Great thing about working in a library: I spend a lot of time working with books -- checking them out to patrons, shelving them, scouting reviews, getting advanced copies. One small downside: I almost never browse for a book any more, or am caught by surprise by a new title from a favorite author.
Recently, though, I came across a couple historical novels -- one by Tracy Chevalier, whom I like a lot, and one a first novel that appeared on our New Books shelf without my having read any advanced press.
The Last Runaway is Tracy Chevalier's first book set in the U.S. so I'll admit I was dubious at first. But the lead character drew me in from the first (not only because I sympathized with her seasickness as she crossed the Atlantic from England to America in the 19th century and realized the voyage was so traumatizing that she could never cross again). It's set in a Quaker community in Ohio before the Civil War -- so the Underground Railroad was active as slaves made their way to Canada. The Quaker community, while opposing slavery in general, is divided in how far they should go in helping runaways even as the Fugitive Slave Act increased the pressure on them to help those trying to recapture the runaways.
Chevalier is best known for Girl With A Pearl Earring but my favorite of hers remains The Lady and the Unicorn (I'm the medieval-adoring geek who will go see those tapestries over and over again). I also liked Burning Bright, her book set around William Blake, and Remarkable Creatures, about English women who were fossil hunters in the 19th century.
The new book was Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown, a first novel set in 17th century England -- a period that is neglected compared to the overpowering Tudors but offers a rich landscape as the country went through Civil War and conflict over religion and political structures that divided families, classes and communities. The story revolves around the fate of an unmarried woman who bears a child and buries its corpse -- requiring the state to charge her with murder, whether the child was stillborn or not.
The jacket copy says Brown wrote this book using material from her dissertation on martyrs in 17th century England. I hope we'll see more fiction from her, and hope the book is successful enough to inspire others to write about this period in English history.
Another newish historical novel I read recently didn't spring on me unawares as the previous two but it's well worth a read, especially if you like historical crime fiction and are looking for something on American shores. The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye is set in 1840s New York, as the city is recovering from a catastrophic fire and establishing its first real police force. Another major factor is the increase in Irish immigration -- viewed as a Catholic invasion by some Protestant residents -- that is about to be increased manyfold by the potato famine. I first gave this book a try months ago and I'll admit I was turned back by the language -- Faye has goen to great lengths to use the terms of the time but it felt forced on my initial attempt. For some reason, on my second attempt, it won me over and I was soon enthralled. If you liked Caleb Carr's early novels, this would be a good one to try. Also recommended for people like me, who are tired of waiting for C.J. Sansom to get back to Shardlake or Ruth Downie to tell us what the medicus has been up to lately in Roman Britain.