The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle da Costa Greene is never happier than when she’s holed up among Princeton’s trove of ancient texts, soaking in the artistry of the lettering inside these relics and conjuring up the historical context in which they were printed. Since childhood, she’s been passionate about the art and literary relics of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, and so when her old friend, Junius is about to show her a unique specimen in the Princeton library, she almost shudders to think how fortunate she is to be able to see this ancient text up close. She is not prepared, however, for his offer of a recommendation for the position that will, ultimately change the course of her entire life: to be the personal librarian to his uncle, the one and only JP Morgan. For any woman, this would be an intimidating position, for this was not a position women were offered. But for Belle, there is a complicating factor that would make her uniquely unsuited – so she is bound to keep her true identity hidden from the world. But can she do this when it is so dangerous for both her and her family?

This is the fictionalized story of an actual woman, born Belle Marion Greener, who made her way into New York society by virtue of her ardent passion for the preservation of art, her intellectual prowess, and her social guile. Her earliest memories were of leafing through art history textbooks with her father, and her curiosity for learning that sprouted from this never waned. Though a woman, she was granted access to the library at Princeton, working with the trove of sacred texts that were housed there, and from there she was referred to interview with the larger-than-life collector of art and ancient texts and artifacts, JP Morgan. Impressed with both her fund of knowledge and her pure moxie, he not only hired her but gave her license to maintain and expand his collection as she saw appropriate. Together, they amassed one of the world’s largest and most impressive collection of ancient texts, bibles, and artwork.

What I will not spoil here is the secret that Belle must keep – I will keep that secret along with her. But suffice it to say, that this secret stays with her and directs the course of her life. She is not free to do as she wishes nor is she free to be who she really is in order to secure her career and maintain the security of her family. Because of the era she lives in, she is tied to the social mores and prejudices of the moment and cannot risk revealing her true identity. She is caught between two worlds and she must make her choice, which she does for the sake of herself and for others who depend on her. Even while she struggles, she finds that it is the way it must be and she ultimately makes a sort of peace with it. But at many junctures, it impacts heavily upon her in very deep and cutting ways.

On the lighter side, this story does give an insider peek into the life of the Gilded Age of art and high society and how social status was brokered at this time. It was a sort of precarious time, whether you were in or out, depending on what people were saying about you, whether you bought the appropriate art, had the “right” taste, or your money came from the right source. There was also the beginning of hope for women, suffrage and equality, with women like Belle who broke into what had been a man’s world. She was certainly a pioneer in her field, showing that she did not have to relinquish her femininity to be successful in her dealing in the art world.  She just had to be so much smarter – which she apparently was!

This is an entertaining and educational read, both. Great fodder for all you historical fiction fans!!

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Lyudmila Pavlichenko only wanted to protect her son when she went to retrieve him from the shooting gallery, where his usually absent father had brought him. He was only 5 years old, and the foolish boor was trying to impress him with the use of a gun, no less. Well, if that is what made a “good” father, then she would be both a good mother and a good father to her son. In addition to attending her graduate studies, working to earn money, and caring for her son, she also got herself certified as a sharpshooter. Little did she know how useful that would become, how it would equip her for the battles that were to ensue on her home turf during the second World War, and how it would change the course of her life forever.

Though this novel is fictionalized, it is based very closely on the memoir and historical accounts of the life of this true heroine, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (or “Mila”, to her closer friends). While women in Europe and America were only utilized in medical or administrative capacities until very recently in the military, they were occasionally utilized as front line fighters by the Russian military much earlier on. And although these women still faced harassment and were not generally treated as equals, there were a few, such as Mila, who were actually acknowledged for their contributions, which were extraordinary. In her case, she earned her moniker of “Lady Death” as a sniper, with an official head count of 309 Germans killed during the war (and probably more, in reality).

Quinn has become another of my favorite authors, uplifting strong women in history and bringing them into our consciousness. We can now appreciate, for example, how Lyudmila Pavlichenko not only contributed so bravely toward the fight against fascism with her rifle, but she also did so with her honesty and charm. Brought to America in a student delegation to help convince the US to open a second front in Europe to support the war against the Germans, she formed a personal friendship with both Eleanor and President Roosevelt. And though she shied away from the spotlight, she did not shirk her duties when it came to speaking up for gaining support for her fellow military fighters who were out in the field trying to protect what she felt were forces against evil.

