Fabulous Fall Reads

fabulous-fall-readsLast Saturday, my friend and colleague Melissa and I gave our “Fabulous Fall Reads” presentation at my library. We talked about the books we think people would love to read over the next three months. We had another great turnout, similar to our Sizzlin’ Summer Reads attendance, and plan to do it again for spring 2017. Without further ado here are my fall favorites with their US release dates:

The Ballroom by Anna Hope (Sept. 6) – The Ballroom is a bittersweet story of  forbidden romance and a fascinating look at how mentally ill people were treated in Edwardian England. If you like well-written, romantic, historical fiction like that written by Sarah Waters, Graham Swift and Sebastian Faulks you will enjoy The Ballroom.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Sept. 6) – Amor Towles writes like no one I can think of today. His sophisticated and elegant writing reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald but his stories are straight out of movies of the 1940’s. If you like old-fashioned and heart-warming yet complex stories, you’ll love A Gentleman in Moscow.

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan (Sept. 6) – This clever and twisty thriller will satisfy fans of domestic suspense novels like The Widow by Fiona Barton, I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh and The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders (Sept. 13) – Mrs. Rodd is a delightful character reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. This is definitely a cozy series but has a darker edge so would appeal to fans of the Maisie Dobbs series or the Amelia Peabody series. I can’t wait for the next book featuring Mrs. Rodd!

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (Sept. 20) – This was absolutely riveting and clever — it’s a dark page-turner and a superb thriller that will appeal to fans of Tana French.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Oct. 4) – This novel has wonderful fully-developed characters, beautiful spare writing, is adventurous and suspenseful, and has a morally complex plot. I really loved this book and read it in one day. It is definitely a western, but a western that will appeal to anyone who likes good storytelling similar to The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin or Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky (Oct. 11) – In hazy and dreamy prose Dermansky takes not only the main character Leah, but the reader, on a journey that is humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring. If you like stories about women who take control of their lives, like Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, you’ll love The Red Car.

The Mistletoe Murder by P.D. James (Oct. 25) – I would recommend this to James fans and to those who appreciate literary British mysteries written by authors such as Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie ,Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters. Also, if you like to read mysteries set at Christmas (I certainly do) The Mistletoe Murder is a creepily good one to look for this holiday season.

My Lost Poets by Philip Levine (Nov. 8) – If you enjoyed Just Kids by Patti Smith, My Lost Poets will appeal to you. It is a lovely and uplifting artistic memoir.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Nov. 15) – Swing Time explores the nature of identity, cultural appropriation, happiness, fame and power and ambition and friendship- all in a witty, sharp, layered and compelling story that you’ll think about long after you read the last page. This would be a perfect choice for book clubs and if you like writers like Louise Erdrich or Amy Tan you’ll relish Swing Time.

Have you read or do you plan to read any of these titles?

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

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I’ve tried several times to read biographies of the Brontë family, but they’ve always seemed so dull, morose and really didn’t hold my attention. When I got a pre-pub copy of Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë I didn’t have very high expectations of it and had plans to merely flip through and skim. But as soon as I started reading I was hooked.

Harman’s style is novelistic, smooth and compelling. She starts the book off by exploring the summer of Charlotte’s unhappiness in Brussels after Emily left the school where they had both been studying French. Charlotte was desperately infatuated with Monsieur Heger, the husband of the school’s mistress. I think Monsieur Heger would be what we now term ‘a player’; a manipulative flirt who courted women’s affection with no care for the emotional consequences. Harman shows how this relationship and Charlotte’s feelings about Heger colored her whole existence, including her writing, for the rest of her life.

Though the novel is centered on Charlotte, we learn much about her parents and siblings as they were all so close and creatively connected. I was fascinated by the story of how the Brontë sisters came to be published and intrigued by public reaction to their novels. Harman really focuses on Charlotte as a writer and an artist and on her development as a novelist. I think this approach illuminated Charlotte’s life and her character in a way which previous biographies I’ve tried to read didn’t and it worked for me.

If you have an interest in the Brontës this is a must read. But you don’t have to be a Brontë fan to enjoy this biography – it’s also fascinating if you’re interested in how someone develops as a writer.

What other books about the Brontës would you recommend? Since it’s the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth next month I’m in the mood to read more about the family. I’m currently reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne for my book club next week and am kicking myself that I didn’t read it before now – what a captivating book!

My History by Antonia Fraser

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I’m not a particular fan of Antonia Fraser (I’ve only ever read The Wives of Henry VIII by her) but I couldn’t resist this memoir about her pre-war/wartime childhood and post-war teen years and the experiences that turned her into a historian. Both of Fraser’s parents were politicians and very well-connected so she had a colorful childhood of campaigning for her parents and growing up with seven siblings in a household that encouraged curiosity and learning. When Antonia was a girl she became enchanted with Mary Queen of Scots and her passion for this tragic figure runs all through the novel leading to her writing her first major historical biography of Mary in the late sixties, which kickstarted her career.

Fraser’s memories about her childhood and education are fascinating and reading about the famous figures she knew as a child is impressive and jaw-dropping. This is a woman who had both Christine Longford and Anthony Powell in her family and received letters from her parents’ friend Evelyn Waugh, among others. I really enjoyed the book up through her school years. However, once she goes off to Oxford I think it dragged a bit, became overly name-droppy and wasn’t as interesting. But, overall, this is a wonderful account of the making of a historian and of what it was like to be a privileged child in England in the 30’s and 40’s.

