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Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

Cover art for The Maid's VersionOn a peaceful summer evening in the town of West Table, Missouri, the quiet of the night was shattered by a thunderous explosion. In 1929, the Arbor Dance Hall blew apart with a force that flattened the two story buildings adjacent to it, with a blast that was felt in the next town some 20 miles away. Forty-two people lost their lives and countless others suffered terrible injuries from either the fire or having been blown from the building. The devastation wrought by the dance hall explosion had an impact on every resident of the town. Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version recounts many of their stories.  

 

The mystery of what caused the explosion and who was responsible was never discovered. Could it have been mob related? Was it the evil deed of a band of Gypsies? Was it just a tragic accident or possibly something more ominous the town leaders wanted covered up? This literary novel is comprised of numerous small chapters, frequently describing the circumstances of individuals who ended up at the dance that fateful Saturday night. Interspersed throughout the minor character vignettes is the story of Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a woman who believes she knows the truth.

 

This remarkable tale is a fictionalized account of an event that occurred on April 13, 1928 in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Woodrell believably captures the historical and cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of the Ozarks. It is the author’s skillful narration that will mesmerize the reader and bind them to this powerful yet tragic tale.

Jeanne

 
 

Gilded Age Intrigue

Gilded Age Intrigue

posted by:
December 4, 2013 - 7:00am

Fallen WomenIn the spring of 1885, New York socialite Beret Osmundsen is devastated to learn of the death of her estranged younger sister, Lillie. In Fallen Women by Sandra Dallas, Beret’s investigation into her sister’s death takes her from New York to Denver, from dazzling penthouses to seamy brothels.

 

Beret’s aunt and uncle share the news of Lillie’s death, but not the tragic details of her last days. Upon arriving in Denver, Beret learns that Lillie was working as a prostitute in a high-end brothel – the site of her murder. Beret is focused on tracking down Lillie’s murderer and avenging her sister’s death. She quickly encounters Detective Mick McCauley who is assigned to the case and looks to work with him in solving this tragedy. Mick, however, doesn’t need any assistance and initially tries to quell her involvement. But never underestimate the power of a sister’s love or the thirst for justice.

 

As Beret and Mick are forced together, they develop a mutual respect. Their growing bond will intrigue readers as the duo find themselves transported from the seedy tenderloin district to a high society peopled with the wealthiest and most influential. As she forges ahead in her determination to see the truth uncovered, Beret must deal with uncooperative and suspicious relatives, cope with the incivility of high society and come to terms with the fact that she never really knew her sister.  Complicating things further are another murder and a growing number of potential suspects. Dallas does an excellent job of recreating nineteenth century Denver, crafting a well-paced mystery and creating a promising chemistry between Mick and Beret, which will have readers looking forward to their next rendezvous.

Maureen

 
 

Lurid Epistles and a Doubtful Diary

RusticationCharles Palliser, in Rustication, unravels a late 19th century mystery through the uneasy journal entries penned by Richard Shenstone, a 17-year-old opium addict who struggles daily with carnal appetites. Richard, after an abrupt suspension from college, seeks out residency in the drearily neglected English mansion where his mother and older sister reside after the death of their debt-ridden father. However, to much surprise, his early homecoming is unpleasantly received. Not only does he feel unwelcomed, he is refused any information regarding the sudden death in the family or their lack of funds.

 

Coinciding with his arrival, livestock vivisection begins and vulgar letters are sent to several neighbors which accuse, damn and threaten their recipients. Richard soon crosses paths with peculiar characters that become cagier with every encounter, from vicious socialites to a brutish dogfighter. At the center of much gossip is an earl’s nephew who is both an eligible bachelor and next in line to receive his uncle’s fortune.

 

Alone in his attempts to make sense of the town’s secrets, Richard feverishly recounts his daily thoughts and conversations. However, his fickle opiate love affair interrupts his stream of recollections. As the crimes increase and worsen, he finds himself as the prime suspect and is determined to discover the identity of the true murderer.

 

Readers will recognize this marshy bleak town from Palliser’s other Victorian novel, The Quincunx, but will find themselves intrigued as the jarring plot peels away like sour onionskin.

Sarah Jane

 
 

Going Home Again

Going Home Again

posted by:
November 21, 2013 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Hired ManAminatta Forna sets her newest novel, The Hired Man, in a rural Croatian village in the summer of 2007. As she did in her Commonwealth Writer’s Prize-winning book The Memory of Love, Forna again examines people living in the aftermath of conflict and the insidious influence of violence which lingers long after the war has ended.
 

Duro Kolak is a middle-age man; small, quiet Gost is his hometown. He lives alone since the rest of his family, like many of the villagers, has moved away. Duro picks up odd jobs, hunts with his dogs, Kos and Zeka, and occasionally visits the pub. Change comes to Gost in the form of an English family who buy a shabby vacant house as a summer retreat and a real estate investment. Duro knows the house well, as it belonged to childhood friends, and he offers to help Laura and her teenage children repair the house. Duro also becomes the family’s guide to insular Croatian culture.
 

