Days Without End: A Novel by Sebastian BarryA survivor of Ireland's Great Famine and a recent immigrant to the United States, 17-year-old Thomas McNulty joins the U.S. Army in 1851 with his best friend and fellow orphan, John Cole. Sent first to the Great Plains to butcher the Sioux, and later, to the battlefields of the Civil War, the young carry out their orders despite their horror of the carnage. Meanwhile, they become lovers and must find a way to build a life together in a society that doesn't recognize or understand romantic relationships between men. Originally published in the U.K., Days Without End recently won the Costa book of the year award.
Pachinko by Min Jin LeeShortly after Japan annexes Korea in 1910, a fisherman and his wife -- having already lost three sons -- welcome a daughter, Sunja. At 16, Sunja becomes pregnant and, spurned by her married lover, reluctantly accepts a marriage proposal from the minister lodging at her family's boarding house. The newlyweds travel to Japan to begin their life together, setting the stage for a sweeping multi-generational family saga that spans decades and touches on pivotal events of the 20th century. Fans of family sagas may enjoy Alan Brennert's Honolulu, about a Korean-American family in Hawaii. Readers who feel an affinity for Sunja will find a similarly unconventional and resourceful protagonist in Eugenia Kim's The Calligrapher's Daughter.
Girl in Disguise by Greer MacallisterBy 1856, Chicago resident Kate Warne is in dire straits. Broke, widowed, and unemployed, she convinces Allan Pinkerton to hire her as the first female investigator at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency by pointing out that women have access to places where men aren't welcome. Kate, who excels as an undercover operative, finds a new avenue for her talents when the Civil War begins and the nature of her work shifts from detection to espionage. Fast-paced and suspenseful, Girl in Disguise introduces a memorable heroine who may appeal to fans of Amy Stewart's Girl Waits with Gun.
No Man's Land: A Novel by Simon TolkienWorking-class lad Adam Raine grows up in the coal-mining community of Scarsdale, but escapes a life in the mines thanks to an act of bravery that gains him an aristocratic patron. Bright and ambitious, Adam receives a university scholarship, but World War I soon alters the trajectory of his life. Once an Oxford student who dreamed of marrying his childhood sweetheart, Adam is now an enlisted man fighting in the trenches. Inspired by the early life of author Simon Tolkien's grandfather (fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien), No Man's Land is a coming-of-age story that grounds its central war story in an exploration of social class in Edwardian England.
Rasputin's Daughter by Robert AlexanderAuthor Robert Alexander follows up his acclaimed debut The Kitchen Boy with another spellbinding journey to revolutionary Russia, this time to tell the story of the notorious "Mad Monk" Rasputin. Grigori Rasputin, despite his powerful influence over the Tsar's court as a mystic and healer, is an enigma -- even to his 18-year-old daughter, Maria, who narrates the story. Is he a visionary or a charlatan? As Maria attempts to reconcile the public image of her father with her private experiences of the man, she finds herself at the center of a plot to destroy Rasputin, the royal family, and even herself. For another richly detailed, atmospheric novel that documents the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty from Maria's perspective, try Kathryn Harrison's Enchantments.
The Mirrored World: A Novel by Debra DeanNarrated by her closest friend, this novel recounts the life of Xenia Grigoryevna, patron saint of St. Petersburg. After Xenia loses her family at a tender age, she becomes a singer in the Imperial choir, marries a handsome military officer, and -- in the wake of a terrible, fateful vision -- loses him, along with their child. Reeling from the tragedy, Xenia relinquishes all her worldly possessions and takes to the streets, where she ministers to the poor. Alas, Xenia's behavior as a "holy fool" incurs the displeasure of the royal family, who view her actions as a criticism of their extravagant lifestyle. Readers interested in 18th-century courtly life in Russia may also enjoy Eva Stachniak's The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night, which follow Catherine the Great's reign.
The Siege by Helen DunmoreSet during the 1941 siege of Leningrad, this novel follows teacher Anna Levin; her ailing father, Mikhail; and her five-year-old brother, Kolya, as they struggle to survive on meager rations during a bitterly cold winter in a city cut off from the rest of the world. Their limited resources are further strained by an unexpected addition to their household in the form of her father's former mistress, although their hopes are lifted by Andrei, a physician in love with Anna. Readers who wish to continue their acquaintance with the Levin family should pick up The Betrayal, set ten years after this novel.
The Yid by Paul GoldbergIn 1953, state security officials show up to arrest Solomon Levinson, formerly an actor with the now-defunct Moscow State Jewish Theater. Their "operation" goes awry when Levinson, an elderly but spry war veteran, decides he'd rather not be imprisoned in Lubyanka. After violently dispatching the men, Levinson learns that they represent a larger effort on the part of Stalin to exterminate the country's Jews, prompting him to assemble a ragtag team to assassinate the Soviet leader. Like a Yiddish-inflected, Soviet-era take on Quentin Tarantino's film Inglourious Basterds, The Yid infuses meticulous research and multilingual wit into its action-movie plot.
The Line by Olga GrushinA line stretches across Moscow. But why are people queuing up? Well, rumor has it that one of the Soviet Union's most celebrated composers will be returning from exile to give a concert. Schoolteacher Anna, longing for a temporary escape from a grim situation, convinces her musician husband Sergei and their son Alex to help her secure a ticket. For an entire year, family members take turns waiting in line. In the process, they learn more about their fellow citizens, all of whom have their own reasons for joining the queue. Inspired by Igor Stravinsky's official state visit in 1962, this leisurely paced (how could it be otherwise?) novel presents a keenly observed microcosm of mid-20th-century Russian society.
The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva StachniakWhen 14-year-old Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, the timid daughter of impoverished Prussian nobles, arrives in St. Petersburg in 1743 to wed the future Emperor Peter III, there's little indication that she'll one day become the formidable Catherine the Great. Sixteen-year-old servant Vavara, tasked by the Empress Elizabeth to spy on her heir's new fiancée, befriends Sophie -- rechristened "Catherine" -- and observes her transformation from a political pawn into the canny ruler who commands the Imperial court. This novel is the 1st book in a trilogy, which continues with Empress of the Night.
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