Wideacre – Philippa Gregory

16188This book, which features a truly vile heroine, isn’t for everyone.  Beatrice Lacey (whom I love to hate) lives in England in the 1700s on a rich estate called Wideacre.  She loves the land, more than her bookish brother Harry, but by law she can’t inherit.  Determined to be in charge, she plots her father’s death with a lover, leaves the lover for dead and then seduces her brother who has a fondness for pain.  When Harry marries, she foists the child she has by him onto his wife.  Pregnant again, Beatrice seduces a man and traps him into marriage.  Ultimately, she drives her husband to drink and then into an institution so she can sell his Scottish estates to gain resources for Wideacre.  She also brutally exploits the peasants who work the farm to ensure the estate’s well-being.  Although I enjoy many of this author’s books, especially The Other Boleyn Girl, the writing is so rich in the Wideacre Trilogy it remains an all time favorite.

 

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

9780241950807Absolutely stunning book which focuses on three women in 1962 as the Deep South is convulsed by the Civil Rights Movement.  Skeeter has just graduated from Ole Miss.  She has a degree and dreams of being a writer, but the conventions of the time decree it more important she land a man.  The woman she usually confides in, the black maid who raised her, has disappeared.  Aibileen, just such a black maid, is raising yet another white child.  She’s devoted to the child but broken by the death of her own son who died while his white bosses looked the other way.  Aibileen’s best friend, Minnie, also a black maid who can cook like nobody’s business, has lost her job due to her sassy tongue.  She manages to find employment with a woman new to town who is kind but has painful secrets.  The three come together for a clandestine project that will put them all, and those they love, at great risk.  Why?  Because they are suffocating under the social and cultural strictures of the time.

The Winds of War – Herman Wouk

21484This is a great book about World War II revolving around Victor “Pug” Henry, a naval officer, and his family.  In 1939, Pug is appointed attaché in Berlin.  His insights bring him to the attention of President Roosevelt, and enable him meet Churchill, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler.  His devotion to work alienates his wife who has an affair with a man destined for the Manhattan Project.  Pug is attracted to an English woman.  His oldest son, Warren, is a naval academy graduate in flight school who marries the daughter of a congressman. Pug’s daughter, Madeline, works in radio.  Son, Byron, is in the naval reserve, but works as a research assistant for a Jewish author in Italy.  Byron falls in love with the author’s niece and they marry.  Following Pearl Harbor, Pug, Warren and Byron prepare to fight.  Byron’s wife and son remain trapped in Europe. The story concludes in the sequel War and Remembrance.  I love this author.  He wrote The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar which are equally spectacular.

The First Man in Rome – Colleen McCullough

9780061582417_p0_v2_s260x4201-29-15:  Rest In Peace Colleen McCullough.  I love this author. This book, the first in a series, is a favorite.  Meticulously researched, it focuses on Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla of the late Roman republic as Marius rises to power.  It begins when he forms a political alliance with the Caesars by marrying daughter, Julia. He proves his military prowess by winning the Numidian war after his protegé, Sulla, captures King Jugurtha.  Needing troops to fend off Germans, Marius angers aristocrats by recruiting the poor and reorganizing the Roman army which does result in defeat for the Germans. Marius contends with political opposition as he enjoys unprecedented consecutive consulships.  Many of his reforms frighten the upper classes.  Marius uses a client, Saturninus, to introduce measures in the Senate.  When he agrees to compromise with patricians, Saturninus feels betrayed and leads an uprising.  Marius crushes the revolt which leaves him in full control and the undisputed First Man in Rome.

Baker Towers – Jennifer Haigh

9780062262882Bakerton, Pennsylvania has areas called Little Italy, Swedetown and Polish Hill.  It’s a company town, built on coal.  The black piles of dirt from the mines are landmarks, evidence of good times.  That means union jobs, enough food, paid vacations and presents at Christmas.  Born and raised on Polish Hill, the five Novak children come of age during WWII. Georgie, serves on a minesweeper in the Pacific.  Dorothy, fragile and beautiful, gets a job in D.C., but isn’t ready for city life.  Joyce longs for meaning, but is bitterly stuck in Bakerton.  Sandy sails along on looks and charm.  Lucy has a bottomless need for attention.  The book centers around their interaction with each other, and the community, through the mines, church, gossip and sports.  It pays homage to an industrial America long gone.  Haigh is a talented author with a unique voice who does characters and scene exceptionally well.  Her other books, Mrs. Kimble, The Condition and Faith are equally good, but this one is my favorite.

