Red at the Bone
Jacqueline Woodson has a singular talent for conveying the experiences of adolescents in ways that are deeply resonant for adult readers. Her latest novel opens in 2001 at a coming-of-age ceremony for 16-year-old Melody. As the evening progresses, readers are taken back to various scenes in the history of Melody’s family, the lives of her parents and grandparents and their struggles against forces of history. Woodson shows how each of these individuals built private lives and pursued their goals while outside pressures tried to gnarl or blight their growth. As Melody faces her own reckoning with the outside world, her family’s experiences will influence decisions she must make.
A Single Thread
Nearly every village and town across broad swaths of Europe erected memorials to commemorate those lost during the four-year nightmare of World War I. It’s not an exaggeration to say that WWI destroyed an entire generation of men between 1914 and 1918; but what became of the generation of young women who lost the companionship and potential mates in those young men? In her new novel, Chevalier casts her eye on one such woman. Violet lost both her brother and her fiancé during the war, and in 1932, she’s still single. She moves to the great cathedral town of Winchester, where she meets a community of women who meet to embroider kneelers, those cushions churchgoers use to rest their knees. The broderers are part of a long tradition, and among these women—many of whom have suffered the same losses as Violet—she finds new ways to plan for her future.
The Water Dancer
Ta-Nehisi Coates has emerged as one of America’s greatest public intellectuals, and his previous nonfiction works have made an enormous impact on the national discussion about racism and its costs. In his debut novel, Coates mixes genres of historical fiction and science fiction to take readers into an America where slavery is still the rule of law. Hiram Walker is born enslaved, and his mother is taken from him so early, he has few memories of her. But what remains after his mother is gone is a mysterious power the boy will learn to channel. His desire to reunite with his mother will take Hiram from utopian communities in the north to the cruelest plantations in the Deep South.
Obreht burst onto the literary scene in 2011, when her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was a critically acclaimed bestseller. Now, Obreht’s sophomore novel is already generating buzz. This time, she takes readers on a journey to the Arizona Territory in 1893. Nora is alone in her house with her youngest son. Her husband is out scouting for sources of water, and her other sons have disappeared. The other major character is a former outlaw named Lurie, whose burden is to be surrounded by ghosts. These spirits all have something in common: they want things from Lurie, and he seeks a way to shed the burden of his unearthly companions. For readers who enjoy magical realism, the stories of Lurie and Nora make a fine contribution to the canon—but this genre-crossing novel also offers a variety of delights in its pioneer desert setting.
The Orphan's Song
Lauren Kate takes readers to Venice in 1732, straight to the roof of the Hospital for the Incurables. There we meet Violetta and Mino, orphans who forge an unbreakable bond. Violetta’s voice attracts the attention of the Maestro, who offers her the opportunity of a lifetime, but one that comes with a covenant that will separate her from Mino. If you’ve ever wondered what Venice was like back in the fabled days of the Doge, Kate recreates that world, where ceremony, ritual, theatre created a lavish culture, but one in which young men and women might lose themselves.
The Prisoner in the Castle
Susan Elia MacNeal
Former spy Maggie Hope is in all kinds of trouble with Her Majesty’s government. She knows where the bodies are buried, and more crucially, she knows who put those bodies there. As a consequence, she’s been imprisoned in Killoch Castle, on a remote Scottish island. She’s held there among other former spies who have outlived their usefulness, a fact that has deadly consequences when one of her fellow agents dies at the dinner table. But the murders don’t stop there, and Maggie understands that none of them are safe. The question is, which one of the other prisoners will Maggie have to stop, using any means necessary, in order to survive?
Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait
Imagine being sent across the Channel to marry a king who wants to make you wife number four, sight unseen. Henry VIII is in his late 40s, in poor health, and in need of new wife after his third, Jane Seymour, died of complications of childbirth. He chose Anna from the small duchy of Kleve based on her portrait. But the moment he met her, he declared her ugly and sought to end the marriage. Anna was aware that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had been executed on trumped-up charges of adultery, and his first wife, Catherine, had died alone and in domestic exile after fighting against the divorce. Anna must negotiate for herself inside a veritable circus of royal advisors and competing diplomats who want to advise Henry on being rid of her.