Forna, through Duro, alternates the contemporary story of Duro, Laura’s family, and the house restoration with the tangled back story of Duro and the Pavić family who were the previous owners of Laura’s vacation home. Duro’s reminiscing begins with his friends Krešimir and Anka Pavić with whom he swims and shoots pigeons. Idyllic memories these are not, and as the roof is repaired and an exterior mural uncovered on the Pavićs’ old home, the reader is gradually led into the dark dynamics of altered friendships, a Gost before and during the disintegration of a country and the horror of ethnic cleansing.
 

Forna paces this elegiac work deliberately, allowing the two storylines to slowly coalesce into a narrative of love and war and a search for the truth. The Hired Man is a beautiful and brutal tale, built on the rotten foundation of war crimes barely plastered over by the new peacetime.

Lori

 
 

Dutch Invasion

Dutch Invasion

posted by:
November 14, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for Girl With a Pearl EarringCover art for The GoldfinchLiterary fans of something old and something new now have an opportunity to see, in person, the art masterpieces at the heart of two respected writers' novels. Tracy Chevalier's hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring and Donna Tartt's eagerly anticipated new novel, The Goldfinch, feature paintings by Dutch masters now on temporary display in the United States. Johannes Vermeer's beloved "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and Carel Fabritius's exquisite "Goldfinch" are currently part of a 15-painting exhibition on loan to the Frick Collection in New York until January 19.  

 

Girl with the Pearl Earring, Chevalier's second novel, is about Vermeer's 16-year-old housemaid who becomes the subject of his painting. It was greeted with popular and critical success following its publication in 1999. In addition to some 4 million copies sold, the book was turned into a movie.

 

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's sweeping new novel, is part suspense thriller, part coming-of-age novel. It centers on a young man named Theo, whose life is changed forever following a bomb attack at a New York museum that leaves his mother dead and him in possession of a rare Fabritius painting.

 

Now at the final American venue of a global tour, the paintings are traveling for only the second time in 30 years as the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague undergoes an extensive two-year renovation. Here is your opportunity to get up close and personal with the paintings behind the stories. Visit the Frick Collection for more information.
 

Cynthia

 
 

Hidden in Plain Sight

Hidden in Plain Sight

posted by:
October 31, 2013 - 7:00am

The Paris ArchitectMaryland author Charles Belfoure’s debut novel The Paris Architect is gaining the attention of readers across the country. In 1942, Parisian architect Lucien Bernard is largely indifferent to what is happening to Jews in Occupied France. When he is asked to create a hiding place for the Jewish friend of a wealthy businessman, he can’t resist either the challenge or the compensation, so he agrees. Despite the danger, he begins designing places for others to hide from the Gestapo. His ingenious designs embed hidden cubbyholes into the architectural features of buildings. When one of his hiding places fails, he can no longer ignore the reality of the situation. Over the course of the novel, the horror of what is happening to Jews in his city becomes very real and personal to Lucien.

 

NPR’s Alan Cheuse compares this story to novels by Alan Furst. The historical and architectural details bring the story to life. This fast-paced World War II thriller leaves readers wondering how we would have reacted in the same situation, which makes it a good choice for book clubs. Discussion questions and additional information about Belfoure’s inspiration are also included in the book. The Paris Architect will appeal to readers who enjoyed Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and City of Women by David R. Gillham.

 

Belfoure, who lives in Westminster, wrote a fascinating series of posts about this novel for The Jewish Book Council blog. He will appear at several upcoming local events to promote his novel. A full list is available here.

Beth

 
 

The Sticky Business

The Sticky Business

posted by:
September 30, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for The Good Lord BirdJohn Brown: abolitionist, Harper’s Ferry raider, failure. Dry high school American history text material, forgotten right after the test…or not, especially if presented by author James McBride in his bawdy and raucous new novel, The Good Lord Bird.

 

Henry is 10 years old. He helps out in the rural Kansas barbershop in which his father works. Both Henry and his father are slaves, owned by Dutch. Henry’s father is barbering the scripture-quoting Old Man when Dutch walks in; an exchange with the Old Man gets heated and after  guns blaze, Dutch is wounded, Henry’s father is dead and the Old Man is unmasked as the despised John Brown. Brown rescues Henry, though he mistakes him for a girl and calls him “Henrietta.” “She” is incorporated into his motley band of family and stragglers embarked on a mission to free the slaves.

 

McBride presents this story as 103-year-old Henry’s recollections, recorded by a fellow church member. Written in the coarse lexicon of the times, the rich and illustrative language can result in a comedy of errors. Henry is biracial and becomes adept as passing for a girl, and sometimes as white, to ensure his safety. As he travels through the states, alone or with Brown, he offers an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes razor-edged skewering of blacks and whites, slaves and owners, and country and city folk. The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction and McBride freely molds icons like Frederick Douglas and Brown into his own flawed characters. This book is not a choice for the easily offended.

