Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on June 5. These beach-ready reads include some inventive historical fiction and all will inform and entertain and take you places you didn’t expect—from the marshes of the North Carolina coast to the Oklahoma prairie, from Victorian-era London to frontier Illinois in the 1800s.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is what just about every bookgroup I know is reading right now. The library wait list is long, long, long, and it is, at this moment, #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list.
Kya is only six when her family begins abandoning her one by one—beginning with her mother. She ends up raising herself in the marshes off the North Carolina coast, befriending gulls and living off the land and sea. But she longs for friendship and love. Two young men from the nearby town are intrigued by her, and slowly, she lets herself dream of a different life. But then something terrible happens. The story goes back and forth in time—from Kya’s days as a child surviving on the mussels she collects and sells to people in the black community (who are exceedingly kind to her) to the possible murder of the local town’s favorite son 17 years later. If you liked Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, you’ll love this one.
Prairie Fever by Michael Parker is a literary novel that is as lovely as it is intriguing. The book is set in the unforgiving landscape of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The Stewart sisters couldn’t be more different—Lorena is practical, Elise often gets lost in her own imaginations of adventure. But they share an intense emotional bond that supersedes everything else. Then Gus McQueen arrives in Lone Wolf as a first-time teacher, and the dynamic between the sisters shifts. When a rash decision traps Elise and her horse in a devastating blizzard on the prairie, McQueen helps Lorena find and rescue her sister, and everything changes forever between the young women. Parker describes Prairie Fever as “about the sacrifices and settlements we make with ourselves and others as we attempt to navigate romantic and familial relationships.”
This is great brand-new fiction from the author of The Watery Part of the World, which I also loved.
The Darwin Affair by award-winning playwright Tim Mason is highly visual and makes Victorian-era London come alive. The inventive literary thriller is centered on the real-life events that followed the controversial publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is tasked with protecting the royal family. This becomes complicated after an attempted assassination of Queen Victoria and the discovery of a murder nearby. Field knows that these two violent acts are somehow connected to the Queen’s nomination of Darwin for knighthood. He ends up chasing a serial killer through England, and his investigation uncovers secrets and conspiracies that threaten some very powerful people.
When writing this novel, Mason relied upon Queen Victoria’s journal entries, which were put online and open to the public for the first time in 2012 during Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee year. The mix of historical and fictional characters makes this a wild ride of a read.
Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard is a look at Abraham Lincoln’s early life, before he realized his potential. When Mary Todd first met Lincoln, he was a country lawyer living above a dry-goods store. Mary was a clever, self-possessed debutante with an interest in politics. Lincoln had no manners or money but he did possess an amazing gift for oratory. Mary is intrigued and tells Lincoln’s roommate, Joshua Speed, “I can only hope that his waters being so very still, they also run deep.” This historical novel, told in the alternating voices of Mary and Speed, is many things: a wonderful portrait of Mary (perhaps the most telling to date), a moving story of the complex and deep connection between Lincoln and Speed and a look at the unformed man who would become one of our nation’s most beloved presidents.
Bayard knows how to write compelling historical fiction: He has been shortlisted for both the Edgar and Dagger awards for his historical thrillers, which include The Pale Blue Eye and Mr. Timothy.