Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Book Buzz: The Address

Book Buzz: The Address

I had to hide from my family for a little while.

But now that I’ve finished reading The Address I can finally resume my regularly scheduled life. Thank you, family, for indulging me and leaving me alone with this wondrous new novel written by Fiona Davis.


Book Buzz: The Address

Take a captivating morsel of New York City history, stir in the epic splendor of the famed Manhattan residence the Dakota, add a heaping teaspoon of intrigue, top it off with a juicy murder mystery and you’ve got the most satisfying literary meal: The Address.

The Address

The name Dakota may be familiar to you. Not only is it famous for its contribution as one of New York’s most interesting architectural designs and esteemed landmarks, it has also been home to celebrities, artists and the glitterati of Manhattan society. It was home to Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Gilda Radner, Roberta Flack and so many other familiar names from the entertainment industry, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Sadly, it was in front of the Dakota that Lennon was murdered in 1980.

Years ago I read a fascinating book by Stephen Birmingham, Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address, which apparently was also an inspiration to author Davis in creating her novel. Weaving in familiar names, dates and events from the past, she presents two storylines; one taking place in 1985 and the other in 1885.

Alternating mostly by chapter, The Address connects a scandalous event from the past to the descendants of one of the (fictional) architects of the Dakota in the present.

Because I adore historical fiction, especially of this time period, I was intrigued with the description of New York City at the time the Dakota was built, how the Upper West Side where the Dakota is located was pretty much a wasteland, and the first tenants were pioneers of sorts, taking a chance on living in this urban frontier.

In the 1800s segment of The Address, Sara Smyth, a competent young hotel employee from England, is hired as the first manageress of the Dakota and arrives to find utter chaos as the building is still under construction. She organizes a large staff and generally becomes responsible for a successful opening. Under her watchful eye, the operation runs smoothly and she is highly respected.

But her own life begins to unravel when she gets swept up in a romance that never should have happened. She is ultimately sent away and incarcerated for a manufactured reason. When she is released and attempts to return to the life she knew, things are not the same.

Meanwhile, fast forward to 1985 when designer Bailey Camden is hired by her cousin Melinda, heir to the Dakota fortune, to help with renovations to the building. While searching in the basement of the Dakota, Bailey unearths several fascinating artifacts connected to the scandal of 100 years ago and initiates some detective work on her own.

And that’s all I will tell you because I won’t reveal spoilers. Suffice it to say I was engrossed in this novel from the get go and the last 50 pages kept me glued to my reading perch.

My family will attest to that.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of The Address. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. US addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of The Address from Dutton for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: The Lost Letter

Book Buzz: The Lost Letter

Every artifact has a story behind it, be it a stone jug from the Prehistoric Age or the mummified remains as the last vestiges of the lost city of Pompeii. The study of antiquities can be left to archeologists, but curiosity can inspire all of us to muse about the lives that were touched by the relic that has survived.

In Jillian Cantor’s achingly beautiful new novel The Lost Letter, it is a unique engraved stamp from World War II Austria that prompts a quest for answers.

Book Buzz: The Lost LetterThe Lost Letter

The action shifts from the late 1980s in Los Angeles to the late 1930s in Austria.

Katie is a freelance writer whose life has come undone. Her father is suffering from dementia and has moved into a nursing home. His care has required her full-time attention, and in the midst of this crisis her husband decides to leave her. She puts her emotions on hold while she devotes herself to her father’s care as he drifts in and out of senility.

Katie attempts to simplify his life by sorting through his belongings. An avid philatelist (stamp collector) his entire life, her father has left his cherished collection to her but she has no interest in keeping it. She locates a local stamp appraiser and makes an appointment to see him. Could there be something of value there? Or is the collection simply another thing for her to dispose of?

The appraiser contacts her in a few days. He has found an unusual stamp, one he has never seen before, on an unopened letter in the collection. Who was the recipient, and why was the letter never delivered? He wants to research this further and has Katie’s consent.