 

Only in the hands of a talented writer like McBride could subjects like slavery and emancipation manage to entertain and amuse while also inform and illuminate. Despite the irreverent approach, ultimately the reader is left with Henry’s observation on slavery and its poisonous legacy when he says “the web of slavery is a sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”
 

Lori

 
 

Conspiracy Theorists’ Delight

The Ludwig ConspiracyThe Ludwig Conspiracy by Oliver Pötzsch is a fascinating voyage through time to the historic death of King Ludwig II. King Ludwig II, also known as the Fairy Tale King, the Swan King or Mad King Ludwig, was the King of Bavaria starting in 1864. His fairy tale castles have inspired many, and one is even the inspiration for the Walt Disney World logo. Ludwig’s death was under extremely suspicious circumstances and, to this day, sparks debates among theorists.
 

Pötzsch mixes fact with fiction in this novel that, though set in modern day Munich, depicts the final months of the king and unravels a story about what may have happened that led to his downfall and death. Steven Lukas is an antique book seller who stumbles upon a treasure chest containing photos, a lock of hair and, most importantly, the diary of Theodore Marot. Marot is the assistant to the king’s personal physician and friend to the king himself. Marot’s account of Ludwig’s final months is highly sought after, and Lukas finds himself rushing to uncover the diary’s secrets before he meets a fate similar to the king.
 

This novel is a race against time to discover the truth and rewrite history. The tale will motivate you to do your own research to find out where the fiction ends and the truth begins. If you liked Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series you will not want to miss this stand-alone book by Pötzsch.

Randalee

 
 

A Game of Papacy

A Game of Papacy

posted by:
August 22, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for Blood & BeautyAs sumptuous and richly textured as the Renaissance age she resurrects, Blood and Beauty’s descriptive language beguiles the reader from the start, sweeping away the veils of a half a millennium to reveal the all too human nature of some of the papacy’s most notorious players: Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. From her first foray into the conclave of cardinals at the book’s opening, author Sarah Dunant hooks the reader, sparing none of the earthy details of Rodrigo’s physical surroundings and fostering no sense of reverence for the chasm of time separating the modern reader from historical figures. Instead, Blood and Beauty reads as though we are joining the author on the scene of a current event, as breathless with anticipation as the citizens waiting outside on that sweltering summer’s day.

 

Thoroughly researched, Dunant’s narration often lends the flavor of the objective journalist, parsing through the rumors and mystique of the Borgia legacy to hint at another layer of truth behind the real people and events as they bloomed to life. The scope of Durant’s task is ambitious. Contemporary and historical accounts of the Borgias suggest so intricate a web of deceit, power lust and manipulation that a sensationalist approach might all too easily have suggested itself to a writer.

 

Instead, Dunant refrains from judgment in her analysis, casting a more sympathetic portrayal of Lucrezia, and skillfully demonstrating the transformation of a teenage Cesare from a youth to the hardened, brutal character who would later inspire Machiavelli. The resulting multi-layered personalities prompt an altogether more subtle, nuanced interpretation of the infamous Borgia clan, rendering their story that much more compelling.

 

Recommended for those readers who favor a certain historicity in their narratives. Fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and any number of Sharon Kay Penman’s works will be drawn to Blood and Beauty.
 

Meghan

 
 

Of Love and Lament

Of Love and Lament

posted by:
August 20, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for Love and LamentJohn Milliken Thompson, author of The Reservoir, now brings us Love and Lament, a Southern historical drama told from the point of view of idealistic Mary Bet, the youngest of the troubled Hartsoe family’s nine children. Due the woeful succession of deaths on the Hartsoe homestead, Mary Bet grows up believing her lineage is cursed. Her innocent mind makes sense of the losses by assuming that it is God’s punishment for her own sins, despite that they are slight offenses to everyone’s eyes but her own.

 

Against the landscape of pastoral North Carolina undergoing industrialization from the late 1800s through World War I, Mary Bet struggles to make a life for herself. She is a fresh and likable soul through whose eyes we see a pastiche of townsfolk. There are her dueling grandfathers whose ancient property feud comes to a scuffle over a poker game.  And there is the illegal distillery worker who has to ruin his own batch of mash during a late-night booze raid on which she has tagged along as honorary second deputy.

 

Although grief, atonement and the misfortunes of love are deeply intertwined in the episodic trials and tribulations of its brave heroine, joy, wit and laughter are skillfully sewn into this Southern saga. The tumult of Reconstruction is evident at the ballots, in the work place and throughout the social order of the land. Thompson’s research and talent of narrative make this a perfect pick for fans of accurate historical fiction.

Sarah Jane