I will say, while Quinn’s other novels truly grabbed me from the first page, this one took a bit of time for me to become fully absorbed. There was perhaps a bit more detail about the ammunition, war strategies, and the layout of the stakeouts than I might’ve needed personally (my eyes may have glazed over just a bit). But the suspense definitely built quickly enough, and there were a twists and surprises that caught me off guard, for sure. By the middle I was hooked and by the last few chapters, I was 100% riveted and could not put the book down until I finished it – including the author’s notes!

Quinn’s deeply researched novels consistently highlight how hard it has been for women to be acknowledged for even the most stunning achievements. She does this while keeping us engaged, entertained, and always wanting more.

I say it again – this is the very best way to learn history! And why I loved this book.

Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

Sarah has only just met Eddie, but she feels an instant connection – and she knows he feels it too. She is fully aware that it is bordering on ridiculous that they could have fallen in love after only having spent a week together but he is professing the same feelings toward her. well, So why, has he not responded to her when she has asked for his flight information when she’s supposed to get him at the airport on his return from his vacation? And why has he not responded to her Facebook messages to him on his supposed return? Where is he??? What did she miss? How could she have gotten this so wrong? As we learn more about her complicated past, we learn that there may be more to both of them than we realize at first glance. Could this explain his disappearance?

So there were 2 obstacles to overcome with this novel, but it was ultimately a fun read. The first was that it started out a bit slow and I really believed I knew where it was going (I was wrong!). The second was that because of my own cynicism I had to suspend disbelief in the “love at first sight” stuff of storybook drama (fell in love after a week? Really?). Once I got past both of these, however, I found myself drawn in and actually caught off-guard by the unexpected plot turns. It became quite entertaining and hard to put down.

I don’t think there is too much to say about this novel – there is no philosophical note, no deep ethical conclusion I can draw out. It’s just a fun read that I can say I’m glad I enjoyed. You probably will too!

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less has found an escape route. With the approach of his ex-lover’s wedding, which he cannot bear to attend, he has manufactured a series of commitments — lectures to be given, classes to be taught, awards ceremonies to attend – and all abroad, so that he cannot possibly be present to witness the upcoming nuptials. As he embarks upon his journey and his approaching 50th birthday, he reflects upon his life and what he has to look forward to. Throughout his journey, it seems that as his suitcase appears to become emptier,  his heart becomes fuller.

On the surface, the story of Arthur Less can feel somewhat self-indulgent. He is smoldering over his life, having lived many years in the shadow of a genius. He feels he’s achieved merely mediocrity at best, as an author, as a lover, perhaps even as a human in general. He laments his past works, such as they are, as well as his current attempts at writing and at love. He has imposter syndrome to the nth degree. Sadly, he neglects to see the love that he inspires around him. He has difficulty taking in the admiration of his students, his audiences, and his friends. Only we, the readers, see it.

Can’t we all relate to this? Just as Arthur travels around the world getting swept up in misadventure and blaming himself, many of us travel through life focusing on what we’ve done wrong and where we have erred rather than on what we should be grateful for. I know I often fall into the trap of being my own worst critic and blind to my own blessings. I often feel “less.”

I am not sure I understand how this was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it certainly does have meaning beyond the surface and is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

I would be so interested to hear what others think about this one! Please comment!

The Winners by Fredrik Backman

In this long-awaited third in the Beartown trilogy, we return to the scene of the 2-year truce between Beartown and its rival town, Hed. While the death of a teenager had forced everyone to acknowledge that things had gone too far, and everyone had united in mourning over that loss, it appears that unity could not possibly hold forever. The rivalry was as deeply ingrained in folks’ DNA as was hockey itself. The truce was just too fragile. Just a bit of a personal dispute among young teens over a sister with a history, a cover-up of some controversial bookkeeping of the city council, and some other very complicated alliances, and you have the coming apart of that very vulnerable truce. And who will show strength and who will show weakness is what we hold our collective breaths over throughout the whole story. And you can never be sure.

Yet again, Backman has brought us back to Beartown, reunited us with our dear friends and introduced us to a few new ones. Each one is so carefully drawn, so lovingly portrayed, that they feel as if they are actual humans that we can travel to Sweden and find in a small town just outside a forest. Their stories are similarly complex, layered over each other in an interconnecting web, just as you’d find in a small town. The suspense continues to build, and just when you think you see where the plot line is heading, there is yet another twist that throws you off its trail. Backman’s true gift.

