Annie Peters

The political, social, technological and environmental repercussions of the American Civil War are still felt today. Two excellent new novels join the canon of Civil War fiction, highlighting this crucial period from different perspectives: one from a community of emancipated slaves, the other from a former Confederate soldier roaming the Texas landscape.

★ Conjure Women

In her stunning debut novel, Conjure Women, Afia Atakora explores life during the Reconstruction era for a community of formerly enslaved people living amid the ruins of their old plantation. Rue, a young woman versed in healing, midwifery and crafting curses—skills learned from her hoodoo-practicing mother, Miss May Belle—assists at the birth of a strange, pale baby born in a black caul and with black eyes. When a devastating illness begins rapidly killing the community’s children while the pale child remains seemingly unaffected, the superstitious community, recently “saved” by a charismatic traveling preacher, begins to turn against Rue and the child. 

As chapters toggle between life on the plantation before and after the war, Atakora slowly reveals the complex web of stories tying Rue, May Belle and the plantation owner’s strong-willed daughter, Varina, together. Atakora, a Pushcart Prize nominee who earned her MFA from Columbia University, relies on first-person accounts, diaries and autobiographies from the period to inform her writing, to great effect. The community’s characters and the harsh realities of the black experience before and during Reconstruction come vividly to life. At the same time, Atakora paces her novel beautifully, slowly unwinding the plot in unexpected ways as she examines a relatively unexplored aspect of American history.

Simon the Fiddler

In Simon the Fiddler, bestselling author Paulette Jiles, whose novel News of the World was a National Book Award finalist, begins with a premise that seems impossibly far-fetched: A penniless young man finds love at first sight with a woman who is essentially a prisoner of her employer, just as she is about to leave for a distant town in a wild landscape. But Jiles makes the impossible plausible. 

Twenty-three-year-old fiddler Simon Boudlin avoids conscription into the Confederate Army until the last days of the war. After one of the war’s final battles, Simon becomes part of a group of Union and Confederate musicians brought in to provide music for an event to celebrate the Confederacy’s impending surrender. While playing, Simon sees the beautiful Doris Dillon, an indentured Irish governess to the daughter of a dangerous Union colonel. After speaking only a few words to her, Simon is completely smitten, but he and Doris must unfortunately go their separate ways. 

Despite owning nothing but his talent and a Markneukirchen violin, Simon decides he will marry Doris and purchase land for them to settle. Without a plan but with his goal firmly in mind, Simon sets forth with a ragtag band of musicians through Texas, which is still transitioning from the war. Simon overcomes hardships and danger to make steady progress toward his dream, but when he reaches San Antonio, where Doris lives with the colonel and his family, he faces his most difficult trial: rescuing Doris from the menacing colonel in a state still under military law. 

In this enthralling novel, Jiles pairs the hard-luck terrain of her Texas setting with a succinct, unadorned writing style. Simon the Fiddler not only entertains but also brings a fascinating period in Texas history to life.

Two novels offer intimate new perspectives on the Civil War-era South.

Judy Vogel is caught in a downward spiral. She is mourning both the recent loss of her parents and the anticipated loss of her best friend, who is dying of cancer. Judy’s promising career as a children’s author has stalled, and she now supports her family by writing for a wellness website. She has also lost all sense of connection with her husband, a pothead who suffers from severe anxiety and works as a “snackologist,” but they cannot afford to divorce. They are separated but live together in the same house and pretend everything is normal for their teenage son, Teddy. 

But what Judy grieves the most is the increasing loss of closeness to her only child as he grows into a young man. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Judy discovers a strange coping mechanism when she begins to carry their sheltie, Charlotte, everywhere in an old baby sling, to almost everyone’s dismay. 

In this intriguing novel, Laura Zigman doesn’t sugarcoat but instead lays bare Judy’s feelings with heartbreaking honesty. Every middle-aged woman who has ever felt invisible, lost or depressed will connect with some aspect of Judy’s life. Indeed, Zigman labels her work “semi-autobiographical fiction,” which may explain its devastating authenticity. At the same time, Zigman cleverly wraps her story in genuine hilarity. Judy’s continuous, cynical commentary is priceless, especially when discussing Teddy’s Montessori school. 

What at first might seem like a depressing premise is in fact both refreshingly truthful and highly entertaining. As a result of this unique mix, this novel is both unpredictable and delightfully original. For those seeking a good laugh and a good cry, look no further than Separation Anxiety.