It has inspired me to seek out some of her books – I’d especially like to read her book on Marie Antoinette.

Have you read Antonia Fraser’s historical biographies or other works?

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

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This delightful book is written by a Jane Austen expert, but it is in no way dry or academic. It examines twenty ‘puzzles’ or themes or curiosities that run through all of Austen’s novels, things such as ‘Is there sex in Jane Austen?’ and ‘Why is it risky to go to the seaside?’ The chapters are very in depth and use lots of quotes from the novels, yet they are short and snappy to read. I breezed through this book and really enjoyed the discussions that draw from each of Austen’s works. I definitely felt a desire to reread all of her novels with this new information in mind. Reading this feels like attending a class with that funny, warm, wonderfully brilliant favorite professor from college. I could listen to him all day.

Even if you’re not a rabid fan of Austen or a Janeite you’ll find much to like in this book. It delves into the history of social customs during this time period and also discusses aspects of her own life and experiences that affected her books. I found it to be insightful, witty and very entertaining.

Book Club: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

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Last week my book club gathered to discuss Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, a nonfiction title about four women who participated in espionage activities during the Civil War. This was the fourth nonfiction book that we’ve read this year (the others are The Knife Man, When Paris Went Dark and The Plantagenets) and it wasn’t a favorite. Only three out of seven of us finished the book so the discussion was a bit lackluster.

I personally enjoyed the subject matter as I’ve always loved spy stories and reading about these bold women (two for the Confederate and two for the Union) who risked their very lives to provide vital information to the military was completely absorbing. My favorite of the spies was a woman named Elizabeth Van Lew, an unmarried woman who lived in the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, yet who believed in the Union cause, especially abolition. She created an intricate spy network whose members gave the Union army information about Confederate troop movements and she also helped Union soldiers escape from prisons in and around Richmond. Out of all four of the women she was the one whose motives for spying were the purest (in my opinion) and who never profited off of her experience by writing her memoir or giving speeches. I think she is a true hero.

The trouble with the book is that it is written in a narrative nonfiction style – so it is meant to read like a novel. The author embellishes the facts with lots of little imaginative details that do feel more like reading a novel than reading a historical nonfiction book. I am not completely opposed to this style as I feel it does make history come alive when done well, but in this instance it seemed to interfere with the flow of the book. The chapters are very short and choppy, sometimes almost like vignettes and it was rather annoying to have a cliff hanger every other chapter. The three of us who finished the book all noted the style as problematic and I think it might have contributed to the other members not being able to finish the book.

Our next book up for discussion at the end of September is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a book I’ve read before and liked and I am looking forward to reading it again.

Cover Collection: Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth

1. Virago Press // 2. Virago // 3. Weidenfeld & Nicholson //

4. Penguin Classics // 5. Phoenix //6. Penguin Books Ltd.

I’m in the midst of a small reading slump – I just haven’t found anything lately that ticks all of my boxes or even makes my heart race with pleasure. Thank goodness I still have Testament of Youth in my life. I took a break from it over the last week because I thought I should try to get into a novel, but I think I just need to stick with this until I finish. It’s the only book that feels right at the moment.

I own no. 4, but I really like the combination of Vera Brittain’s photo and the poppy on no.2. Which cover would you want to own?

 

The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery by Wendy Moore

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I am one of the most squeamish people in the world when it comes to reading about medical procedures or gory scenes of surgery so I was not exactly thrilled when my book club chose this book to read for our January meeting. I started it with reluctance and a smidge of dread yet quickly found myself several chapters into the book before I knew what had happened.

Moore’s writing is so smooth, so flowing and eloquent and the tale she relates so fascinating that it actually became a pleasure for me to read.

The subject of this fabulous book is John Hunter, a pioneering surgeon who lived and worked in Georgian England. He was a Scot, but ended up in London as a young man when his older doctor brother recruited him to be an assistant at the anatomy school he owned. With an existing passion and curiosity for the natural world it wasn’t long before he began dissecting bodies (mostly robbed from fresh graves or those of criminals) and developed an astounding knowledge of the human body. He also performed experiments to understand more about how certain functions worked in the body and very quickly earned a large following of medical students who appreciated his scientific evidence-based approach to medical care and surgery. During this time period, it was the norm to treat most conditions with blood-letting and Hunter was very opposed to the practice. This didn’t sit well with the establishment and his lack of social skills didn’t help either. He never gained the respect of his fellow surgeons but his patients and students revered him.

In addition to surgery, Hunter was also obsessed with specimen collecting. Over his lifetime he acquired thousands of items from skulls to strange animal skeletons to the organs of famous men he’d treated. This collection eventually found it’s way to the Royal College of Surgeons and was the foundation for the Hunterian Museum which still exists today.

Most of the book club discussion revolved around whether we thought Hunter was crazy, obsessive, a hoarder, uncaring, etc. I think maybe he was a bit of all these. Like many driven, brilliant people he neglected his family and failed to provide a stable life for his wife and two children. But he was an undeniable genius who discovered many new ways to conduct surgery (including a better way to deal with gunshot wounds) that saved many lives, reinforced the experiment-based model as the best way to teach medical students, and even wrote a paper putting forth a theory of evolution which was only published after Darwin’s theory appeared.

I really enjoyed The Knife Man and am so glad that I didn’t let the topic dissuade me from reading it. Moore is also the author of How to Create the Perfect Wife which I must now read as soon as I can.