One tip: I’d suggest spacing out the novels, because Backman does such a good job of reminding us of who the characters are and how they are related to each other, likely to create standalone novels. However, reading them too close together may feel a bit repetitive, because of these explanations.

Otherwise, this is a beautifully written trilogy – even if you don’t love hockey and even if you don’t come from a small town that does.

 

Me Without You by Kelly Rimmer

The first thing Callum saw was the bare feet- and quite dirty, bare feet at that. But quickly he learned that these feet happened to be attached to a beautiful, tiny, auburn-haired woman with an almost intimidatingly sharp wit and he was intrigued at once. While they both resisted commitment, he felt himself falling more quickly than he’d ever done in his life. She, on the other hand, was mysteriously holding back. He knew she liked him, it was obvious. What else was going on? He’d have to just go along with it and take whatever she could give him.

I am a huge fan of this author – and yet, this novel of hers was a disappointment for me. While it is a romantic and heartbreaking story, it was overtly linear, unidimensional, and pathetically predictable. The only one who could not see what was coming was Callum himself, because the reader could see any of the attempts at plot twists coming from a mile away.  It was an Australian “Love Story” (remember? the movie?) – and who needed another one of those?

The only redeeming aspect of the story, I believe, is that it does increase awareness of a frightening illness, Huntington’s Disease, which is a uniformly fatal genetic disorder that leads to neurologic degeneration of affected individuals over months to years. It often begins with abnormal movements of the extremities, abnormal sensory issues, gradually to severe cognitive and emotional deficits, and then ultimately failure of neurologic function altogether.  It is rare – approximately 1/10,000 in the US and tends to run in families of European descent but can be found in others as well. Apparently there are about 15,000 Americans living with this disease at this time. 

Again, I will still read other Kelly Rimmer books – she is a talented author. This is just not one of her stellar achievements. 

 

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Inti is on a mission here in this sheep farmland of Australia, and these farmers are not going to stop her. Can they not understand that after they had hunted the wolves to extinction, their ecosystem faltered and the forest became unstable because of it? Here she is, with her team of scientists, trying to save the forest with her proven method of rewilding the landscape with the reintroduction of wolves and they are fighting her at every step. Out of fear? Out of ignorance? Who knows? But as Inti battles these townfolk, she is also battling her own demons – hers, and those of her twin sister, Aggie. And maybe, anger and fighting can blind a person, dangerously, to what is right in front of them.

This is a stunning novel with a lofty mission. We are carried into Inti’s story, her mission to save the forest, a suspicious death, and her past that is entangled so deeply with her sister Aggie’s. Complex plot, complex characters, engaging from page one. But we are also afforded a window into the unique and mysterious wonders of the wolf – its habits, its predatory prowess, and its deep loyalty to its pack. We learn how essential the wolf as predator is to the whole ecosystem of the forest, keeping its prey in check in order to maintain the balance that evolved over centuries and that man did his best to try to destroy.

One can read article upon article about our endangered environment, but when we connect with it in a story such as this one, I believe it has a much stronger impact emotionally. By creating characters whom we relate to and who become heroes to us, we become more personally committed. Even the wolves are characters here, and we become attached to them, come to know them and their personality traits as Inti surmises from her tracking of them. And even though we know this is fiction, albeit with much fact woven through, because we are so invested in these characters and their outcome, we are also invested – enlightened, even – in the urgency of saving our planet – so much more than an article could ever accomplish.

It is a lofty mission that is absolutely accomplished, and beautifully so. Very highly recommend this – and if you’re environmentally inclined, consider it a MUST READ.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Sheila has always harbored a soft spot for her brother Art, a tender-hearted guy always destined, it seemed, for the priesthood. His gentle manner, his lack of pursuit of earthly possessions beyond books, and his deep faith made him perfectly suited, even as she herself was filled with doubt. Sadly, though, when he was caught up in the maelstrom of accusations of child molestations by priests in Boston in the early 2000’s, even Sheila was forced to examine her own faith in her brother. Did she think he was capable of doing what he was accused of? What was the truth?

This novel was told with such authenticity that throughout the reading of it, I honestly believed that it was a true story written in novel format. Sheila’s character, her mom, her dad, Art – were all so real, so 3-dimentional, I felt this could have been a very plausible story of any of the priests accused of abuse at the time that so many were. 

