Belgravia – Julian Fellowes

I started this book by the man who gave us Downton Abbey and couldn’t put it down! Disclaimer: it won’t be for everyone. The closest thing I can liken it to is a really well done Regency (minus the sex) which is maybe my number one guilty pleasure. In 1815, beautiful Sophia Trenchard is in Brussels before the battle of Waterloo. There she falls in love with with Edmund, Viscount Bellasis–an impossible match given he is the son of an Earl and she the daughter of a tradesman. Fast forward 25 years and the Trenchard family has outpaced even their wildest expectations moving among the London aristocracy as though they actually belong. Enter Lady Maria Grey who develops unexpected feelings for Christopher Pope, the son of a country vicar and an unabashed businessman. Can the tragedy of Sophia’s affair translate into something positive for a new generation? This is drawing-room repartee at its best, although the plot is contrived with stock characters and at times feels a bit silly. Still, it makes for compelling reading with a highly satisfying end. 

A Piece of the World – Christina Baker Kline

From the author of Orphan Train, I literally couldn’t put this book down even though I had a hard time picking it up. The topic sounds boring: Christina Olson, whose whole life is a small remote farm in coastal Maine becomes the unlikely inspiration for one of artist Andrew Wyeth’s best known paintings, Christina’s World, despite an increasingly incapacitating illness. But I knew after reading a few pages I’d be up all night with this one, and I was. The author weaves fact with fiction bringing into focus the little known woman behind the portrait, her complicated family relationships and an unexpected romance. Christina’s life is small, but the everydayness is its charm, along with the lyrical writing reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. I’m not going to lie, for some this book will be unbearably depressing. I’m not a fan of needlessly sad novels or unhappy endings myself. But the writing and Christina’s stubborn pride, intelligence and hope throughout a life of hardship and tragedy almost make the subject disappear. I’m giving this one my highest recommendation.

Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

Trains carrying orphans ran routinely from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929 carrying abandoned children needing homes. Fate determined whether these kids got good families or were taken for more pragmatic, brutal reasons such as hard labor. In this marvelously written book of fiction, Irish immigrant Vivian is one such child. In chapters which move from the past to the present, we learn what happened to her; the good, the bad and the ugly. At the end of her life, Vivian is living peacefully and well in Maine when 17-year-old Molly shows up with community-service hours to fill. As Molly helps Vivian clean out her attic, she discovers she and the wealthy widow have much more in common than it seems. Molly has spent her childhood in and out of foster homes, and is currently living with another set of indifferent strangers. This well-crafted, emotional journey through loss and upheaval, still manages an ultimate message of resilience, hope and finding friendship when and where we least expect it.

Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

SophiesChoiceAt its core, this book is about the no-win ethical choice a woman must make during the World War II era. Three people share a boarding house in Brooklyn. Stingo, an aspiring author, is drawn into a difficult relationship between a Jew and his Catholic lover. Nathan is charming, but a schizophrenic who self-medicates and is violent. Sophie is Polish and a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. As Stingo gets to know Sophie, she slowly tells him about her past — about how she was sent to Auschwitz with her two children. Stingo’s growing closeness to Sophie prompts Nathan, who is at times delusional, to accuse them of having an affair. He threatens to kill them. Stingo and Sophie flee and she finally reveals the horrific decision she was forced to make in Auschwitz about her kids. Stingo proposes marriage, but Sophie is deeply depressed, an alcoholic and desperate to self-destruct with Nathan. This is a beautifully written book, with fully realized characters, well deserving of the National Book Award it was awarded in 1980.

Roman Blood – Steven Saylor


175px-Roman_Blood_coverThis is a great book for readers who enjoy Roman history — like I do. It’s the first in the Roma Sub Rosa series, mysteries which feature sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  The year is 80 BC and Sulla rules Rome. Young lawyer Marcus Cicero is defending Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his wealthy father.  (The gruesome penalty for patricide is to be marched to the Field of Mars, brutally whipped, sewn into a sack with a snake, chicken and dog, and then chucked into the Tiber.) Cicero hires Gordianus to investigate.  Rumor has it Roscius plotted the murder because his father threatened to disinherit him and leave the money to the unborn child of a prostitute with whom he was having an affair. As Gordianus pursues the truth, his house is vandalized, his slave Bethesda attacked and someone tries to kill him, more than once.  Maybe, because he discovers something that could set Roscius free but implicate Roman Dictator Sulla in the process.

 

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 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.