The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
This entertaining novel takes place in 1517, when the Holy Roman Empire was allowing Christians to buy their way out of purgatory by purchasing relics purportedly from the time of Christ’s life. The main character, the relic hunter, has some interesting friends who help him pull off an amazing theft related to the Shroud of Turin. Although there is some graphic violence, the general tone of the book is lighthearted and optimistic. Actual historic figures appear throughout the story, including Martin Luther. It’s quite well done.
Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Collins 2018)
I bought a ticket to attend a talk by Barbara Kingsolver because I enjoyed her previous novels. I didn’t even realize it was part of her book tour for her new book, Unsheltered. When I got there early, I bought a copy of the book, and was surprised to learn that it takes place in Vineland, NJ, not far from me. Unsheltered tells two stories in parallel, one in the present and one in 1870, in the same location. As Kingsolver explained in her talk, she sees the present situation in the US as an “end of the world as we know it” time, and wanted to find a similar time in our past to illuminate it. She chose 1870 because Americans at that time were struggling with Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection as an existential threat. It turns out that scientist Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, lived in Vineland. From this coincidence, Kingsolver builds a very interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking set of parallel stories.
A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)
This historical novel turned out to be a murder mystery although it took me a while to catch on to it. This is probably deliberate on the part of the author since the main character is an innocent girl who wasn’t expecting all this intrigue either. She accepts an offer of marriage from someone she barely knows, to escape from keeping house for her father, even though she realizes the man is only marrying her for her money and property. It kind of goes downhill from there. But life for women in late 18th century England clearly doesn’t offer a lot of great options. The good news is that the bad guys get their come-uppance and Grace gets her first love in the end. Oh, and the start of every chapter has a recipe for an 18th century dish, drink, or potion. You’ll see why if you read this book.
Everyone brave is forgiven by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
This World War II romance is more realistic than romantic, not leaving to much to the imagination as far as what people really suffered. The story follows a young English woman and a man she met at the start of the war in 1939, and all the awful things that happen to them until they get together again. It is written in a literary style, with an educated vocabulary and sarcastic wit that reflects the upper-class background of the characters (like Jane Austen 150 years on). The way the other characters talk about and treat black children is shocking from a 21st century perspective, but I suspect it mirrors the real attitudes of the time (and at least the main characters don’t share these prejudices). So if you want to know what it was really like (the good, the bad, and the ugly), read this book.
A Tangled Mercy: a novel by Joy Jordan-Lake (Lake Union Publishing, 2017)
This is a fairly long novel but that’s because it’s really two books in one. One is the story of a 1822 slave revolt in Charleston, and the other the story of a Harvard grad student in history trying to get a handle on her own family’s history in Charleston and how it connects to the events of 1822. It’s a fascinating book with many surprises that makes the reader feel like they’re wandering the city (in both times) too. Racism is a major theme of the plot, including the terrible church shooting of 2015. It conveniently comes with reading group questions; I imagine both because of the topic and the author’s previous successful books. But even if you don’t belong to a book group, it’s an excellent book which you should read.
Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Books, 2017)
This new book by the author of the best-selling (and my personal favorite) Outlander series is not a full-length novel, but instead a collection of seven novellas. That’s what the “seven stones” refers to, and the “stand or fall” part, according to Gabaldon, refers to “people’s responses to grief and adversity.” Each novella tells a story that takes place in the universe of the series, with characters from the series. Most involve secondary characters (although several are about Lord John) and flesh out a situation referred to only briefly in the novels, for example, how Joan (Claire’s step-daughter) came to be a nun. Diana Gabaldon’s writing style makes all of the stories worth reading; readers will finish each one satisfied that a loose end has been tied up. I recommend this new book for all Outlander fans, although it will mean more to you if you’ve read the whole series and not just watched the tv show.
Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
This work of historical fiction reminds readers of the horrors of American slavery while telling a moderately suspenseful tale. It is the sequel to her novel The Kitchen House which I have not read, but that didn’t matter. I found the writing style stilted and self-conscious, but other readers may not be bothered by this. It was disturbing to learn that being free, and even being white, did not protect anyone from being seized and sold into slavery in the America of two hundred years ago. The value placed on people’s lives seemed to be very low, which might be partly due to how common death was for all ages. At least half the main characters in this book die, so don’t get too attached. Sadly, children in that time apparently behaved just as thoughtlessly as they always have, even though disobeying their parents could lead to much more serious consequences.