However, in a lucid moment, Katie’s father is apoplectic when she tells him she has given the collection away, but he can’t verbalize exactly why.

The story shifts to the earlier time, just as World War II is spreading across Europe. Austria has just been occupied by Germany, and the plight of Jewish families becomes extremely grim. Frederick Faber is a renowned stamp engraver with a family and a beautiful home, but as the Nazis move closer to his town destroying everything in its path, the family prepares to flee. Faber’s apprentice Kristoff, an artist struggling to learn the fine craft of stamp engraving, is not Jewish and therefore not in imminent danger. Deeply devoted to the family, he promises Faber to take care of the home and business.

Before he flees, Faber is instrumental in forging the resistance to the Nazis through his craft and responsible for evacuating many Jews to safety.

As the tension grows, the intertwining of both stories culminates in a stunning conclusion.

The Lost Letter is a story of resilience,  love, and triumph. Cantor is a historical fiction writer extraordinaire, her characters seem real and relatable, and the dual timeline works seamlessly as the two threads ultimately converge. The intertwining of both stories connects a time of persecution to a future in which survivors have prevailed.

The Lost Letter is receiving critical praise, including being named as Amazon’s Best Book of the Month.  It would go on my Best of the Year as well.

And now I am off to look through my husband’s stamp collection.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of The Lost Letter. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of The Lost Letter from Riverhead Books for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Lilli de Jong

Book Buzz: Lilli de Jong

Before the current political upheaval in our country, the phrase “she persisted” might not have carried much weight. But now it has taken on an iconic meaning, representing the uphill battle women face when advocating for their right to be heard.

Book Buzz: Lilli de Jong

This struggle persists, as does our rebellion.

Lilli de Jong

As I read Janet Benton’s absorbing new novel, Lilli de Jong, I kept thinking that the eponymous Lilli, thrust into a fight for her survival, might have demurred at the idea of being a persister, but indeed her struggles in an unyielding world required every ounce of persistence one could muster.

At a time when having a child out of wedlock branded the mother — and the child — in the most cruel and unforgiving way, Lilli discovers she is pregnant and has nowhere to turn. The father of the child was unaware of the pregnancy before he moved across the state for a better job opportunity. Lilli lost her beloved mother due to an accident, and her father brought shame to the family by taking up with a first cousin afterwards. Because of that, Lilli has lost her job as a teacher. She is frighteningly alone.

Raised in the Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, Lilli is an educated, purposeful young woman, and now is banished from the order.

Unwed pregnant women in those days had few options. Back alley abortions often resulted in the mother’s death. Keeping the baby meant a lifetime of shame for both mother and child. Giving a child up for adoption could be too heart wrenching to consider. Fathers shirked their responsibilities without fear of retribution.

Lilli decides to leave home to have her baby at an institution for unwed mothers and plans to give the baby up. But then, she just can’t.

Set in 1800s Philadelphia, the story is both harrowing and uplifting, because it is about a mother’s unrelenting fight for her child. The fierce bond between mothers and babies, and in particular the mutual nourishment of mothers and their nursing babies, propels the story line.  Lilli’s dogged determination is fueled by the unconditional love and trust of her baby.

I loved the historical background of this story. Having always lived in the Philadelphia region, I enjoyed learning more about this era and recognizing the local landmarks. Though this is a novel, this feels very authentic. In Lilli’s diary form, it reads like a memoir.

Benton has a lovely, engaging writing style and the plot had some unexpected turns. She has given us a glimpse into the past that continues to resonate in the present day. Lilli de Jong is a virtual maternal hug of a novel, that acknowledges the persistence of mothers everywhere.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Lilli de Jong. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. US addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Lilli de Jong from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

 

 

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Book Buzz: Carry Me

Book Buzz: Carry Me

They say that history is bound to repeat itself. I once thought that true evil, the kind that happened in Nazi Germany, could not. The atrocities seemed so remote, so other-worldly that surely this era would live on only in the annals of history.  “Never again” has always been the refrain, a phrase that perhaps over time has lost its meaning.