The story has many layers that beg to be unpacked. One is the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, as is highlighted here, so radically conflicts with man’s natural, physical urge. Does this contribute to the abuse of women and/or children by priests? Who knows? It certainly would be interesting to see if things were to change if the celibacy rules were lifted. Wouldn’t it be worth that very experiment, given the lives it would impact? Who really benefits from a priest’s celibacy anyway? Certainly not the priests themselves, I would imagine, although I am the last person to actually know that for sure.

And what about the cover-up of all the priestly misdeeds by the church? Surely it occurs in other religions as well — it is not only the Catholic church —  but it has notoriously been present there for centuries. Because of the hierarchical structure of the church and the stringent code of silence among those involved, not to mention the power the church has had over so many over so long, it is not surprising that those who witness any wrongdoing are terrified to come forward in any sort of public way.  And even in that rare instance when one is found to be guilty of sin, there has merely been a notorious shifting around of the wrongdoer rather than actual punishment, so that the wrongdoer is not ever really held accountable or condemned. 

That said, as this story illuminates, not every priest who is accused is, in fact, guilty. Or at least not guilty of what they are accused of doing. Because of all of the revelations in the Boston diocese in the early 2000’s, we are likely to make assumptions about priests that are likely unfair, even cruel. In our country, thank heaven, we are still innocent until proven guilty. This is what this story is trying to highlight – and does so in a beautiful, profound way. Art has his own struggles, but they may be different from what we surmise.  We can never be inside another’s heart, but we must try to see what is their truth.

I think this is an important read in our time. Important to understand how we can be surprised by getting to know another’s actual circumstance, how we can be surprised by our own assumptions and prejudices. 

 

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The dust has barely settled and wounds have certainly not yet healed from the second world war when Charlotte finds herself dragged by her mother across the Atlantic on the way to take care of her “Little Problem” in a clinic in Switzerland. While her mother is determined to erase this “stain” on Charlotte’s reputation, Charlotte has a very different mission in mind. While here in Europe, she sees an opportunity to uncover the whereabouts of her beloved cousin Rose, who has been missing and presumed dead since returning to France just before the German occupation. With the name and address of Eve Gardiner which she has scribbled on a small piece of paper, she unlocks an adventure that leads her to discovering much more than just what happened to Rose. She discovers a network of brave women who risked their lives for their countries and she uncovers her own inner strength as well.

The Alice Network is another suspenseful novel by the author of the Rose Code (see my prior entry), which will similarly have you on the edge of your seat as you turn each page. There is a great deal of historical fact woven into the fiction here, as Quinn celebrates the unsung female heroes of the first and second world wars.  We learn of the undercover spies that wore skirts and makeup instead of slacks and blazers. They were often ignored because they were “just women,” which sometimes enabled them to sneak through borders undetected, but sometimes led to them being ignored even when they carried valuable information that might have saved hundreds of lives. 

The writing here is crisp, acerbic and intricately plotted. We float back and forth between Charlotte’s pursuit in 1947 and Eve’s back story (WW I). The characters are, each of them, hardened and broken, wounded in one way or another by war. When we meet Eve, for example, she is in a drunken rage, threatening Charlotte with a Luger in her face and trying to send her away.  She is emotionally and physically crippled by her experience in her war.  We see so starkly how women were affected by our wars – whether working under cover, nursing, or being on the front lines in other ways – and their wounds are obviously just as deep. 

I highly recommend this novel – it is historical fiction at its best. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

When a Latin tutor gazes out a window, barely listening to his charges recite their verb conjugations, his eye catches sight of a bewitching woman with a falcon on her arm. Suddenly taken with her, he extricates himself from his classroom duties and goes to find her,  feels he needs to know who she is.  He soon comes to learn that this woman, Agnes, has a sense not only of birds, but of so much of nature,  human nature, and natural remedies – more than most. It is only when tragedy upends their lives when they both learn that one can only control so much of what happens in nature and that man will always have limitations.  

Underneath this love story is also a fictional version of how the play, Hamlet, came to be written by William Shakespeare. The tutor, of course, is Shakespeare, and Hamnet is his son, a twin, who died at a young age of the Black Plague. The plot is vividly imagined and lovingly told, but it is no wonder that a tragedy was borne from it. It is a heart-wrenching story.  And not to worry – even knowing this, there are still a few twists that keep the reader guessing until the very end. 

For me, there was quite a bit of hype surrounding this book, which was maybe/maybe not deserved, so I don’t want to build it up for anyone else. But it is a worthwhile read, particularly if you like historical fiction.

I’d be very curious to hear what others felt about this one!