Books We Loved, Dec. 2017
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, Last Christmas in Paris (William Morrow, 2017)
We first meet Thomas Harding in 1968. He’s nearing the end of his life, facing what he believes will be his last Christmas and mourning the loss of an unnamed woman who clearly meant a great deal to him. He carries with him bundles of letters, which he plans to reread during his trip to Paris. The letters sweep us back to the very beginning of World War I, then trace the entire course of the conflict.
Most of the correspondence takes place between Thomas and Evie Elliott, the younger sister of his best friend, Will. We see the early hope and idealism of the troops fade as the realities of trench warfare sink in. We watch from the inside the transformation of women’s roles in society because of the absence of men. We become caught up in the developing love between Evie and Thomas, the grief suffered by families who lose their loved ones to war, the frustration of being left behind, unable to take part. Other voices fill in the circumstances that Evie and Thomas don’t choose or think to share. And the drama slowly builds as Armistice Day approaches, and the war that was supposed to end all wars creeps to a close.
Everything about this book is beautiful, including the cover, which features an indented stack of letters tied in red that is a pleasure to run your fingers over. The letters are vivid and real, each voice distinct. And by the end, a reader has lived vicariously through both the tragedy of war and the triumph of survival, the experience of love lost and gained.—CPL
Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)
A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing in to the trees….
This enchanting tale begins in 1920 with Mabel and Jack, homesteaders who are seeking a new life in the frontier that is Alaska. An older couple with a deep underlying sadness at having no children of their own, Mabel and Jack find themselves overwhelmed and out of their depth in their first harsh, bleak, cruel Alaskan winter of endless darkness, silence, and unbearable cold.
In an uncharacteristic moment of levity, they build a snow child, a little snow person, complete with a red scarf and hat.
The magical story that follows is based on the traditional Russian fairy tale of an older couple longing for a child who build a little girl of snow. The girl comes to life and fulfills their dreams of a real daughter, until she disappears in spring and never returns. This tale is as old as time.
The morning after they build the snow child, both Jack and Mabel catch glimpses of a real child with bright blonde hair running around the forest and wearing the red hat and scarf. Is this a real girl? Or is their heartbreaking longing for a child and the solitude creating a certain madness that happens when people spend too much time isolated?
There is a magic to this book, as I was completely engulfed in the tale of this good-hearted couple and a little girl who was either an otherworldly wood sprite, a figment of Jack and Mabel’s imagination, or just an abandoned little girl in need of parents.—DS
Erika Mailman, The Witch’s Trinity (Crown, 2007)
The Witch’s Trinity is a powerful appeal to reason and an indictment of mass hysteria. Though set in medieval Germany, its lessons still hold true today, as social media spread distortion. The novel follows the fate of an old woman, Güde, who is barely tolerated by her resentful daughter-in-law. Güde remembers happier times, but now she and her village endure a time of hunger, when crops fail and herd animals have long since been eaten. The writer reminds us that witch hunts happen during times of deprival, when need breeds mistrust and envy. The terrifying visceral descriptions of starvation and burning at the stake were made endurable by the strong ending, which replaced mistrust and accusation with hope.
Harrowing and searing, The Witch’s Trinity is a book you won’t soon forget.—GM
Laura Morelli, The Painter’s Apprentice (Scriptorium, 2017)
When Maria Bartolini agrees to apprentice with Master Trevisan, a renowned Venetian painter, in 1510, she knows that her family’s reason for sending her there is just an excuse. Yes, her father, a master gilder, wants his daughter to learn the skills of color and paint to supplement his declining business. But it’s the relationship between Maria and Cristiano, her father’s half-Moorish assistant, that her father wants to stop in its tracks. At first, Maria doesn’t care: she can sneak out on Fridays and meet Cristiano. But when the Black Death strikes the area when her family lives, leading to a quarantine, Maria faces a desperate choice.
The writing is riveting, the story fast-paced and compelling, and Maria’s character always believable and sympathetic. I enjoyed this author’s first book, The Gondola Maker, but this one is even better. For an interview with Laura Morelli, see New Books in Historical Fiction and, more recently, my blog.—CPL