Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another era? Scientists have yet to create a time machine, but until then, we've got the next best thing: books! From medieval mysteries to WWII dramas, we've put together a list of books published this year that will let you escape to another time.
The life of Laura Bridgman, the first person to communicate using finger spelling, is explored in this compelling novel set in the mid-1800s. Without the ability to hear, see or taste, Bridgman was confined solely to the sense of touch, and both her inner life and her relationships were intensely complex. But despite being a celebrity during her lifetime, Bridgman has largely been forgotten by history. Thankfully, Elkins skillfully revives the memory of this pioneering woman and her singularly fascinating world.
The mind of Tom Robbins is a world in and of itself, and we're invited to journey through it in his memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie. Detailing his childhood during the Great Depression, his time as a soldier in Korea and his experiences during the LSD-fueled counterculture movement, the author of the classic Even Cowgirls Get the Blues guides the reader through his life with a sly, playful voice. You can't help but be taken along for the ride.
In 1527, 600 men set sail from Spain to explore the New World. By the end of the year, only four men remained alive. Among the survivors was a Moroccan slave named Mustafa, renamed Estebanico by his Spanish captors. The four men wandered the wilderness for eight years before finally reaching a Spanish settlement, yet Estebanico's account of their journey was never written down. In Lalami's meticulously researched novel, she imagines what the first black explorer of the New World might have to say about the years spent searching for civilization—and what he found when he finally reached it.
If you're looking for a fat, juicy tome to get lost in, this novel, set in 1794 England, might be it. Bent on marrying off their daughters to wealthy suitors, four oblivious high-society men hire a pianoforte instructor to teach the girls the art of the newest musical craze. Little do they know, the musician has an agenda of his own and is instructing their daughters in quite a bit more than pianoforte . . .
Take a relaxing trip to Walden Pond, literary oasis of Henry Thoreau. In his biography of the famous poet, Sims paints a lovely portrait of the delightfully zany father of nature writing. You might be inspired to leave the cumbersome modern world behind and retreat to your own Walden Pond . . . or at least go for a hike.
Furst's masterfully executed spy novel unfolds as the world is on the cusp of WWII, capturing the tumultuous, dangerous moment before all-out war enveloped Europe. Recruited to secretly fight the agents of fascism, a truly diverse crew carries out clandestine deeds across Nazi-infested Europe in this fast-paced, thrilling novel.
The 17th-century Medici court of Florence is the scene for this tale of a talented wax sculptor, Zummo, attempting to outrun his past. While completing a bizarre commission from the Grand Duke, Zummo finds love with a mysterious young woman. But of course, scandal is not far behind, and dangerous secrets lurk in the shadows of the beautiful city.
Reeling in the aftermath of WWI, Frances Wray and her mother decide to take on a young married couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, as tenants in their South London apartment. The lonely Frances is delighted when she becomes fast friends with the affable Lillian, and Frances' confession that she is attracted to women feeds the flames of their relationship. But as their infatuation grows, things take a dark and deadly turn.
She's got (arguably) the most famous face on the planet. But who is the woman in da Vinci's Mona Lisa? Experts disagree, but many believe the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the Florentine wife of a wealthy merchant. Through public records and informed guesses, Hales is able to reconstruct a probable portrait of her life—a life perhaps just as fascinating as her portrait.
Inspired by a real unsolved murder, Frog Music is set in San Francisco during the muggy, disease-ridden summer of 1876. When her cross-dressing friend is murdered, Blanche delves into the shady underbelly of the city, determined to find the killer.
Fast-forward 60 years, and San Francisco is on the upswing. In the talented Lisa See's latest novel, three women of Asian descent with very different backgrounds form a seemingly unbreakable bond working as dancers at the Forbidden City nightclub. But as their fame grows and the world around them begins to change, their friendship is tested.
King Richard II is nervous—and with good reason. Whisperings of a dangerous book are floating around 14th-century London. Within this book are the accurately predicted deaths of every king of England—including him. Rulers, deceit, prophecies and every English major's best friend, Chaucer, all make an appearance in this satisfying medieval mystery. Holsinger, a renowned medieval scholar, lends his formidable knowledge to the novel, giving it a well-deserved air of authenticity.
Perhaps you would like to revel in these last sweltering days before fall. If that's the case, this evocative memoir will take you back to midcentury Georgia as travel writer Mayes unspools memories of her early life, filled with the chaos and love of a dysfunctional family. Highlighting the beauty and pain of her Southern childhood—not to mention the steamy afternoons—Mayes has written the perfect companion book to a tall glass of iced tea.