When Claudia Christie marries into the family of her husband, Rufus Vincent, she’s brought into the orbit of her Irish-American father-in-law. James Samuel Vincent has a complicated relationship with his son, including the addition of Claudia, the daughter of an African American woman. Agnes, her mother, lived through the difficult years of the Vietnam War, alone for long periods while her husband served aboard an aircraft carrier. These characters and the cadre of folks who surround them take readers on a journey through recent American history that’s livened by humor and a series of adventures undertaken by this remarkable cast. Prepare to experience both the terror of a New England blizzard and the strangeness of Berlin divided by a wall—just two of the carefully hewn locations Porter’s travelers explore.
The Poison Thread
Dorothea Truelove believes she’s performing an act of charity by attending to the women jailed at Oakgate Prison. The fact that her work there allows her to test out her studies of phrenology—the idea that the shape and bumps on a person’s skull can reveal their intelligence and character—is an added bonus. But when she meets Ruth, a talented teenaged seamstress, she’s intrigued by Ruth’s insistence that she can kill someone through her sewing. Ruth claims power from the supernatural, and as Dorothea becomes more intimate with her, Ruth reveals a history of deadly stitches.
Plum Rains begins in the future but reveals a series of stories from the past. It opens in 2029, when Angelica Navarro has recently left the Philippines for Tokyo, where there’s a high demand for carers of Japan’s most elderly population. Her client, Sayoko, is about to turn 100. A series of events leads to Sayoko’s confessions about the past—history that has direct bearing for Angelica. Sayoko’s story takes both women back to the days of Japanese colonialism and the horrors of World War II, and what she has to reveal will change Angelica’s life.
The Warlow Experiment
If you enjoy historical fiction and elements of gothic horror, The Warlow Experiment may be the novel you’ve been searching for. Herbert Powyss fancies himself a gentleman-scientist, and in great hopes of presenting his work to the Royal Society, he designs an experiment whose findings will be his ticket. He offers a substantial sum of money to any person willing to live in isolation for seven years. While the subject will have no contact with other people, they’ll be surrounded with books and writing materials and supplied with a healthy diet full of fresh fruit and other luxuries. When John Warlow applies for the position, it should be clear that he’s not a good candidate. He’s only semi-literate, and he has a wife and six children he’ll be kept from, but Warlow’s desperation for money drives him forward. The results of this experiment gone awry will keep readers turning the pages in anticipation.
The Sweetest Fruits
Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th-century Irish writer, made a name for himself by writing about Japan. In The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong chronicles the lives of three women who knew him best. A Greek woman. An American woman. A Japanese woman. Each of them have remarkable stories of resilience, that quality used by physicists to describe the ability to regain one’s original form after being subjected to great stress. The women emerge as world travelers with compelling stories that remind us that so many women were never given the opportunity to turn their experiences into art.
If You Want to Make God Laugh
In the 1990s, South Africa underwent a complete remaking of its political system and culture as apartheid was cast off and a new beginning declared by the election of Nelson Mandela. But the challenges faced in those days included the ravaging effects of the AIDS pandemic and civil tensions that kept flaring up into violence and a potential civil war. In Bianca Marais’s newest, three women navigate these tumultuous times. Zodwa is a 17-year old girl who’s eight months pregnant and desperately poor; Delilah is a former nun who left her profession in disgrace and is followed around by rumors from her past; and Ruth is a wealthy woman who’s discovered that money can’t buy the happiness she’s desperate for. When the three of them are brought together through a series of events, nothing will ever be the same.
The Air You Breathe
Frances de Pontes Peebles
Graça and Dores couldn’t be more different, even though they share the same home on a Brazilian sugar plantation in the 1930s. Dores is an orphan girl brought to work in the kitchen; Graça is the daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, a girl who believes she’s entitled to all she sees, and whose mischievous behavior pushes the limits. Dores is drawn to that mischief, and together, the two bond over different plots. But they also discover a bond that will last beyond childish concerns. Music belongs to one with an amazing voice, and to the other who’s constantly writing melodies in her head. When Hollywood beckons and stardom is promised—but only to one of them—how will they resolve the intense rivalry that develops? And can their friendship, already strained by the pressures of social class, survive the loss of a cherished dream for one while the other succeeds?
