THE TWELVE ROOMS OF THE NILE (2012) by Enid Shomer
Hands down my favorite book of the year, TWELVE ROOMS imagines an impassioned friendship between conflicted spinster Florence Nightingale and ill and unproven writer Gustave Flaubert. Both voyaged along the Nile River as tourists in 1850, though no one knows if they ever actually met. In Shomer's luscious tale, they do, and are forever changed by the experience. Polar opposites motivated by equal measures of sensitivity and ambition, Florence and Gustave find in their relationship the courage necessary to flout conventional roles and devote themselves to heroic callings. A well-paced, adventure-studded plot counterbalances finely nuanced character development and breathtaking descriptive passages.
ACCIDENTS OF PROVIDENCE (2012) by Stacia Brown
In seventeenth-century England, a unwed glove maker's apprentice gives birth in secret. The next day, the apprentice's employer finds the dead child buried near a slaughterhouse. Did the apprentice kill the child or simply try to hide a stillbirth? The law of the day does not distinguish between the two acts. With seasoned manipulation of chronology and point-of-view, this relatively short novel recounts the apprentice's trial, imprisonment and miraculous fate, as well as the love affair that sets everything in motion. A masterful debut, gripping in both plot and voice.
HOW TO LIVE: OR A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE IN ONE QUESTION AND TWENTY ATTEMPTS AT AN ANSWER (2011) by Sarah Blakewell
Many thanks to Sarah Blakewell for curing me of my aversion to one of the sixteenth century's most revered authors, Michel de Montaigne. Her delightful book, a thoroughly engaging mixture of biography, social history and philosophy, makes Montaigne and his era come alive like no other. Each of the book's twenty chapters confronts the central question that preoccupied Montaigne--how does one live?--by mining his life and Essays for answers: "Pay attention," "Use little tricks," "Question everything." The Sunday Times describes the book as "Superbly conceived and exquisitely written...enormously absorbing," and I couldn't agree more. As Blakewell makes abundantly clear, Montaigne's insights are as relevant today as they were five hundred years ago. Highly recommended for readers curious about the era, the man or human nature itself.
CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA (2009) by Ildefonso Falcones
A sweeping historical novel of fourteenth-century Barcelona in the tradition of Ken Follett and Alexandre Dumas. Arnau Estanyol, son of a fugitive serf, carves a new life for himself as a stoneworker in the free city of Barcelona. His ascent of the city's social ladder parallels the soaring construction of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar, to which he contributes labor, lucre, and love. Revenge for past offenses spurs his success, and his passion for a forbidden woman, the daughter of a Jewish friend, pits him against his beloved adopted brother, a priest of the Inquisition. A very satisfying read that in many ways offers a blueprint for successful historical fiction.
CASCADE (2012) by Maryanne O'Hara
As the fictional town of Cascade, Massachusetts, fights to escape inundation upon the construction of a regional reservoir in 1935, artist and new wife Desdemona Hart struggles to separate duty from desire, disregard from destiny. This luminous first novel, which I reviewed in detail here, explores the theme of drowning, on both the literal and figurative levels, as artist and town fight to preserve their integrity against the onslaught of circumstance. An author to watch, O'Hara writes with the discerning eye and soulful heart of a painter.
SHADOW ON THE CROWN (2013) by Patricia Bracewell
Coming from Viking/Penguin in February 2013, SHADOW ON THE CROWN is the first in a trilogy on Emma of Normandy, whose marriage to an English king in A.D. 1002 set in motion a series of events that would lead to the Norman Conquest of 1066. I will be reviewing Bracewell's novel in detail in January, but as I read an advanced copy in 2012, felt I should include it here. Bracewell does a magnificent job of recreating the early medieval world and breathing life into the events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Her feisty, clever Emma captures the reader's heart, and the echoes of MacBeth that color the plot make this a suspenseful and highly enjoyable read.
BLUE ASYLUM (2012) by Kathy Hepinstall
A lyrical exploration of love and madness set at a secluded insane asylum during the Civil War. Iris Dunleavy, a plantation wife committed for willful behavior, falls in love with Ambrose Weller, a traumatized soldier given to fits that can only be calmed by focusing on the color blue. Far from mad, cunning Iris yearns for freedom and plots her escape...but dare she take broken Ambrose with her? Stunning language and quirky characters make this novel, alternately harsh and dreamy, linger in memory long after the cover closes.