Spanning decades, this novel inspects the evolution of love and evil within a group of friends. Paris in the 1920s was about as fabulously decadent as you can get, and within the city's glittering night life, a group of misfits and strange geniuses finds acceptance and encouragement. But as the world takes a truly horrific turn, the stunning characters within this novel must turn with it, leading them to unexpected and devastating choices.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam comes to life in this wonderfully imaginative debut. When country girl Nella marries a much-older merchant and moves to Amsterdam, she's disappointed to find that life in her new household is incredibly dull and austere. Her husband seems to take no interest in her, and his severe sister runs the household with an iron fist. So Nella is surprised when her husband orders an expensive cabinet-sized replica of their home as a gift. She commissions a miniaturist to furnish her little home, but soon the miniaturist's work reveals dark secrets about the odd family she has married into.
If you think it's hard to get a book published these days, try publishing in Cold War Russia. The Zhivago Affair details the travails author Boris Pasternak, had to endure in order to get his now-classic novel, Dr. Zhivago, published. It's a fascinating tale of intrigue, the CIA (yes, really) and how one phenomenal book helped sow seeds of dissension in Soviet Russia.
Set in a North Carolina coastal town as the Revolutionary War draws to a close, Smith's debut follows three generations of a troubled family as they struggle to cope with loss. The memory of the well-loved, deceased Helen haunts the family she left behind, affecting each family member in complex ways. This novel eloquently conveys how intrinsically connected love and grief truly are.
If you like your historical novels with a bit of a biting edge, this novel drips with dark Gothic mystery. When Charlotte's brother goes missing within the elite world of Victorian society, she is determined to find him. But she soon discovers that there is something supernaturally sinister afoot, and that high society might be more than a little connected to the underground.
Need an escape from the late-summer heat? Picking up a book with "Ice" in the title might be a good route. In his gripping nonfiction account of the ill-advised 1879 expedition to the North Pole, Sides follows the shipwrecked crew of the USS Jeannette as they struggle to survive the Arctic tundra. This vivid nonfiction thriller is guaranteed to leave you chilled—in more ways than one.
Do you see any books that make you want to hop in a time machine? Let us know in the comments!
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Jessie Burton pairs lavish descriptions of life in 17th-century Amsterdam with a clever touch of intrigue in her debut historical novel, The Miniaturist.
Eighteen-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman is the shy new bride of an enigmatic and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, but too often she finds herself alone in her new, unfriendly household.
Johannes tries to comfort Nella with the gift of a tiny cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own. But when Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish it, his cryptic clues lead her to uncover long-hidden secrets about the Brandt family.
Get the in-depth scoop from Burton herself in the video below:
The Miniaturist is out today! Will you be picking up a copy?
Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The power of TaraShea Nesbit's first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, builds slowly and catches the reader by surprise. Told in a chorus of women's voices, the book provides a powerful portrait of life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the years of the fateful Manhattan Project. Clothed in secrecy, the project's aim was unknown to even many of the men who worked on it—and their long-suffering wives, torn from homes across the country and brought to this desolate area, knew even less.
As Nesbit writes,
“What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab? We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered types of code breaking.”
A time capsule in book form, this masterful debut recreates a lost world. Check out our full review here.
Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.
The story unfolds in three separate sections, each centered on the larger story of the Hungarian Gold Train during World War II. Readers follow three different men through three different time periods: Jack, a young Jewish-American captain in the war; Amitai, an Israeli-born art dealer in the current day who deals with repatriated items; and Dr. Zobel, a pioneering psychiatrist at the turn of the 20th century in Budapest.
An intricate gemstone peacock pendant holds the key to the novel's decades-spanning mystery, but the male narrators and Waldman's unique female characters (Jack's love Ilona, his daughter Natalie and the suffragette Gizella) truly make this novel shine.
Watch the captivating trailer for Love & Treasure below:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested in this new historical novel?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our web-exclusive Q&A with Waldman for more on Love & Treasure!
Is there anything as aesthetically intriguing as swinging 60's London? Pop-culture and music journalist William Shaw transports us into the world of mini-dresses, go-go boots and, of course, The Beatles in his newest mystery, She's Leaving Home.
But it isn't all peace and love and youthful rebellion—Shaw taps into the rampant sexism and xenophobia that colored much of this decade as well.
