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.
1. WWII Drama
2. Lives and loves in Provence
3. Short course in Art Appreciation.
Here's my short list. I guarantee the list of reasons you enjoy this book will be much longer!
Sparkling with tactile detail and magnificent sound, this is of the most beautifully written books I've read this year. A compelling tale of the blind daughter of Paris' Natural History Museum master locksmith and a German orphan boy radio genius that spirals through the years of the second world war. Such heroes! Such villains! You won't be able to put it down.
As you will be when you spend several hours with the Cooke family! Imagine yourself a college student having grown up with a chimpanzee for a "twin" sister, observed and tested by psych grad students all the while. This is how your story puzzle begins (although the book starts in the middle) and you'll be shuffling the rest of the pieces until the novel's final page. Humorous, but unsettling, too.
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.