Everybody knows the story of Abraham Lincoln: how he grew up in a log cabin, his mother died when he was young, he taught himself to read, he became a backwoods lawyer and then eventually ran for President and won and became one of our greatest presidents and then was assassinated. But most of us know the later half of the story, from the time he debated Stephen Douglas and became our president during the Civil War, and we don’t know very much about what Lincoln was like as a young man, when he was first making his way in the world, establishing himself as a lawyer, meeting and ultimately marrying Mary Todd. Friend to Mr. Lincoln, a new book by Stephen Harrigan, aims to fill in that gap, looking at Lincoln when he was living in Springfield, Illinois, and in the process of becoming the man we know so well. Telling the story through the eyes of some real friends of Lincoln (Joshua Speed, William Herndon) and a fictional one (a poet named Cage Weatherby) allows us to see Lincoln without the eyes of hindsight, to get a glimpse of the sometimes awkward, sometimes charming, amazingly ambitious and always human and fascinating person who became the legendary Abraham Lincoln (for those of us who are doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this book does count as a “book of historical fiction set before 1900”).
If you enjoyed Life of Pi, you’re in luck: Yann Martel, the author of that book, has come out with a new book, a historical novel called The High Mountains of Portugal. This time, he’s not taking readers on a voyage with a tiger across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, he’s taking us on a trip through time, with three narratives set in one location over the course of fifty years. The first story is set in the beginning of the 20th century, about a man searching for a special crucifix, mentioned in a 17th century diary. He has some idea of where the crucifix might be, in the remote high mountains of Portugal, and he sets off to find it. The second story is set in 1938, decades later, introduces us to a coroner in a remote town in Portugal and his encounter with a strange woman (who turns out to have figured in the earlier story) who wants him to perform an autopsy on her husband. And finally we find ourselves in the 1980’s where a man who’s spent most of his life in Canada suffers a loss that sends him reeling back to the small town in Portugal where he was born, and he, too, encounters the mysterious artifact and is changed by it. This is Yann Martel, so you shouldn’t be expecting ordinary narrative (and you won’t get one here any more than you did in Life of Pi), but if you like his style of magic realism and beautiful prose, you won’t be disappointed in his newest book.
Moving from Portugal over the course of the 20th century to Italy close to the end of World War I, we have Not All Bastards Are From Vienna, a debut novel by Andrea Molesini, which has won the prestigious Campiello Prize in its native Italy. The book tells the story of the invasion of Italy by Austrian troops in 1917, and uses the occupation of one particular villa by Austrian soldiers to examine the depths of horror and inhumanity, as well as the heights of courage, patriotism and loyalty, engendered by the war. The villa is occupied by Paolo, an orphan who lives with his grandparents, his eccentric aunt and the staff, and it is through his eyes that we see both the actions of the occupying soldiers and the resistance fighters who use the area as a base. When Paolo himself gets involved with a dangerous covert operation, he risks his life and the lives of his beloved family, and comes face to face with the worst and the best of what the war brings out in people.
If you’re the sort of person who hears the name The Queen of the Night and immediately thinks of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, then you’re going to love the historical novel, The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. And even if you don’t know much about opera or about 18th century European high culture, you’re still going to be caught up in The Queen of the Night, a book about Liliet Berne, a famous soprano in the Paris Opera, a famous woman with nothing else to wish for except an operatic role written for her, to make her immortal. Then a new opera is offered to her, with a part that sopranos dream of. The only problem is that the story and the character cleave a little too closely to Liliet’s own life, especially the parts she’s been working hard to keep secret for years. Now she has to find out who could possibly have told the mysterious author of the libretto her secrets, and as she looks through her past, we are taken on a trip from the American frontier through the dizzying heights of France’s Second Empire, watching as Liliet goes from orphan to hippodrome rider to courtesan, to maid to the empress, to diva of the Paris Opera.