10 Books to Recommend

A Writer of History is NOT a book blog – however, I have written reviews from time to time on books I’ve chosen to read or books selected by one of my book clubs. Below are ten to recommend with links to each more detailed review.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – I powered through this novel in two and a half very satisfying days. The story is “based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country.”

Educated by Tara Westover – Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho.The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan – author Patti Callahan has written a poignant and clear-eyed story about these two well-known writers and I had the pleasure of reading the novel for an article published by the Historical Novel Society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin – This compelling look at two famous women – actor Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion – entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – the verdict at book club was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Superb historical fiction.

Mary – Tudor Princess by Tony Riches – I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. The history is fascinating and Tony’s superb writing brings Mary’s character to life with a strong and sympathetic voice.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson – This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – In the two years since reading The Alice Network, I’ve recommended it to dozens of people. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

I hope some of these add to your reading piles! If you have feedback on any of them, please add your voice to the comments.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

A few weeks ago, I read The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin which is a fascinating look at the early days of the movie industry. Among Benjamin’s novels are The Aviator’s Wife (a great story about Anne Morrow Lindbergh) and the NYTimes bestseller The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Interspersed with my review are a few comments from the author.

Hollywood – the glamour, the celebrities, the blend of real and fantasy that captivates and seduces. We know it today as a well-oiled machine. However, in the early nineteen hundreds it was a fledgling industry full of determined, innovative men and women creating something new. Melanie Benjamin’s latest novel, The Girls in the Picture, features Frances Marion, who would ultimately become a famous screenwriter, and superstar Mary Pickford along with their long, tumultuous friendship.

Why did Benjamin choose this story to write?I love early Hollywood; it’s one of my favorite times and places. The film industry was just beginning and it really was like the wild, wild west in a way—everyone was young, nobody had experience, they were making everything up as they went along, with no idea that what they were doing was inventing a new art form. And women were just influential as men in those early years.” Why Frances Marion and Mary Pickford? “Not every real person can carry a novel; I’ve learned that the hard way!  But Mary and Frances leapt out to me; everything about them—their personal lives, their accomplishments and most importantly, their empowering friendship—screamed NOVEL to me!”

As the years unfold, the story glitters with stars and movie big shots—Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecille B. Demille, Hedda Hopper, Rudolph Valentino—and the gradual shift from silent films with simple plots to longer, still silent films and then on to talkies.

Mary Pickford adapts as the industry changes but ultimately fails to make the transition to spoken dialogue successfully. In contrast Frances Marion’s writing talents grow once she gives herself permission to write and to be the “person who could move an audience to a frenzy, and start a revolution of her own.” Frances ultimately thrives as moviegoers and industry executives look for stories with more complexity. For both characters, the challenges of such a dynamic environment are significant. In the long run, as men come to dominate the industry, they struggle to remain in charge of their destinies.

Bookended by two scenes from 1969, the story unfolds chronologically from 1914 to 1932. It is full of insights into how the movie business developed and who was involved. The risks and unsavoury choices facing women are portrayed alongside the opportunities. Fran observes about Mary: “Why had I never even thought to ask her about this kind of abuse; what else had she, and others like her, had to suffer—to accept—as part of the steep price some men exacted for a woman’s ambition?”

Through Mary Pickford’s and Frances Marion’s struggles to find an enduring relationship with the men in their lives, Melanie Benjamin illuminates the complications of love for women in the movie business. “Men can be in love and it doesn’t affect anything else they do; it gives them even more cachet. It adds something to them. But for women, love doesn’t add, it subtracts. Why do I feel as if falling in love means I have to give something up?”

With an impoverished, fatherless childhood, and the role of family breadwinner, Mary was incredibly vulnerable: “… she was afraid of losing everything she’d worked so hard to achieve. She was scared. Every day on the set—every day of her life—she was scared.” Even though Mary was one of Hollywood’s golden stars and had “more experience than any of them, [she] still wasn’t always taken seriously, just patted on the head and told to smile prettily for the camera.”

World War One was a turning point for Frances Marion: “Some people want to be of use. Even women, you know. We don’t all like the idea of sitting at home while our menfolk take care of all the difficult things in life.” Hollywood was different after the war, no longer new and struggling, instead it had become big business with huge international potential because Europe had been so devastated by the war. While Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and two others form what becomes United Artists, Frances goes her own way. “There was a new gulf between them filled with different experiences, different ideas. She could only hope they’d find a way to bridge it.”

In this post-war period Fran reflects: “I was strong. I was capable. I didn’t need Mary to pave the way for me anymore.” And she realizes that her dearest friend had changed: “there used to be a time when she [Mary] understood how to be a friend as well as a movie star.”

The Girls in the Picture alternates between two voices: Frances Marion written in first person and Mary Pickford in third person. Although Fran’s is the stronger, more engaging voice, Benjamin’s approach allows readers to more fully appreciate each character’s motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Why did Melanie Benjamin choose this approach? Apparently her editor suggested it and the approach worked. “To me, it reinforced the idea that this is Frances writing Mary’s story—just as Frances wrote Mary’s movies, wrote her life, in a way, all those years ago.”

This compelling look at two famous women entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A Year of Reading 2018 (Part 2)

Following up on Tuesday’s post – here’s the second half of 2018. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your impressions.

Here’s the legend: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

Jul The Splendor Before the Dark (my review) Margaret George OR Superb writing that immerses the reader in time and place.
Resistance Agnes Humbert ER A French woman’s story of WWII resistance and prisoner of war camps
Aug The Beach Club Elin Hilderbrand LR Holiday reading.
I’ll Keep You Safe Peter May LR Holiday reading.
The Winter Crown Elizabeth Chadwick OR Books 2 and 3 of the author’s trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Highly recommended.
The Autumn Throne Elizabeth Chadwick OR
Sep The Summer Wives Beatriz Williams ER Characters that come alive – a setting that captivates – and a very satisfying ending.
Oct Women of the Dunes Sarah Maine LR Three timelines can be a little confusing.
The Gravity of Birds Tracy Guzeman ER A page turner.
Nov The Clockmaker’s Daughter Kate Morton GR Not as satisfying as her previous novels.
Victoria Daisy Goodwin GR The TV series was more captivating.
Dec The Girls in the Picture Melanie Benjamin GR Two main characters – one is more engaging than the other.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis Patti Callahan ER Loved it.
Edward VIII: An American Life Ted Powell GR Edward VIII’s life, American influences, and his struggle with destiny.

I spent many enjoyable hours reading during 2018 and enjoyed the mix of genres. What were your favourite books from this past year?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.