuminating read!
If you, like I, have been enamoured by Arthurian legend from the time a wise 10th grade teacher insisted you read The Once and Future King, Finding Camlam is a must read for you. An English archaeologist, a vibrant researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary; her husband, a realtor and scion of an historic English family; and an elderly Welsh professor from his school days at Oxford become entangled in mythic fashion as they put together pieces of Britain’s greatest legendary puzzle. The language is exquisite. The settings, from Welsh Marches to the Mendip Hills, are as atmospheric as they are spectacular. Having just finished this treasure, I’m now sitting down to read it again.
1791—Stockholm. Revolution is in the air. There are fortunes to be made and lost. The French are loved and hated. Society is in turmoil. Can an octagon of fortune telling cards change the course of history? All of your senses will be engaged in this vibrant, richly detailed novel which visits the card rooms, ateliers and apothecaries of the 18th century city where customs officers, calligraphers and fan makers are caught in a plot to overthrow the Swedish king.
If you loved A House is a House for Me and The Seven Silly Eaters, you know that Mary Ann Hoberman is a master of picture book rhyme and rhythm and have likely discovered how well she captures the simple pleasures of childhood. I Like Old Clothes is a humorous romp. Originally published in 1976 with illustrations by Jacqueline Chwast, the 2012 version is illustrated energetically by Patrice Barton and shares the delights of getting hand-me-downs with the next generation. You must read this book aloud and encourage your child to learn the text so that you can chant it together. What a winner!
And you thought you dictated the words flowing through your personal writing device. If you have the obstinate pen, think again! This humorous picture book will delight adults and children alike as the mischievous pen complicates the life of its successive owners. Do share it with all the writers you know both young and old and be prepared for requests for multiple re-readings.
Louise Brooks was only a vague silent film femme fatale reference until I read The Chaperone. Her story, as told by the chaperone who accompanied her from Wichita to New York in 1922, the summer of her 16th year, was one reason why I read this novel from beginning to end in just two days. The imagined story of Cora Kaufman Carlisle, the chaperone, is why I finished the book weeping. Two personal histories of extraordinary, transformative women, and American social history from the 1920’s through the 1960’s combine to make a compelling read for your summer vacation.
In this 100th anniversary year of the sinking of the Titanic, new books relating to the disaster abound. Katherine Howe's contribution has a cast of surprising characters, both real and fictional, and a plot with some fascinating twists and intersections. Set alternately in the Back Bay and Chinatown of 1915 Boston, on board ship and in 1868 Shanghai, Howe's novel unravels a family history of wealth, opium and spiritualism revealed through glorious sensual description.
While a heart of Renaissance enlightenment, 16th century Venice was not supportive of female physicians. Gabriella Mondini, has only been allowed to practice medicine because her father, an esteemed doctor, has mentored her. But it is now ten years since he has disappeared on a personal quest, his last letter admonishes Gabriella not to come searching for him, and Gabriella’s medical license has been withdrawn. Her only hope of regaining her livelihood and peace at heart is in finding her father. Armed with his mysterious letters, his medicine chest and the folio of the unfinished book of Madness and Cures which they were writing together, Gabriella begins her quest to bring her father back to Venice. A fascinating and thoroughly engaging read!
Every Paris guidebook touts Baron Haussmann’s historical transformation of the city’s narrow medieval streets to wide, straight boulevards. But what must it have been like for the Parisians living amidst this upheaval in the 1860’s? De Rosnay explores the personal tragedies through the eyes of Rose Bazelet, an elderly woman whose life was framed within a house doomed to demotion in the shadow of the church of St. Germain des Pres. Both lyrical love story and gothic confession, this historical novel will forever change the way you view the avenues of Paris.
So what happened after the survivors of the Titanic were rescued? Kate Alcott tells the story of Lady Lucille Duff Gordon, dress designer to the rich and famous of Edwardian society, through the eyes of her maid Tess, a fictional steerage class aspiring seamstress. While Alcott fabulously conceives the intricate interiors of both the Titanic and New York upper class apartments and salons, she precisely recounts the text of the Senate inquiry into the disaster. Brightly realized actual and fictional characters from Molly Brown to an unabashed young writer for the New York Times people this account of the Titanic aftermath.
From Hanover Germany to Beatrice Missouri, the story of three generations of an immigrant family is narrated by grandson, James Meisenheimer, who carries the ancestral hallmarks of passion for music and appreciation for a well-cooked meal. By turns a chuckler and a heartbreaker and filled with extraordinary minor characters, A Good American will catch you by surprise again and again. I loved it!
