John 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.”
The 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.
As 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.
John 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.
This murder mystery is a true whodunit with murder served up as the main course, while romance and comedy are definitely delectable side dishes in this new series, Rules of Murder, by Julianna Deering. Deering takes a foray into the past with Rules of Murder, which takes place in 1932 and is set in a quaint countryside town in Hampshire, U.K.
The novel opens to Drew Farthering returning to his extravagant manor house after a long vacation with his friend Nick. Drew returns home to find that his mother and stepfather are entertaining guests for this weekend including his stepfather’s beautiful niece, Madeline. It’s during the festivities that they find two people dead on the property.
Drew, being a fan of murder mystery books, is eager to see if he can uncover the plot behind the murders using Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments for Mystery Writers.” He soon discovers that he isn’t the only one interested in deciphering the mystery as Madeline inserts herself into the investigation. The two “detectives” make a connection at the party that blossoms as they work together to uncover the murderer.
This book felt like a combination of The Great Gatsby and a Sherlock Holmes mystery. The mystery will keep you guessing until the end though; the reader is given enough information to take a stab at uncovering the murderer, if they read carefully. There are touches of fact mixed in with the fiction that add to the realism of the book. If you enjoy Agatha Christie, this book may be for you.
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.