Book Bites: Histories and Mysteries

Have you noticed? There’s been a terrific wave of historical fiction washing over our shelves this spring. Below, we highlight three of the best, spanning over 100 years. Read them in chronological order for some Blue Willow Brownie points. We’ve got mysteries, too—from a British boarding school for tweens to intrigue and murder on the streets of Houston. If that’s not your thing, Alice just finished a fascinating novel packed with insightful social commentary. Plus, we share our thoughts on the new novel by Sally Rooney—if you haven’t already, put her on your list of names to know. Read on!

Ages 9-12

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel

Twelve-year-old Emmy knows very little about her father who mysteriously disappeared on her third birthday. Only days before being sent to yet another new private school—this time a boarding school in England—Emmy finds a letter mentioning her father which leads her to find a box of mysterious medallions in the attic. Once she arrives at Wellsworth Academy, she learns her father also had been a student, and trying to learn more about him leads her to discover age-old secret societies and dangerous secrets. A promising new series for 4th-7th graders.

READ because this is a fun, exciting series starter that has shades of Harry Potter.
PASS if you’re in a secret society that doesn’t read books about secret societies.
Order your copy on our website. 

Adult Fiction

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

In sophisticated yet accessible story telling, Louis Bayard imagines what historical documents don't tell us about the long and fraught courtship of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln. In 1840, Mary Todd left her family home to move to Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister, whose job it was to find Mary a husband. About the same time, a young and somewhat uncouth Abraham Lincoln came to Springfield to open a law practice. Both were interested in politics, and despite her sister's efforts to find more appealing suitors, Mary was drawn to Lincoln. The story of their two-year long, on again-off again relationship is told in alternating points of view by Mary and Joshua Speed, Lincoln's roommate and proprietor of the general store. Speed's relationship with Lincoln is every bit as interesting as Mary's, and Bayard uses both perspectives to paint a well-rounded picture of the man who would become president two decades later. He includes lots of contextual details for a very rich story. Recommended.

READ because this is the new release most likely to be read by Leslie Knope.
PASS if you were hoping that this was about British actor Andrew Lincoln.
Order your copy on our website. 

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

Orringer (The Invisible Bridge) has based her new novel on the true experiences of Varian Fry, who, as a young man in 1940 Vichy France, ran an American-funded organization that helped European refugees escape France. His mission focused on artists and other personnes importantes—Marc Chagall and other surrealists, Hannah Arendt, and others—and he used whatever means available, both legitimately issued documents and forged visas and passports, to get his clients out of the country by train, ship or on foot across the Pyrenees. It's a story packed with adventure, suspense, deprivation and some violence. But it's also a fictionalized narrative of Fry's personal life as a married gay/bisexual man, in particular his relationship with a college friend who resurfaces after a 12-year absence from Fry's life.

Well-researched and peopled with well-drawn characters, both real and fictional, this is a page turner that will appeal even to those who think they have had their fill of WWII novels. Highly recommended. 

READ this for its breathless suspense, eye-opening history, and complex themes.
PASS if you were hoping that this, too, would somehow end up being about Andrew Lincoln. Give up.
Order your copy on our website. 

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz

Basing his novel on historical facts, Schwartz invents a compelling story about the defection of Stalin's daughter from Russia to the United States in 1967 and her life in the years that followed. Alternating narratives—Svetlana's journals and editorial comments by the lawyer, Peter Horvath, who escorted her to the United States—depict an impulsive, conflicted and somewhat unstable woman who left two young adult children in the Soviet Union and tried to make a life for herself as an American. She maintained a friendship with Horvath that blossomed into an affair that lasted for years. In the meantime, she accepted an invitation from Frank Lloyd Wright's widow to join the Taliesin community in Arizona and Wisconsin, married Wright's son-in-law, had a son, left her husband and moved back to Princeton, New Jersey where she lived until press hounds made her decide to move to England. In 1983, she took her son back to the Soviet Union, but quickly realized that life there was not as she had hoped, and she moved back to the U.S., where she died in 2011. 

Readers who like the fictionalized biographies of Nancy Horan, Melanie Benjamin, and Paula McClain or who enjoyed Schwartz's The Commoner (about the current Empress of Japan) will enjoy this book about an enigmatic historical figure who made brief splashes onto the front pages during the last 50 years.

READ for a fascinating, history-rich glimpse into an unusual life.
PASS if you think biographical novels should just make up their minds already.
Order your copy on our website. 

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Playing on some hot button issues of today, this debut novel will doubtless generate a lot of thought and discussion about poverty, wealth, and the role of women in modern society. Jane, a young woman from the Philippines, rents a bed in a New York City dormitory for immigrants who work in a variety of service jobs. Her Aunt Evelyn helps care for Jane's new baby and encourages Jane to seek more lucrative employment opportunities. So Jane applies for admission to Golden Oaks, a carefully controlled residential program for surrogate mothers. Golden Oaks clients are extremely wealthy, come from all over the world and are willing, for a variety of reasons, to pay a great deal for someone to carry their embryos for them. Given their prices, the Golden Oaks administration has strict controls on the residents and their activities, controls that can cause problems for some of the residents. The story is told from the perspectives of Jane, her Aunt Evelyn, her roommate Reagan, and Mae Yu, the administrator of the facility. Each woman provides a different point of view about life on "the farm," representing different cultural and social takes on how socio-economic conditions influence a woman's lifestyle choices. 

I was expecting the novel to take a creepy Ayn Randian turn, but it really is a straightforward commentary on social stratification and trade-offs that women make, whether they be poor immigrants or wealthy executives. It's well-written, and there's enough tension in the women's stories to make it a page-turner.

READ this one for its provocative social commentary on issues like class, race, and immigration.
PASS if you prefer creepy, Ayn Randian books.
Order your copy on our website. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Marianne and Connell are meant to be. The universe, however, has a way of keeping them apart. Connell is the cool kid in their small-town Irish secondary school, whereas Marianne is the social outcast. A secret relationship leads to heartbreak after heartbreak as these two move through secondary school graduation and life at prestigious Trinity College. Rooney expertly details the difficulty of learning how to be an adult and how to love yourself and others, and how two people really can change each other for good. 

READ it to see what all the fuss is about. Sally Rooney has been called “the first great millennial novelist.” By The New Yorker, no less!
PASS if the mere mention of the word “millennial” sends you into an avocado-hating rage.
Order your copy on our website. 

Houston Noir ed. Gwendolyn Zepeda

If you are a fan of classic noir mystery and you love the hometown vibe, dive into these stories set in our city. Read about intrigue, murders, bad people, and cops. You will be able to put yourselves on these streets. It's fun and scary at the same time.

READ for a collection of classic mysteries set on streets you know and love.
PASS if this one’s just going to give you nightmares.
Order your copy on our website.