Because we never imagined that things would be like they are today. 

Book Buzz: Carry Me

I’m not sure Peter Behrens knew when he was writing his devastating and gorgeous novel, Carry Me, that the story would resonate even more keenly in our changed political climate. For me, the parallels were too close to ignore.

Life hums along with its normal highs and lows. You discount the random occurrences of hate mongering. The racism, the violence against marginalized groups. It can’t get an worse, you tell yourself.

And then it does.

Carry Me

Based on a true story (which makes me love it even more), Carry Me is the love story and adventure of Karin and Billy, set in pre-World War II.  The book opens before the outset of World War I. Karin is the daughter of wealthy German-Jewish industrialist Baron von Weinbrenner, and Billy is the son of Buck Lange, employed by the baron as the captain of his yacht. Karin and Billy meet a small children at the baron’s summer house in the Isle of Wight. Billy’s parents serve as caretakers and the two families are close friends.

Behrens skillfully captures the idyllic life enjoyed by these families that is upended by the wretchedness of World War I. The families are separated. Buck is arrested under suspicion of spying for Germany and imprisoned for four years. Billy and his mother Eilin find a room nearby and struggle to survive as they wait for his release. Luckily, he does come home.

After the war, the two families are reunited in Frankfurt. The baron invites Buck to come live with and work for him again on the vast Walden estate as manager of his thoroughbred racehorses. Life settles into a calm routine. Karin attends boarding school and Billy studies locally. They see each other sporadically, just as friends, as kindred spirits.

Billy gets a good job at a firm in town and Karin is happily employed in the film industry in Berlin amidst the rumblings of anti-Semitism. But then … the sporadic skirmishes become more frequent, the harassment of Jews silently tolerated if not endorsed, neighbors’ backs are turned, doors are closed, and finally a full-blown reign of terror ensues.

Jews are stripped of their livelihoods and possessions. Karin’s job is taken away. The baron is targeted as an enemy. His house is ransacked and he is left with nothing. Jews are thrown into prison and taken to concentration camps. Those who are left are frantically trying to book passage on one of the ships departing for America or Israel.

In the mist of the tumult, Karin turns to her childhood friend Billy for comfort. They fall into a romantic relationship and he urges her to leave Germany with him before it is too late. Together they will explore the plains of Texas and New Mexico that have tantalized both of them growing up, he tells her, and then settle in Canada where they will live out their lives in peace.

I won’t tell you what happens, but the ending is an emotional, dramatic conclusion to this utterly captivating story. Kudos to Behrens for the detail and sensitivity with which his tale is spun. A remarkable achievement.

NPR has called Carry Me one of the best books of the year. I completely agree.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Carry Me. Please leave a comment and a winner will be randomly selected.

 I received a copy of Carry Me from Knopf Doubleday for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Leopard at the Door

January weather has been cold and a bit frightful, so snuggling up with my dogs (and my husband) and a good book has my activity of choice. With a fire roaring the fireplace (okay, it was gas) and the dogs curled up next to me, I happily attacked the looming stack of books next to my bed, one of which was Leopard at the Door, a novel so thought-provoking and timely I can’t wait to recommend it to my book group.

Book Buzz: Leopard at the Door

Written by Jennifer McVeigh (who you might recognize as the author of The Fever Tree), Leopard at the Door takes place in a British colony in Kenya in the mid-twentieth century. Across the magnificent and sweeping landscape of East Africa festered political and social tensions as the Africans came into conflict with the British colonists infiltrating their country.

Leopard at the Door

The protagonist is Rachel Fullsmith, a young girl whose British family settled in Kenya. When her mother died in a car accident, twelve year-old Rachel was sent back  to England to be raised by her grandparents, who imposed a strict and unaffectionate lifestyle. She yearned to go back to Kenya, and following her high school graduation, she returned.