When the strangled body of a teenage girl is found near Abbey Road Studios, Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is assigned to the case, along with Helen Tozer, the first woman to join his detective staff. Shaw is on point with his characters, dialogue and period detail, making this first installation in his planned trilogy of cultural thrillers a highly recommended read.
Check out the slick trailer from Mulholland Books below:
Well readers, what do you think? Are you interested in reading She's Leaving Home?
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Last week, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, the highest award in young adult (YA) literature. Four Honor books were also named. (Marcus Sedgick's Midwinterblood won the top spot.) Interestingly, all five books are set either fully or partially in the past, in time periods ranging from the fourth century to 1986.
Historical fiction creates ample opportunities for YA literature, but it also poses a number of challenges. One such challenge is the role of female characters. How can authors of YA historical fiction stay true to historical realities while also presenting the strong, independent female characters that contemporary readers have come to expect? Read on for four possible strategies.
When Cat Winters' spooky historical mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds opens, the year is 1918 and protagonist Mary Shelley Black is on her way to San Diego to stay with her recently widowed aunt. Mary Shelley's father is in jail for supposed unpatriotic activities, her beau is away fighting in France and the deadly Spanish flu is raging around her. With no one else to provide for them, Mary Shelley and her aunt—like many women of their time—must take on roles previously reserved for men. So, while Aunt Eva's work in a shipyard seems shocking, it brings in much-needed money. And although Mary Shelley's own activities might ordinarily have been looked down on by a husband, father or uncle, the combination of war, sickness and imprisonment mean that she's essentially on her own.
The popularity of crime drama series like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have made character Sherlock Holmes well known even to those who've never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era tales. Similarly, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become an icon of pop culture. Fictional Holmes and historical Stoker are known for their intelligence, their curiosity and their interest in the macabre . . . but certainly not for their strict following of social conventions. If the two had teenage sisters or nieces, these young women might naturally be determined to set their own rules. Colleen Gleason's The Clockwork Scarab is the first in a series of mysteries starring the imaginary Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker. If these two characters seem to be more independent than other women of their times, perhaps that's because they're taking a leaf out of their famous relatives' books.
Historical fantasy—works that combine history with aspects of the supernatural—is emerging as a hot new genre of YA fiction. Unlike traditional historical fiction, historical fantasy doesn't aim to be a perfect reflection of real life in the time and place in which it takes place. Instead, it combines elements from that setting with elements from the author's imagination.
One especially noteworthy historical fantasy series, His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers (especially the recent second book, Dark Triumph), revisits the history of medieval Brittany and France by juxtaposing real historical figures with fictional, magically trained warrior nuns. (You read that right.) Because LaFevers' female assassins are intentionally imaginary, they have no need to answer to the standards of demure behavior expected of other women of their time.
In Kerstin Gier's Precious Stones trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, teenage Gwyneth comes from a family of time travelers, but she's always been the boring, untalented one. An accidental slip into the past, though, reveals her identity as one of the Circle of Twelve, a secret sect with a long-running mission. Beginning with Ruby Red and continuing in Sapphire Blue, Gwyneth (and her cell phone) travel from contemporary London to the eighteenth century, the early twentieth century and various points in between. Again, because Gwyneth is an outsider to the times she finds herself in, her modern sensibility isn't necessarily an anachronism.
Strong female characters are always welcome in YA fiction, and if this year's Printz winner and Honor books are any indication, genre-blending YA historical fiction is here to stay. Combining the two ideas can sometimes be tricky, but these recent offerings show that it can be done with style, sensitivity and pizzazz.
British novelist Jacqueline Winspear made a name for herself with a best-selling series starring an unconventional detective. Maisie Dobbs, a former maid who served as a nurse in the Great War, returned home to England to deal with her nation's troubled post-war psyche—and the resulting crimes.
But this year, Winspear is trying something new: She's written a novel set during World War I instead of after it, one that doesn't star her now-famous detective. The Care and Management of Lies (Harper) will be published in June. Its heroine, Kezia Marchant marries her best friend Thea's brother Tom just before the war breaks out. While Tom heads off to war, Kezia and Thea are caught up in the women's rights movement and struggle to hold onto the family farm.
Winspear is a perceptive writer with a historian's knowledge of the era she writes about. Even minus Maisie, her work should take readers on a fascinating ride. Will you read it?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE
Read our 2005 interview with Jacqueline Winspear.