When 13-year-old Stefan Silbermann’s mother died, his father sent him away to a boarding school in Leipzig. (Gottfried Silbermann made and serviced church organs.) At the school Johann Sebastian Bach is the cantor. Stefan’s beautiful voice attracts the attention of Bach which causes bullying from the other boys. They are extremely jealous. Bach is aware of the bullying and invites Stefan to live at his home with his wife and children. Everyone lives and breathes music at the Bach home. All are required to practice and perform for the family. Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, is a talented vocalist, but women are not allowed to sing publicly in church. She spends time with Stefan helping him to learn new music Bach composes on a regular basis. Catharina, Bach’s oldest child, becomes a favorite of Stefan.
The novel is told from Stefan’s point of view decades later. It’s a novel of love, loss, and grief.
Maryam Priscilla Grace was born in West Africa around 1758. She was abducted by slave traders at age 10. Maryam had a gift for learning languages which served her well over time. While crossing the Atlantic a pirate, named Caesar, captured the ship Maryam was traveling on. He freed all the slaves but her. She became his translator. Maryam learned healing and midwifery which eventually made her more valuable than a field worker when she was eventually sold to a Virginia plantation owner. Maryam married James and had two sons who are sold to pay off a debt. Maryam is sold again to a widowed Scottish farmer who treated his slaves, his property, fairly. During this time, she became the mother to a baby boy whose mother died in childbirth. It was also during this time she helped runaways and became pregnant with her owner’s child. He gave Maryam, her son and their unborn child freedom and eventually settled in Ohio.
This historical epic is loosely based on the life of a 112-year-old woman the author discovered in the 1870 U.S. Census for Ohio. It is the story of one woman’s hard harsh journey.
Hollywood is said to be a magical place where anything can happen. Lucky nobodies can be discovered on the street and catapulted into stardom, while someone who bags your groceries one day might be lighting up the silver screen the next. In Nghi Vo’s newest outing Siren Queen, Golden Age Hollywood really is a fairy tale, but the kind that runs on magic, sacrifices, and demons controlling the big studios. The lucky few actors who become stars rise up to become immortal beings in the sky, while anyone who fails becomes fuel for the movie machine. Luli Wei yearns to see her name in lights, but she is a poor Chinese American girl who refuses to be what the studio wants: the maid character, a bit part, or a racist caricature. Instead, her only path forward to stardom and immortality is to embrace the monster inside her. With luck, courage, and conviction, Luli may achieve the stardom that she so desperately desires.
Vo’s protagonists often rail against sexism and racism in their respective societies, and Luli is no different. Since she is not a white heterosexual man, she fights against the societal and magical forces that would keep her from being a star or relegating her to only bit parts. Readers looking for nuanced lesbian romance will enjoy the different relationships with Luli’s various partners over the course of the novel. As always with Vo’s books, readers must pay attention and read between the lines; the world of Siren Queen is mystical, complicated, and very little is explained about the world or the magic system. Vo takes you along for the ride and you are expected to follow along or be swept under, much like Luli Wei in the world of Hollywood. This is another strong novel from Vo about an admirable, complicated woman learning to embrace who she is, whether that is a monster or a movie star (or both!).
This novel is based on the life of Lyudmila “Mila” Pavilchenko, nicknamed “Lady Death”. When the Germans invaded Russia, Mila enlisted. She was a librarian, young mother and history student working on her dissertation. Mila rose through the ranks and oversaw a platoon. Her job was to train others and kill Nazis. Mila became a successful female sniper with 309 kills.
In 1942, Mila was part of a delegation to Washington D.C. to help persuade America to open a second front during World War II. Americans were curious about the lady sharpshooter and Mila became a popular speaker. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mila became fast friends their friendship continuing well after FDR’s passing.
In a male-dominated army during WWII, Mila was a rare person who deserves her place in history.
On August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece the MonaLisa was stolen from the Louvre by museum worker Vincent Peruggia. The theft was not discovered immediately. In truth, many thought the painting was taken to the roof where others were being photographed due to better lighting. After two days, an international hunt was on to recover the stolen work. Peruggia’s scheme was to have forgeries made of the painting and have them sold as the original. Along with the forger and go-between, Perrugia would become rich. (There were nine forgeries.) In 1913, Perrugia returned the Mona Lisa to the Louvre. Was it the real thing or a forgery?
Vincent Peruggia is the great-grandfather of art professor Luke Perrone. Luke is obsessed with the story behind the theft. He travels to Florence, Italy. His great-grandfather’s journal is available at the Laurentian library in Florence. Others seem interested in the truth behind the theft including an INTERPOL agent and a young American woman.