Cashelmara – Susan Howatch

236709I love Howatch’s early books which emphasize dark, gothic plots before she delves into religion and philosophy.  This one is a multi-generational, Victorian-era saga.  Cashelmara is the family seat in Ireland of a titled English family.  The book details their rise and fall, beginning with Lord Edward de Salis. Basically, a reimagining of the life of Edward II, the historical research is spot on as events unfold such as the Great Famine and the rise of Irish Nationalism.  One reason the book is so compelling is that Howatch uses a different character’s point of view in each section.  We think we know that person until a new narrator takes over changing our opinion.  I loved Edward when reading from his point of view.  Not so much when I saw him from his wife’s perspective.  The characters are multi-faceted, flawed, neither hero or villain. The book is all about melodrama with a capital M. There’s adultery, financial ruin, alcoholism, twisted sexual desire and murder.  Hooray!  I also loved Howatch’s Penmarric and her first book, The Dark Shore.

The March – E.L. Doctorow

TheMarchBookCoverDoctorow’s writing is a thing of beauty, much like Steinbeck’s.  In this book, he tackles Civil War history with a large cast of characters headed by General William Tecumseh Sherman as he marches his 60,000 troops through the south creating a swath of destruction as they go.  Ordered by Sherman to live off the land, his troops pillage homes, steal cattle, burn crops, and attract a large population of freed slaves with nowhere to turn.  Sherman, who is loved by his troops, is characterized as unstable, yet a strategic genius, who is alternatively charismatic and detached.  Other characters include:  Pearl an attractive young slave uncertain of her future; Colonel Sartorius a cold but brilliant field surgeon seemingly numb to the horrors of war; Arly and Will two Confederate defectors who provide comic relief; and Emily Thompson a displaced southern aristocrat who assists Colonel Sartorius and is his lover.  Doctorow’s books Ragtime and Billy Bathgate are equally spectacular.

Captains and Kings – Taylor Caldwell

captains_and_kings3Penniless, Joseph Armagh emigrates from Ireland to the United States at the age of 13 in the early 1850s.  This great epic novel focuses on Armagh’s climb to the top, and the price he pays for his single-minded determination.  We experience several historical events along the way, including the American Civil War. One of the most interesting aspects of the book, is the theory the author advances that the world is run by an international cabal of bankers who have no political allegiance other than to their own self-interest.  Caldwell suggests the Civil War was planned in London in 1857 to raise vast sums of money.  She argues that when Abraham Lincoln planned to forgive the South, threatening hopes for plunder and profit, he was eliminated as was Garfield when he showed sympathy for immigrant workers, and McKinley who did not want the Spanish-American War.  It’s an interesting hypothesis and provides a thought-provoking back drop for this wonderfully melodramatic saga.

Imperium – Robert Harris

UnknownI love Roman history.  Here, the life of Senator Marcus Cicero is detailed by his faithful slave, Tiro — before Cicero attains supreme power, or Imperium.  It begins when a Sicilian aristocrat begs for help.  The man was robbed by the island’s corrupt governor, Verras, who is now trying to falsely convict him and sentence him to a violent death.  Only Cicero, one of Rome’s most ambitious lawyers, and a spellbinding orator, can exonerate him and attain justice.  Cicero uses his wit, his rhetorical abilities, and his voice to fight for the man’s life, navigating the violence, treachery and fraud that is Roman law and politics.  The story is based on real events in the life of Cicero who contends with Caeser, Pompey, Crassus and Antony.  I loved the book’s sequel, Conspirata, as well. Although Harris has long promised a third book, I don’t think it’s been published.  It’s confusing as Imperium and Conspirata were published under different names in Britain. I hope Harris will eventually complete the trilogy.