What she found was a different Kenya from the one she had known six years before, both personally and politically. A new woman, Sarah, had come into her father’s life and taken over the household, with an imperious style that was shocking to Rachel. Her mother had always treated the Africans who worked for the family with kindness and respect. Under Sarah’s dominion, there was disdain and suspicion. Rachel’s father seemed powerless to go against Sarah’s wishes to get rid of servants who had been with the family for years. Rachel did not understand what had come over her father, and how he seemed to have given his soul to this woman so unlike her late mother.

Still struggling with that loss and confused about her place in this new constellation, Rachel felt her world crashing around her, unprepared for the tough decisions about family, loyalty and justice.

McVeigh does a superb job of creating the scene. You can feel the intense heat of the African sun, the screech of the monkeys, the rustling of the underbrush as a herd of zebras emerged. There was a palpable sense of danger, not just from the possible attack of a lion, but from political uncertainty and the threat of violence and betrayal.

The last twenty pages kept my eyes glued and provided an unexpected twist.

In her many travels to this area of the world, McVeigh researched the history of the Mau Mau Rebellion, a brutal uprising that took place from 1952-1960 and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Africans. I confess not knowing about this conflict until now. It is a terrible chapter of African history that should be told so that our understanding of international human rights violations can grow.

And with her gift of story-telling, McVeigh does exactly that.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Leopard at the Door. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Leopard at the Door from Putnam for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Get Me Rewrite! Starting the Third Draft

Get Me Rewrite! Starting the Third Draft

I am writing a novel.

These five words have become my mantra, something I repeat silently to convince myself it is real. Not a dream, not a figment of my imagination. Not something I began and never finished.

This time I am getting ‘er done.

By putting it out there I am also making myself accountable. When “How is the book coming along?” is asked I don’t have to flounder around for a lame excuse.

It’s coming. I’m getting there. It’s moving forward.

“So after the second draft,” a friend asked me the other day, “your book is pretty much done, right?”

If only. But not by a long shot.

Get me rewrite.

Last fall I attended BinderCon, a writing conference for women. Among the many valuable sessions was a panel of four freelance editors, each of whom had worked in publishing for years. I was impressed with their knowledge and approach to helping writers make their book the best it can be. So after the conference I contacted one of them and I am working with her now.

I submitted my second draft to her and waited anxiously for feedback. Would she love it? Hate it? Biting fingernails, chewing the inside of my mouth, binge snacking: I engaged in every nervous habit I could think of.

Well, we had a phone call last week to discuss the book. There was good news and bad news.

Good news: she liked the story, thought the characters were well drawn, enjoyed the historical setting of the novel, and thought it would ultimately fare well with readers.

Bad news: a major rewrite is necessary.

Good news again: The rewrite is going to make it SO much better.

Before this feedback, I was having trouble seeing the forest for the trees. I was too close to the content. It was impossible for me to be objective.

With a few brushstrokes of her vision, she gave me clarity that I was unable to find on my own.  As I rewrite the second draft, I will:

  • Take a swipe at the number of characters. There were too many. “Beyond four or five major characters,” the editor told me, “people start getting confused. And it is really hard to make their voices unique.”
  • Narrow the time frame. The expanse was too wide, too Belva Plain. Instead of 50 or so years, now it will be five. And that’s enough.
  • Focus on the motivations of the characters. This has to be credible.
  • Intensify the drama. Make the precipice higher. This will make the reader want to keep turning the pages.
  • Be careful with the historical events. This is not a history lesson. Make the events part of the narrative but only in the context of their impact on the characters.
  • In each chapter, define where we are in time, what is going on with the family, and what significant event takes place that propels the story forward

These simple suggestions will eliminate many of the problems I had with the plot line and the development of the main characters. Instead of feeling angst, I feel a huge sense of relief – and excitement.

I will be deleting a huge chunk of my work, maybe even 50%. Perhaps some of it will return in another novel another time. A sequel, perhaps. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Onward.

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