In this intriguing novel, Laura Zigman doesn’t sugarcoat but instead lays bare Judy’s feelings with heartbreaking honesty. Every middle-aged woman who has ever felt invisible, lost or depressed will connect with some aspect of Judy’s life.

Storyteller par excellence Isabel Allende brings to life an epic saga in A Long Petal of the Sea.

During the Spanish Civil War in 1938, medic Victor Dalmau aids the fight against ruthless General Franco by tending the wounded under the worst possible conditions, while Roser Bruguera, a young piano student, becomes the lover of Victor’s soldier brother. After Victor’s brother is killed and the Franco-led fascists gain control of Spain, Victor and Roser, fearing even greater atrocities, join the sea of desperate refugees fleeing to France. There, they are detained under horrific conditions in a camp by the sea.

To escape their precarious status as refugees, Victor and Roser marry without love to gain passage on Paulo Neruda’s Winnipeg, the real-life ship that carried more than 2,000 Spanish refugees to a new life in Chile in 1939. Over the next 55 years, and through the rise and fall of another cruel dictator, Victor and Roser build a life together in South America, based first on shared loyalty, and later on something more.

Against a backdrop of violent political and social upheaval, the lives of Allende’s characters quietly unfold in unexpected ways that prove both riveting and satisfying. Allende, a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, explores what it means to live in freedom and under tyranny, to feel displaced and at home.

As with Allende’s bestselling novel House of Spirits, subtle touches of magical realism add richness to the story. Although Allende writes of political events and personalities from distant lands and decades in the past, readers may feel a very real sense that these events have much to say about the world today. Some may find hope in Victor’s and Roser’s abilities not just to survive such dark times but also to eventually heal and thrive.

For those familiar with Allende’s earlier work, this novel will not disappoint. For those new to Allende’s writing, A Long Petal of the Sea will prove a captivating introduction.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Isabel Allende on her favorite bookstores and libraries.

Although Allende writes of political events and personalities from distant lands and decades in the past, readers may feel a very real sense that these events have much to say about the world today. Some may find hope in Victor’s and Roser’s abilities not just to survive such dark times but also to eventually heal and thrive.

As in one of the loveliest lines attributed to Margaret Atwood, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”


For those who love to spend time outside in their garden, four entertaining books on clouds, bees, flower scents and Emily Dickinson’s gardens will provide ample diversion during the cold, wet days of winter.

A Cloud a Day by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
How often do you really notice the beauty and diversity of clouds? Readers of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s A Cloud a Day will be hard-pressed to ignore the skies again. He has gathered a year’s worth of cloud pictures from all over the world, many of which were taken by members of his Cloud Appreciation Society. Thought-provoking quotations and explanations of lesser-known cloud formations accompany the photos. He even includes clouds from unexpected places like distant planets and famous paintings. Fun charts aid readers in navigating the book by helping them locate certain cloud formations, artworks, optical effects and imaginative descriptions. In his introduction, Pretor-Pinney explains that we live upon an ocean of gasses, and that it would improve the quality of our lives to spend a bit of time noticing that ever-changing ocean around us. After perusing this enlightening book, many readers will agree.

The Little Book of Bees by Hilary Kearney
Most of us are aware that our honeybees are endangered, but few may realize how fascinating these helpful creatures really are or the ways we can support them. Hilary Kearney’s The Little Book of Bees proves an excellent remedy for these shortcomings. A beekeeper, writer and artist who hosts workshops for other beekeepers, Kearney starts by providing brief, digestible descriptions of flowers, pollination and bee evolution. She goes on to describe bee anatomy, the many types of bees and their various social organizations. Next, she turns to honey: what it is, the different types and its uses. Finally, she offers an introduction to beekeeping, an explanation of why bees are endangered and a list of easy steps the average person can take to help them. For readers who wish to know more, Kearney provides a brief list of additional resources. For all its usefulness, The Little Book of Bees is also filled with wonderful illustrations by Amy Holliday and fascinating tidbits of bee trivia, making this book not only a treasure trove of information for those interested in bees but also delightfully entertaining.

The Scentual Garden by Ken Druse
Bees naturally bring flowers to mind, and Ken Druse delivers a unique approach to flower gardening in The Scentual Garden. Druse focuses on plants solely through their significance to our sense of smell. He begins by providing a brief but provocative explanation of why plants produce a scent, how our olfactory sense works and methods for capturing scent. By far the bulk of the book, however, is an encyclopedia of fragrant plants with incredibly sensual descriptions that will help even the most dejected gardener endure the darkest days of winter. The most striking aspect of the book is the absolutely exquisite garden photographs by Druse and botanical photographs by Ellen Hoverkamp. While the information contained in the encyclopedia may prove eye-opening to new and experienced gardeners alike, the photographs make The Scentual Garden a gorgeous addition to any home.

