Mary Todd Lincoln was not well liked in her time. Women then were not supposed to have opinions on politics, nor were they supposed to be witty at the expense of men. Louis Bayard's novel Courting Mr. Lincoln gives us a Mary Todd who will please readers today who do like witty, politically opinionated women. Evidently, Abraham Lincoln also did. For more about this delightful novel, see the review of Courting Mr. Lincoln.
Readers hungry for more novels integrating graceful writing, a realistic historical approach, and the mysticism of the ancient world will thoroughly enjoy Linda Proud's Chariot of the Soul. Reminiscent of novels like Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset and Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, Proud's latest novel is about a British prince educated in Rome who returns to Britain in advance of Emperor Claudius's invasion on a mission to persuade the British kings to accept Roman rule. For more about this fine novel, see the review of Chariot of the Soul.
If you're a reader who likes hard-boiled historical mysteries and you're looking for a fresh setting, look no further. The kind of wickedness Sam Spade uncovers in Depression-era California is tame compared to the murders and other crimes a pair of investigators in 1793 Sweden track down in The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag. For more about this exceptionally well-plotted and clever novel, see the review of The Wolf and the Watchman.
Margaret Verble's new novel, Cherokee America, is about a woman and her five sons who run a potato farm in the Cherokee Nation in the 1870s. It feels like it was written about real people. Perhaps that's because it was inspired by the life of a real woman, someone the author's grandmother knew. Nothing in this novel is stereotyped, which makes it especially fresh and engaging. For more about this story of life in the Cherokee Nation, see the review of Cherokee America.
Julie Orringer's first novel, The Invisible Bridge followed her acclaimed collection of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater. Published in 2010, The Invisible Bridge is an absorbing story of a young Hungarian who goes to Paris in 1937 to study architecture, but is forced back to Hungary after it forms an alliance with Nazi Germany.
The novel is a love story with numerous complications, as well as a story of how individual Jews navigated the challenges of living in Europe among various styles and degrees of anti-Semitism. I wish it were not newly relevant eight years after it was first published. The story reminds us that prejudice and persecution take many forms, adapting to the specific cultures in which they arise. For more about this beautifully written novel, see the review of The Invisible Bridge.
C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake mysteries are long novels, thicker with history than the usual historical mystery. His latest, Tombland, is no exception. In this one, Shardlake gets mixed up with Kett's Rebellion, an uprising in the time of Edward VI that seemed, for a time, as though it could reorganize English social structure as thoroughly as Henry VIII's many marriages reorganized English religion. For more about this meaty novel, see the review of Tombland.
W.G. Sebald has a way of closely observing and describing people and their surroundings in a way that does far more than evoke a sense of their tangible reality. He also suggests a haunting inner life to even the most inanimate of objects that, in the early chapters of his masterful novel Austerlitz serves to pull readers into the story long before he reveals its subject.
Actually, that's not quite right.
The subject of Austerlitz is dislocation, and readers feel this dislocation from the first page, when the narrator speaks of his wanderings in a foreign city, feeling unwell, acutely aware of "the uncertainty of my footsteps." But more is revealed, little by little, to explain the source and nature of the main character's dislocation until, ultimately, the power of the final revelations are all the greater because of the subtly compelling but seemingly meandering way Sebald has drawn readers into his character's mysterious life. For more about this exceptional novel, see the review of Austerlitz.
This lovely, short, stylish novel is also a well-researched historical novel about a little-known episode in Michelangelo's life. You may not realize that after he became famous in Europe for his David sculpture, he accepted a commission from the Turkish Sultan to design a bridge. It's true. And while most of what happens in the novel may not be true--very little is known about Michelangelo's time in Turkey--it's consistent with what we do know about Michelangelo and is an insightful portrayal of the creative process, something that does not always appear straightforward and sensible to the non-artists who commission work. For more about this excellent novel, see the review of Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants.
One of the shameful episodes in American history was the incarceration of loyal Japanese-Americans (many born in the U.S.) after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into WWII. Jamie Ford's novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, originally published in 2009, has been reissued in a 10-year anniversary edition. It's a timely reminder of the harm we do when we blindly label people of a particular ethnic group as enemies and treat them as dangers to be locked up. This novel looks at the internment camps from the perspective of a Chinese-American boy who becomes friends with a Japanese-American girl when they both work in a school cafeteria, the only two children of Asian descent in their prestigious school. For more about this touching novel, see the review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Coming Soon: Reviews of The Invisible Bridge (another WWII story) and Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (about Michelangelo's trip to Istanbul).
Smoke and Ashes, the third novel in Abir Mukherjee's "Wyndham and Bannerjee" mystery series set in Colonial India is every bit as good as the first two novels in the series.
Not only is it a tense mystery/thriller revolving around a horrifying murder, it richly evokes the India of the early years of Gandhi's movement for Indian independence. Used to quelling violent uprisings, the British did not know how to cope with a nonviolent uprising. British police captain Sam Wyndham, trying a variety of unsuccessful coping mechanisms for his personal guilt, shows why Gandhi's method was so powerful.
For more about this riveting novel, see the review of Smoke and Ashes.