One of the great joys of good historical fiction is its ability to transport us out of our modern lives and our modern world and give us a chance to live, if only for a short time, in other worlds and other times. There are three new historical novels at the library that should be perfect for introducing readers to quirky and fascinating characters and periods of history.
The main characters of Scarpia, by Piers Paul Read, should be familiar, at least in their general outlines, to fans of Puccini’s great opera, Tosca. Vitello Scarpia, a Sicilian, finds himself caught up in the storms of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars changing the map of Europe. His fiery passions (well known to fans of the opera) have already cost him a job with the Spanish Royal Guard and sent him to Rome, where his fortunes intertwine with those of the Pope, imperiled by the tide of revolution sweeping across the continent. A mission to Venice brings him to the attention of the beautiful Floria Tosca, and sets in motion the tragic events depicted in Puccini’s opera. This book, aside from being a thrilling look at a tumultuous period in European history, also qualifies (for those doing the 2016 reading challenge) as a historical novel set before 1900, so it’s win-win!
Most people know the story of Harry Houdini, but the new novel, Mrs. Houdini, by Victoria Kelly, shows readers a different side of his life and his character by focusing on his widow, Bess, and what happened to her after Houdini’s death. Houdini had promised to communicate with her from the afterlife if such a thing was possible, using a secret code that only the two of them would know (to protect Bess against frauds, of which there were many in the field of mediums). In the aftermath of Harry’s death, Bess starts seeing that code everywhere, and in attempting to find out what urgent message Harry is trying to give her, Bess finds herself going back through their history together, from Coney Island to Austria to Hollywood, until his ultimate magic is revealed.
Sometimes a good historical novel can reveal episodes and sidelines of the past you wouldn’t know about otherwise. The book Behave, by Andromeda Romano-Lax, is one of those books, focusing on the real person, Rosalie Rayner, who graduated from Vassar College in the 1920’s and found herself working with John B. Watson, the father of behavioral psychology, trying to figure out how babies develop. The two fell in love, had an affair which cost both of them their jobs, and, after many experiments on babies, the two of them wrote a book on child development which sold hundreds of thousands of copies and helped shape a whole generation of American children. Rosalie’s fascinating story raises all kinds of questions about the age old questions of mothering and how to raise children.