Charlene Ball, Dark Lady (She Writes Press, 2017)
It’s not easy to find a new take on the Tudors, especially Elizabeth I. But Charlene Ball manages to find a different angle in this story about the life of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, who may have been the inspiration for the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
In real life a gifted musician and a poet in her own right, Emilia acquired her education in the house of the Countess of Kent, who raised her as a lady despite Emilia’s rather checkered heritage as a minstrel’s daughter from a family of Italian Jews who had converted to Christianity and fled Spain to escape the Inquisition. Rape makes Emilia unsuitable for an aristocratic marriage, and she becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsford, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn. But the love of her life, at least in this retelling, is the playwright William Shakespeare, with whom Emilia enjoys a brief but passionate affair.
What I loved about this book, in addition to its exquisitely wrought descriptions of Tudor life (the author taught English Renaissance literature for years), is that Emilia’s relationship with Shakespeare, although an important element in her story, is far from its whole. The novel takes us through her life from childhood to the publication of her poetry collection thirty-five years later, giving us as readers a real sense of an extraordinary woman who persevered through blessings and burdens, as we all must.—CPL
Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event (Vintage, 2016)
“Library of Congress Living Legend” Judy Blume has sold over 82 million books for children and young adults, and several generations have grown up with her wisdom and sometimes controversial insight into the realities of those sometimes turbulent years of elementary and middle school.
In the Unlikely Event is the author’s first adult book since 2003’s Summer Sisters, albeit with an appealing and wise 13-year-old girl, Miri Ammerman, at the center. It is based on the true story of three tragic plane crashes in the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, which lies on the flight path to Newark Airport and is Judy Blume’s home town, in 1951–52.
The story follows Miri and her spirited single mother through most of Miri’s life, with many rounded and believable characters such as Miri’s uncle, who is the reporter covering the tragedies, and Miri’s friends as they react to the destruction and public interest around them, including conspiracy theories and several potential sources of blame.
The author also tells us the true stories of some of the victims who died in the tragedies, the ordinary and heartbreaking accounts of their last day. This part has great impact and is powerful, offering insight into the daily lives of the victims and their families. This was a time and place that was completely unfamiliar to me, but with the many political, cultural, and popular music references, I did feel a sense of what it must have been like to have been a young teen living though those times and tragedies. I loved this book.—DS
Crystal King, Feast of Sorrow (Touchstone, 2017)
Though I studied the classics and read my share of period novels, I honestly found it difficult to connect emotionally with the ancient Romans until I read this intriguing novel. Inspired by fragments of an actual ancient cookbook, On Cookery by Apicius, a contemporary of Augustus Caesar, the story revolves around a fictional slave with a heightened sense of taste and his lifelong relationship with his master, Apicius, portrayed as a narcissistic aristocrat who created a renowned school for chefs.
This is fiction based on the historical record and documented people, but within those parameters the author creates a warm, wonderful story of food, passions, and intrigue. I loved finding recipes and spices still enjoyed in the Mediterranean basin—honey wine, Parthian chicken, and fried hyacinth bulbs—and learning about best-forgotten delicacies such as stuffed dormice. Food, dinner parties, and recipes abound throughout, making this book a total pleasure to read.—AA