This book is based on the lives of Virginia d’Albert-Lake and Violette Szabo. Both Virginia and Violette had important roles during WWII. Both were captured by the Germans and eventually sent to Ravensbruck where they endured horrific conditions.
Violette’s husband was killed in North Africa. She refused to leave France despite having a young daughter at home. She was a sharpshooter fluent in multiple languages. Her talents were quickly realized, and she became part of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Formed in 1940, the Special Operations Executive was an underground army that waged a secret war in enemy-occupied Europe and Asia.
Virginia and her husband Philippe became part of the Comet Line, a Resistance organization in occupied Belgium and France during the Second World War. Their job was to help Allied soldiers and pilots shot down over occupied Belgium evade capture by Germans and eventually return to Great Britain.
Their stories connected at Ravensbruck. When it was finally discovered that Virginia was an American, she was released. Violette did not survive. At just twenty-three, she was executed with other women who were part of the SOE.
From what I can gather, the book closely follows the lives and experiences of these two women. The author’s thorough research is evident throughout.
(There is a 1958 movie based on the life of Violette Szabo called “Carve Her Name with Pride”.)
At the turn of the 20th century, Francesca and Maria are anxious to begin a new life in America after running away from an abusive father in Sicily. Maria is sickly and when the sisters arrive at Ellis Island, they are detained. Sadly, Maria does not recover and dies in the hospital on Ellis Island. Francesca is determined to do whatever it takes to be allowed entry.
Alma Brauer is forced to take a job at Ellis Island. Her stepfather demands that she turn over her paycheck to him. Alma has a gift for learning languages which comes in handy at Ellis Island. She encounters Francesca and Maria that first day and is drawn into their circumstances. Alma wants to help the sisters even is it is against policy.
Alma’s stepfather is anxious for her to marry and leave his home. He makes those arrangements without consulting her. The man Alma is to marry is John Lambert, an inspector at Ellis Island with an awful reputation. Unfortunately, Francesca encountered inspector John Lambert and was willing to do anything to enter New York.
This is a powerful story of friendship and strength. I hope the stories of Alma and Francesca continue in a sequel.
Two women separated by many miles and many years become close friends thanks to the United States Postal Service. 27-year-old Joan Bergstrom from Los Angeles is a huge fan of 59-year-old Imogen Fortier’s column in Northwest Home & Life magazine. Joan sends a recipe and a packet of saffron to Imogen. With that, their regular correspondence and friendship begins. The novel contains letters sent to each other between 1962 and 1965. Their 32-year-age difference does not matter to either of them. They become each other’s confidant and cheerleader.
This is a quick gentle read on friendship that doesn’t hesitate to touch on joy, sadness, love, and death.
Library director, Christopher Wolfe, suffered an incapacitating stroke and Liesl Weiss is named interim director for the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at a Toronto university. Under her leadership two prized items have been discovered missing. One item is a Plantin Polyglot Bible which was published between 1568 and 1573. The other is a Peshawar manuscript, an early mathematical document that was found in 1881 in Pakistan. The Plantin was a recent acquisition thanks to generous donors who want to see the item. Is it misplaced or was it stolen? A library staff member is suspected of the thefts when she goes missing. Police are eventually called in to locate the missing staffer and hopefully find the missing documents.
This is an interesting account of fundraising in academic libraries. For a Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, donors are essential and need to be wined and dined. That seemed to be the main focus for library director, Christopher Wolfe, and he was very good at his job. On the other hand Liesl Weiss was content to work behind the scenes and was contemplating retirement. The interim director position is forced upon Liesel with at least 3 mysteries to solve.
Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief
In honor of Black History Month I’d like to share this gem of a memoir. Pun intended.
How did a black girl who grew up in a segregated, Depression-era, West Virginia coal town become the world’s most notorious jewel thief? The desire to help her mother out of an abusive relationship and revenge. Tired of being dismissed from jewelry counters when a white woman approached, the young and beautiful Doris, armed with charm, a quick wit, and a love of magic, started to help herself to small pieces. As her skills and confidence grew, her heists became more daring and lucrative. Her race actually helped her get away with her crimes for as long as she did. It turned out that white store owners were reluctant to admit that they were duped by a Black woman. The law sometimes caught up with her. Sometimes she escaped. Diamond Doris eventually served her time, wrote her memoir, and now, at 91, lives a quiet life in Atlanta.
This book is a fascinating look at race in America. Doris is a hilarious and audacious person, and it’s hard not to admire her, despite her 60 years of crime! Do yourself a favor and meet Doris. She is fascinating. And for our local readers, she has a Cleveland connect!