Here we are, close to the middle of summer, so I thought this would be a good time for another bookshelf post. I’ve been reading nonstop, so many of the books that were originally on my list have already moved through the system, so to speak, giving rise to blog Q&As and New Books Network podcast interviews that you can find by checking the month-by-month archive on the right, beneath my book covers. But between now and the official beginning of fall around September 21, I still have quite a few titles on my list.
Jai Chakrabarti, A Play for the End of the World (Knopf, 2021)
Given my repeated complaints that the major publishers never seem to tire of books set during World War II, it may seem odd that I have three such books on my shelf at the moment. But each of them has a unique approach to the subject that appeals to me. Jai Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World, due for release on September 7, begins in a Warsaw orphanage in August 1942, four days before the staff and children are evacuated to Treblinka, where all but two of them will perish. The directors of the orphanage, who can already anticipate what will happen, try to prepare the children by staging a production of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office, a play about death and how to prepare for it. Thirty years later, those two survivors are invited to restage the play in Bengal, and through the prism of their journey—in particular, Jaryk’s, the younger former orphan who follows to reclaim his friend’s ashes—we see not just the effects of what they went through in 1942 but all the years between. In this way, the book is less about the war than about the postwar experience of those who lived through it. If all goes well, I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with Jai Chakrabarti in mid-September.
(Cuidono Press, 2021)
Of all the books on the list, this is the only one that’s already out—just last month—and it’s a gem. Set before the French Revolution, it follows the career of a real-life woman, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who was reportedly the inspiration for William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Born into poverty as the descendant of a legitimized son of King Henri II, Jeanne is determined to reclaim the position to which she believes she’s entitled. To that end, she manipulates a series of lovers, most notably the powerful Cardinal-Prince Louis de Rohan, and launches a scandal that ultimately sweeps up Queen Marie Antoinette and contributes directly to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789 and the queen’s execution four years later. You can hear us talking about it in a couple of weeks on the New Books Network.
Michelle Gable, The Bookseller’s Secret
(Graydon House, 2021)
This is the second book set, at least partially, during World War II—much of it also in 1942—but it takes a quite different approach from Chakrabarti’s. This dual-time story contrasts the life of a fictional contemporary author with one big hit and a bad case of writers’ block to the wartime experience of the real-life Nancy Mitford, who after four not very successful novels is supporting herself by working at a London bookstore. She’s also tasked with spying on various members of the French government in exile, as a result of which she forms a long-term relationship with a French count that contributes to the breakup of her unsatisfactory marriage. The focus is not, however, on the war so much as the process by which Nancy breaks out of her doldrums to write The Pursuit of Love, the novel that makes her famous and mirrors in interesting ways the contemporary half of the book. The Bookseller’s Secret is due to release on August 17, so check back around the 20th to see if Michelle Gable has answered my questions.
Gill Paul, The Collector’s Daughter
(William Morrow, 2021)
I’ve been a big fan of Gill Paul’s novels ever since I read The Lost Daughter, her 2019 reimagining of how the life of Grand Duchess Maria—one of the four daughters of Emperor Nicholas II—might have worked out if she had not been assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Jennifer Eremeeva conducted that interview for the New Books Network, and I hosted a written Q&A here when Gill’s next novel, Jackie and Maria, came out last year. But I was determined to talk to her in person, and that will happen in conjunction with this year’s release, due on September 7, of The Collector’s Daughter. This beautifully written, thoroughly engrossing story focuses on Lady Evelyn Herbert—the daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who funded Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Eve, as she was known, harbored a desire to become an archaeologist and was present at the opening of the tomb. Indeed, she was the first person to enter the sealed chambers in three thousand years. But the novel begins and ends with Eve in her seventies, exploring the nuances of her long and happy marriage and how it withstood her increasing loss of memory, the result of strokes caused by a car accident in 1935. The book flips back and forth between Eve as a young woman and Eve struggling to recover from each setback, and in that respect it is truly a tale for the ages. Stay tuned for more information about our New Books in Historical Fiction conversation sometime in mid-September.
Stephanie Marie Thornton, A Most Clever Girl (Berkley, 2021)
Here is the third book connected with the 1939–1945 period, but it too is really about the postwar environment—the consequences of the war, if you like. Two American double agents, one operating in the Cold War world of 1963 and the other attempting to infiltrate fascists during World War II, find their loyalties tested as they balance the conflicting demands of love and country, the United States and the USSR. Even though the 1960s (and even the 1940s) are far removed from my area of interest as a historian of early modern Russia, the espionage and Soviet angles—especially given that both spies are female—are enough to draw me in. Thornton’s new book releases in mid-September, but I will be interviewing her on this blog toward the end of that month or in early October due to the number of other commitments I already have.