Emily Dickenson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell
Finally, for gardeners with an affection for poetry, Marta McDowell’s Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life may prove a perfect choice. In this newly revised and expanded edition, McDowell, a past Gardener-in-Residence at the Emily Dickinson Museum, first surveys Dickinson’s life, describing the garden at the poet’s lifelong home throughout the seasons. McDowell frequently quotes Dickinson’s poetry to highlight pertinent connections between her garden and her writing.  Although no photographs of Dickinson’s garden taken during her lifetime have been discovered, McDowell includes lovely hand-drawn botanical illustrations by Dickinson’s contemporaries and colorful, present-day photos of some of the plants in question, as well as vintage and modern photographs of significant buildings and landscapes. McDowell also includes chapters on how to plant a garden similar to Dickinson’s, the painstaking efforts to restore Dickinson’s garden and a detailed list of the plants cultivated by the Dickinson family. Taken as a whole, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life gives readers the real sense that they can almost slip back in time and survey Dickinson’s garden with her.

As in one of the loveliest lines attributed to Margaret Atwood, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Set in London and alternating between 1926 and 1936, The Glittering Hour is the story of Selena Lennox. Having lost her beloved brother during World War I, Selena understands too well the brevity of life and intends to live every moment to the fullest. 

Selena and her lively companions are collectively known as the Bright Young People. To the dismay of Selena’s staid, upper-class family, her world is an unending series of fast cars, beautiful dresses, wild parties, crazy games and the latest dances, all fueled by alcohol and drugs and documented by photographers. Then one night, Selena meets the totally unsuitable Lawrence Weston, a struggling artist from poor beginnings who bears his own grief. Their encounter will eventually open Selena’s eyes and force her to make a choice that will change their lives.

The Glittering Hour is an exceptional novel about choosing how to live amid powerful grief and true love. Iona Grey, author of Letters to the Lost, has written a moving story that makes readers feel bereft to leave Selena and Lawrence behind at the book’s end in the way that only the best novels can do. Grey’s eye for descriptive detail gives a sumptuousness to almost every scene, and the delicious recklessness of 1920s London comes alive on the page. She is also masterful at using flashbacks and letters to slowly tease out the influences and motivations of her characters—and those of an entire postwar generation.

For readers looking for a tremendously entertaining, emotionally charged story, look no further. The Glittering Hour is just the ticket. 

For readers looking for a tremendously entertaining, emotionally charged story, look no further.

Ill-suited to the stultifying environment and prospects of England, Alice jumps at the chance to escape to America by marrying Bennet, the wealthy, handsome son of a coal-mine owner. However, soon after arriving in Bennet’s small town in Depression-era Kentucky, Alice realizes that problems in her marriage, a controlling father-in-law and small-town gossip are equally suffocating. 

When Eleanor Roosevelt creates a mobile library system as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, Alice volunteers to become one of the librarians on horseback to escape her father-in-law’s house. As a librarian, Alice joins four others: unconventional Margery, who lives by her own rules; boisterous Beth, who has eight brothers; Izzy, the library organizer’s pampered daughter, who wears a leg brace and has a beautiful voice; and Sophia, a black woman who risks backlash to work for the mobile library, in violation of the state’s segregation laws. 

Together, these women and their horses face hardship and danger to bring books and information to the poverty-stricken backwoods of Kentucky. In return, they find companionship and fulfillment. The library’s future is threatened, however, when Margery and Alice step too far outside the accepted norms of society, angering the powerful patriarchy of the town. 

Jojo Moyes, bestselling author of Me Before You, has written a wonderful novel based on the real-life Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. Moyes’ research is evident, as her writing completely immerses readers in the world of a small, Depression-era coal-mining town—the class structure, the ignorance and the violence, as well as the overwhelming beauty of the surroundings and the strength of character required to survive. Moyes has written unforgettable characters who come alive on the page. All five women, but especially Alice and Margery, are written with such depth that readers may wish they, too, could join this tight circle of remarkable women. 

A heartwarming page turner, The Giver of Stars is certain to be Moyes’ next bestseller and should not be missed. 

The bestselling author of Me Before You immerses readers in a wonderful novel based on the real-life Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!