Magical and mysterious, a fantasy for adults that will fascinate young adults as well, the Night Circus confounds your vision before you reach page 1. Two magicians train gifted apprentice illusionists for the competition of a lifetime to be performed within the rings of a wondrous cirque. A perfect gift for escapist winter reading.
Even if you didn't grow up with Make Way for Ducklings or Blueberries for Sal, Jane McCloskey's biography of her father is real treat. Illustrated with McCloskey's sketches and paintings and family photos, Jane's book not only tells the story of Bob's life but also regales us with very funny family anecdotes. As an artist herself, Jane's uses her critical eye in discussing the evolution of McCloskey' as an illustrator. As a daughter, she gives us insights into McCloskey, the man. Consider this as a Christmas gift for the children's literature lover on your list. I already have a lucky recipient in mind!
It is not only because I was a school librarian that I enjoyed The Borrower. It is because Ian is the child that we root for when we’re not ripping out our hair, Lucy Hull, the twenty-six year old children’s librarian, is a spunky, unconventional, self-questioning narrator who occasionally relates her tale in the rhythms of children’s classics, and how often have we wished we could run away for one reason or another? Yes, if you pull for the good guys and mutter curses at the bad ones, you will like this novel because it’s not entirely clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. A little far fetched perhaps, and plaguing because we are forced to ask ourselves the proverbial question, “If we were behind Lucy’s desk, would our journey have been the same?”
Always the peacocks! In this novelization of Milledgeville, Georgia, home of Flannery O'Connor in the 1960's, the vibrant and abrasive birds frame the encounters of lifelong residents, new arrivals, and prodigal daughters. Awash with color and sound, this good hard look at Milledgeville will send you to the bookshelves to rediscover O'Connor's work and her depiction of the people of her town.
One of Kevin Henkes' great gifts is his able evocation of the child's psyche. Almost-eleven-year-old Alice is returning to her family's longtime Florida vacation spot and anticipating another wonderful week with the visitors she has come to love in years past. Perhaps she will find a rare Junonia shell this year. Children and adults will connect immediately with Alice's expectations, disappointments and surprises. A perfect summer read for your reflective 9-12 year-old child, this beautifully designed volume with its seashell graphics and heavy toothed paper is a book you will want to own in hard cover.
If you're not charmed by the conversation of two nine year olds discussing the finer points of magicianship in valiant attempts at intellectual English with a Russian accent, you may put down Vaclav and Lena before you really have a chance to get to know these two extraordinary children and the adults who control their lives in their Brooklyn emigre neighborhood. You will also miss one of the most tender love stories that you may have read in a very long while. It was a one-nighter for me because I didn't want to imagine how their story would end, I had to read what Haley Tanner's resolution would be. I highly recommend her first novel.
A call to action for all of us who love to read and believe it to be critical to the inner and outer lives of those we love. Alice Ozma's father was an elementary school librarian who was passionate about reading aloud. He and Alice made a promise to one another when Alice was 8, that they would read together every night for 1001 nights. Achieving that goal, they continued their streak for the next 3128 nights--until Alice's first day of college--sharing ten minutes of father/daughter reading time. This is the story of the relationship of a father and daughter through the books they read. Once you've read this book, pass it on to your grown children. Give it as a wedding present. Buy it for new parents. It's time to inspire the next generation.
This gallery of extraordinary flower collages--perhaps the first of their kind made from paper, paint and floral materials--was begun by the extraordinary Mary Granville Pendarves Delany in 1772, her 72nd year, and has been preserved ever since in the British Museum's manuscript collection. This book, perhaps the first of its kind, re-envisions the flowers as reflections of the milestones in Mrs. Delany's life, and as extensions, experiences in the life of the author. Complex you say? Indeed, but thoroughly worth the read. Molly Peacock's prose is both lively and poetic. Place this book in the hands of your favorite gardener who likes a little romance and has a sense of humor.
If Tina Fey is not the funniest woman on the planet, she at least has the power to make a confirmed curmudgeon crack a smile. Page after page, my family of grown daughters laughed out loud as Tina related her life story. Always salty, occasionally crass, ever surprising, Tina's view of the world makes you think back to your own childhood and wonder, was my life really that boring? Warning note: Although middle schoolers who watch 30 Rock may want to read this book, it's a better choice for college students and 20+ somethings. Save it until the kids are older!