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  • C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Nov. 2016

Kate Braithwaite, Charlatan (Fireship Press, 2016)

Think of Louis XIV, and we think of Versailles. But the City of Light also played host to the Affair of the Poisons, a widening scandal that reached its tendrils into the heart of the royal court, implicating even Madame de Montespan, the king’s long-time mistress. In gritty, unflinching prose, Braithwaite paints a vivid picture of 17th-century Paris from the throne to the meanest hovel, with characters alternately sympathetic and vile. An at times shocking, at times charming, but richly imagined and compelling portrait of life beyond the Hall of Mirrors and those magnificent formal gardens.

For an interview with the author, see New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan (Broadway Books, 2009)

“Do not pin your hopes on the favors of a man.” For over 1,000 years, stories and legends have persisted that, in the Dark Ages, the most powerful position in Europe—that of the Pope—was held by a woman in disguise. This fascinating novel imagines that legend as fact.

Born in Mainz, Germany in the Year of Our Lord 814, Joan struggles to acquire an education, since the Catholic Church believes literacy interferes with a woman’s fertility, but her beloved brother teaches her in secret. When he dies in a Viking raid, Joan assumes his identity and joins a monastery as John Anglicus. Her sharp scholarly mind and gift for healing bring her to the bishops’ attention, and she rises through the ranks until she is ordained as pope.

Secret passion, earthly pleasures, religious rituals, and fervor—this book is a must for fans of historical, particularly medieval, fiction.—DS

Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier (Knopf, 2016)

Dave Eggers’ most recent novel concerns Josie, a no-longer-practicing dentist, and her two children, Ana and Paul. The story unfolds against a background of roadside campgrounds in the wilds of Alaska, where Josie has gone to escape a series of barbs that have been hurled her way in recent years. But as mother and children navigate the countryside in their junker RV rental, they discover that Alaska has its own cache of barbs. Eggers’ one-pitfall-after-another plotting never becomes tedious, because Josie and Ana and Paul are so incredibly engaging. Their story—full of both humor and heartbreak—seems to ask: is Eggers’ well-intentioned protagonist an example of someone who cannot make a good decision to save herself (and if so, why not?), or is she simply a victim of really rotten luck?—JS

Tessa Hadley, The Past (Harper, 2016)

The setting for this psychological novel by award-winning Tessa Hadley is an inherited, shambling vicarage in the English countryside where four middle-aged siblings spent time as children. Now they gather to vacation with their families as they decide on selling it. The complex relationships unfold among the adult siblings and their marriages as past and present intersect. Hadley is a close observer of relationships and of nature as well, transforming the rural setting into a sensuous, pastoral idyll replete with currents of sexual desire rippling through the children, the teens, and the adults. Action is scant, but the sense of expectation and memory is powerful. This is a novel at once poetic and jarring in its insights.—AA

Leah Mercer, Who We Were Before (Lake Union, 2016)

Who We Were Before is the harrowing tale of Zoe and Edward, a married couple who have been growing apart in the two years since the tragic death of their young son. A romantic weekend in Paris is supposed to bring them back together, but when Zoe gets mugged at the Metro station, they are separated and, with each assuming the worst of the other, decide to go it alone. The story is told through alternating viewpoints and time periods—Zoe and Edward before Milo, and Zoe and Edward after Milo—and we see them make mistakes, learn from them, and make more mistakes, culminating in the accident that takes Milo away from them and sets them on separate paths. The bleak subject matter is broken up by flickers of hope and the open ending leaves the reader optimistic.

Stephen Oram, Fluence (Silverwood Books, 2015)

This is, as Oram writes, a work of contemporary dystopia. Themes of class struggle, social media frenzy, and the domination of corporations are central to this bleak, occasionally humorous novel. Given that it’s set somewhat in the future, I was surprisingly reminded of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel about ambition and greed. For instance, Oram details the outfits worn by the social striver Amber in her quest for higher social-media standing, and therefore more influence (Fluence), and describes the various settings closely.

Like the Divergence series, this novel divides members of society into official strata, or classes. However, Fluence has more in common with the granddaddy of them all, 1984, than it does with Divergence, which was clearly written for a YA audience, and therefore, skimped on a lot of background. This one’s for the grown-ups, with developed settings and complicated characters.—GM

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