Best Books of 2019

I read slightly more than eighty books last year. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most and recommend to you. (A) are adult books and (MG) are middle grade books, intended for children grades 3-7. Of course, I recommend them to everyone.

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, and Pardonable Lies, all by Jacqueline Winspear (A)
In 2019, I discovered the Maisie Dobbs historical mystery series. I’ve only read the first three because the waiting list at my library is long. Maisie was raised in poverty in London, but becomes the protegee of famed detective/psychologist Maurice Blanche. She leaves her training to work as a nurse in WWI. The first book begins with her first case after returning from the war. She is broken in ways that become clear little by little. I love the way she solves cases. Part mystery, part history, part psychology, part mysticism, all enjoyment.

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (MG)
Robinson lives with her grandfather, who has taught her about cars and baseball and being more like Jackie Robinson (her namesake). Still, spunky Robbie can’t seem to avoid getting into fights at school. With her grandfather’s memory becoming more and more faulty, Robbie must make some difficult decisions. A beautiful story about family and being true to yourself.

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (A)
This is the sequel to Russell’s novel, Sparrow, in which a party of scientists are sent by the Catholic church to a planet with two sentient species. See my review of Sparrow here.
This follow-up is brilliant. Although it could probably be read on its own, I recommend reading them in order. Character development and world building are superb. They are fast-paced, exciting reads, and Russell delivers philosophical questions that force a reader to think deeply.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (A)
World War II may be dragging Americans and the world to battle, but for wealthy New Yorkers Madeline, Ellis and Hank, life is one big, drunken party. When Ellis offends his father and gets his money cut off, he drags his wife and friend to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, something his father failed at years before. Their time in Scotland is nothing like they expect, and Maddie finds herself left at an isolated inn. What they learn about themselves and each other makes for a riveting read. Plus, it takes place in Scotland, and 2019 was My Year of Loving Scotland.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (A)
When Willa’s magazine goes under and her husband is let go from the university where he’s taught for years, the two middle-aged, did-everything-right people find themselves without anywhere to live. Fortunately, they inherit an aunt’s house– but the roof leaks, the foundation is cracked, they have no money, and then their adult children show up, needing help. In a parallel, historical story, we learn about another family who lived in/near the house: an honest science teacher, his social-climbing family, and a renegade female scientist. Being the same age as Willa, I felt her pain and confusion in so many ways. The historical story, based on actual people and places is fascinating. This book takes a hard look at the reality of America today, but it isn’t hopeless. Parts are funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (A)
This science fiction novel is told by a relatively inexpensive “murder bot” hired by people and companies for protection, especially when exploring other planets, etc. The bot spends most of its down time watching entertainment channels, so it has an interesting take on human emotions and intelligence. This is a fast-paced thriller that is funny and surprising. I just discovered that there are more to The Murderbot Diaries series and will be downloading them soon!

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (A)
Chevalier is one of the best historical novelists writing today. She can make things to which you never gave a second thought fascinating and exciting. In this novel, it is canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and bells rung by pulling a cord, as done in Winchester Cathedral. I reviewed this book for the Historical Novels Society. You can read that review here.

Lady of the Seven Suns by Tinney Heath (A)
Giacoma dei Settesoli, the lady of the title, was a noblewoman who lived in Rome in the thirteen century and was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. This novel tells her story, as well as shedding light and insight on the lives of her family, St. Francis, Clare of Assisi, thirteenth century Rome, and the delightful (and probably imaginary) servants of Giacoma’s household. The story is rich in detail and life; it is inspirational, educational, and gratifying.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (A)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began this long novel. The early chapters appeared to be short stories, unrelated, except that each of them featured a tree—in some of the stories the trees were important, in others, barely mentioned. In the middle section, the characters from the stories come together, in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, when activists sat in trees and peacefully (and some times violently) battled lumber companies to protect forests. The final section shows the characters today. This is a poor summary of an incredible story. I learned SO much about trees and life and the world. The Overstory is an incredibly important book that I wish everyone could read. I realize the length will turn off some—but I hope many of you will give it a chance. It changed my life because it changed how I see the world.

In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski (A)
A friend gave me this book shortly after I returned from my Scotland vacation. The author decided to take a “journey around Scotland spinning and knitting the fleece of the Scottish sheep breeds in their native haunts.” She kept a diary, took pictures, and gathered fleece from remote areas in Scotland and its islands. In the rain and the cold, Zawinski camps, walks, boats and makes somewhat dangerous decisions to get her fleece. A fun, interesting, educational travel story—with knitting patterns.

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin (MG)
Caitlin Breen is the new kid in a small school in rural Vermont. On the first day, her classmates are shocked to discover that Paulie Fink is no longer at their school. Caitlin hears many stories about Paulie and eventually the students decide to have a reality-show-type competition to find “The Next Great Paulie Fink,” with Caitlin as judge. During the school year, their teacher explains Plato’s allegory of the cave, and the book makes much of this philosophical dilemma. Brilliantly constructed, this is a winner.