Laura L. Sullivan
A spate of recent novels have explored the lives of minor characters in classic novels. In Milady, Laura Sullivan imagines the life of Milady de Winter, the nemesis of the Three Musketeers. Aware that her reputation as a seductress and murderer has made her a despised character, Milady puts forth a defense of her life that shows readers all the subtleties of her actions and her autobiographical reasons for being what she is. She seizes the opportunity to put the record straight and offers a competing narrative to the one written by a man. For a woman like Milady, whose very life has been mansplained to her, how can she not relish the chance to tell her own riveting story?
Someone to Honor
A Regency romance tempered by cool English breezes may be just the escape you’re looking for from the summer heat. Abigail Westcott lost all hopes of social advancement when her father died and it was revealed that he hadn’t been married to her mother when Abigail was born. But the wealth he left to her goes far in easing the pain of the tumble she took in the social ranks. When she meets Gilbert Bennington and mistakes him for a servant, the lieutenant colonel who’s escorted Abigail’s wounded brother home is not amused. But as the summer progresses and the two of them have no choice but to interact, what each discovers about the other—and about themselves—will lead to a poignant romance.
Bringing Down the Duke
When Annabelle Archer arrives as a member of the first cohort of women admitted to Oxford in 1879, she discovers that many of the male students don’t welcome the women’s presence. In exchange for admission, Annabelle has committed herself to working for women’s suffrage, the right to vote denied at that time to all women. The clear candidate for her lobbying efforts is Sebastian Devereux, the powerful Duke of Montgomery who wields influence within the walls of Buckingham Palace and Westminster Hall. But will Annabelle be able to overcome her immediate dislike for this arrogant man who wants to hold onto male privilege, and who bemoans Oxford’s decision to let in women? She’ll have to if she’s to make any progress against the bastion of men who deny women basic human rights.
Where the Light Enters
In 1884, Sophie Savard and her cousin Anna Savard practice medicine in Manhattan. The two intend to work with underserved women who need access to good medical care and offer a range of services specific to women’s needs. When Anna’s detective husband seeks their advice on two cases he’s handling, they see clear evidence of the ways that men threatened by women’s advancement will attack—sometimes fatally—women they hold responsible. Sophie and Anna work together to solve the crimes and reach out to vulnerable women. Sara Donati has written a passionate and engaging novel that’s part mystery, part novel of female friendship, and a history of how women like the Savards blazed a trail for girls who dreamed of becoming doctors.
The Giver of Stars
If you’ve been looking for a story that celebrates the heroism of librarians, JoJo Moyes delivers in her latest. Alice comes to America in the 1930s as an escape from her staid life in England. Her marriage to Bennett Van Cleve and settling in a small Kentucky town begins as a grand adventure, but Alice discovers that living in Kentucky makes her feel as hemmed in and anxious as her previous home. As America works its way through the Great Depression, the Roosevelt government presented work opportunities that offered a chance at real change. For Alice, that means joining Eleanor Roosevelt’s traveling library. Placed with four other women she instantly bonds with, Alice becomes one of the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky. Their exploits may surprise those whose stereotype of the reserved librarian is in need of an overhaul.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in the novel The Go-Between. When venturing into the past, a guide is essential for understanding what one might see. In this collection of new historical fiction, 19 authors narrate readers’ tours of the past.
The chance to spend time in 19th-century Arizona, 18th-century Venice, 16th-century England, 19th-century Japan, or 2001 New York City are just some of the options for summer travels into the foreign country of the past. Whether you’re hoping to read a book that takes you to a sidewalk café in the streets of Paris, or observing lions on an African Savannah—or even if you’re sat in your backyard with your feet cooling in a kiddie swimming pool—we’ve got recommendations. Books make for great traveling companions, even if you never leave the comfort of your sofa.
Featured Image: @jihannah/Twenty20