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (MG)
Viji’s father has always beat her mother, but when he hits Viji, the eleven-year-old girl runs away with Rukku, her older, mentally-challenged sister. They take a bus to the city of Chennai, in India, and find a “home” on a crumbling bridge with two boys, who teach them how to survive while living on the streets. The story is told in the second person, Viji talking to Rukku. An exciting, heart-breaking, important story.

Interview with Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Elizabeth-MahonThe Historical Novels Society 2017 Conference is in June, and as part of a blog-blitz of promotion, I get to interview Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, HNS secretary and conference liaison for agents and editors.

ElizabethCF: Hi Elizabeth, welcome to my blog! How did you first get involved in the HNS?

ElizabethKM:  I first heard about HNS way back in 2011 when I received an email asking if I was interested in attending the San Diego conference as a blogger and author. I had never heard of HNS before but I was immediately intrigued and ended up joining. I had no idea that a group existed that shared my love of historical fiction. It was like the best kept secret. I’ve been a member ever since.

ElizabethCF: One of the wonderful things about the HNS conference is that all writers attending have the opportunity to pitch to an agent or editor. Can you tell us what exactly your job as Agents and Editors Liaison entails?

ElizabethKM: My job involves being a liaison between the conference and the editors and agents.  I initially contacted all eight editors and agents who are attending this conference this year. Several of the editors and agents such as Irene Goodman, Anna Michels and Kevan Lyon have attended the conference before but several are new to the conference. I’m also responsible for putting together the pitch schedules for each editor and agent which involves a great deal of juggling.

ElizabethCF: Who are all of the agents and editors attending the conference this year?

ElizabethKM: Our editors this year are Anna Michels from Sourcebooks, Lucia Macro from Harper Collins, Bess Cozby from TOR books, Martin Biro from Kensington. Agents include Irene Goodman, Kevan Lyon (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency), Jennifer Weltz (Jean V Naggar Literary Agency) and Erin Harris (Folio Lit).

ElizabethCF: You are the author of the blog Scandalous Women. Launched in 2007, the site has averaged over 20,000 hits a month and was named on the the 50 Top History Blogs by Zen College Life. Can you tell us what prompted you to start this blog?

ElizabethKM: Frankly I was bored blogging about myself. I’ve always been a huge fan of biographies and historical fiction since I was a child, particularly the novels of Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton. It seemed natural to start blogging about all these fascinating women that I was reading about. And everyday I would discover more and more women that I had never known about. It was really a labor of love from the very first day.

ElizabethCF: Do you have a favorite scandalous woman–or one you would enjoy telling us about?

ElizabethKM: Wow, that’s really hard. All of the women that I’ve written about are my favorites. But if I had to choose one, it would be a toss-up between Anne Boleyn and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were hugely controversial during their lifetimes, misjudged, and misunderstood. Anne Boleyn, of course, Henry VIII’s second wife who ended up losing her life after less than three years of marriage, but gave the world Elizabeth II. And Mary Wollstonecraft traveling to France to see the Revolution first hand, wrote “The Vindication of the Rights of Women”, gave birth out of wedlock, and managed to make a living as a writer in the 18th century. It took huge courage for her to leave the safety net of a job as a governess to create an independent life for herself. And course she was the mother of Mary Shelley.

ElizabethCF: How do you go about researching each of the stories?

ElizabethKM: For any of the women that I’ve written about, I start off with what I can find on the Internet, read several biographies before I sit down to write. Some of the women I’ve written about such as Gertrude Bell and Lady Hester Stanhope were so fascinating that I could have gone on researching them forever. I’m really looking forward to watching the new film about Gertrude starring Nicole Kidman, Queen of the Desert.

elizabeth mahon bookElizabeth CF: After several years of success as a blog, Scandalous Women became a book: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women, published in 2011 by TarcherPerigee. Was it difficult choosing which women to include in the book?

ElizabethKM: Yes, it was terribly difficult. I wanted to include several of the women that I had already written about on the blog, but it was also important to have new content for readers. My agent and my editor wanted to make sure that there was a nice mix of women that were recognizable along with many women who might not be. Also, my word count was only 75,000 so I had to limit the number of women that I profiled. I think that 35 turned out to be a great number. I went back and forth on several women who ultimately didn’t make it into the book including Princess Diana, Patty Hearst and Gloria Steinham.

ElizabethCF: Can you tell us anything more about yourself?

ElizabethKM: I’m a former actress and producer, mainly classical theatre. Also, in my spare time I like to dance. It relaxes me. Ballroom dancing in particular especially American Rhythm, rumba, cha-cha, mambo, East Coast Swing, bolero and samba.

Elizabeth CF: Thanks, Elizabeth!  It was great to learn more about you, Scandalous Women and the HNS Conference.