Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Books: New Novels With Historical Themes

In this review, we will look at some of the wonderful new novels that are out: The Winthrop Agreement, by Alice Sherman Simpson; Hercule Poirot's Silent Night, by Sophie Hannah; Good Taste: A Novel and In Search of Great Food, by Caroline Scott.

The Winthrop Agreement

By Alice Sherman Simpson

Harper Paperbacks; paperback, 384 pages; $18.99; available today, Tuesday, November 21st

Alice Sherman Simpson's debut novel Ballroom was nominated by Writer's Voice for Best New American Voices. She is an accomplished visual artist who taught at F.I.T., NY, the School of Visual Arts, The New School. Her artist books on dance are in Special Collections, including Lincoln Center, Yale, Harvard, and The Victoria & Albert Library.

The Winthrop Agreement is Sherman's new novel, a work of historical fiction set in Gilded Age New York City about an immigrant daughter's ascent from experiencing poverty in a miserable tenement, who's driven by an insatiable hunger for a place in society and fueled by a haunting secret she must never betray, to the heights of haute couture on the Upper East Side.

In 1893, Rivkah Milmanovitch is a Lithuanian newlywed who arrives on Ellis Island to meet her beloved husband, Jacob, who promised he would meet her at the port with a job and a place to live. She waited a month for him, but did not receive any news from him before she realized she should go.

"Rivkah had to remain on the ship till morning before taking a ferry to Ellis Island that hot August day," Simpson writes. "She never left her carpetbag, make from a worn rug, unguarded. It held what she thought she would need in American: one white cotton shirt, one blue wool skirt, a babushka of yellow wool with blue flowers, a pair of black boots, one black hat, two pairs of woolen hose, underwear, the nightgown her grandmother had made for her wedding night, a hairbrush and comb, their wedding picture, a photo of her family taken in Marijampole when a traveling carnival came to town, and, wrapped in brown paper, a few bites of hard bread with prunes from the ship's breakfast. She wore everything else in layers. On her feet she wore her white wedding boots. Holding her brunette braided hair in a crown were the two tortoiseshell combs her mama had given her.

"With difficulty differentiating between her anxiety and excitement as she stepped off the ship, Rivkah could not possibly have known what was waiting for her unborn child in this promised land of milk and honey."

Sixteen years old and pregnant, Rivkah makes her way to the Lower East Side tenement of an old friend, Lottie Aarons, whose husband has abandoned her as well. The women struggle to makes ends meet by working grueling hours in sweatshops, and Rivkah vows that her daughter Mimi will have a better life in America. 

Frederick Winthrop is a slum landlord and member of the esteemed Winthrop family, a clan that is on par with the Astors and Vanderbilts. Despite his upbringing and noble features, he is more sinister than meets the eye.

In 1908, Frederick happens to encounter the now fifteen-year-old Mimi, who dreams of silks, satins, and velvets, and he easily seduces her, and her life is changed forever. To protect his family name, the Winthrops offer Mimi a rare opportunity - the chance to live in gracious style and follow her dream in exchange for her silence. 

Accepting their proposition, Mimi ascends to international recognition in couture design, yet is still plagued by the secrets of her past and is determined to protect everyone she loves. 

Hercule Poirot's Silent Night

By Sophie Hannah

William Morrow; hardcover, 384 pages; $30.00

Sophie Hannah wrote the first Hercule Poirot novel authorized by the Agatha Christie estate, The Monogram Murders, as well as the sequels Closed Casket, The Mystery of Three Quarters, and The Killings at Kingfisher Hill. She is also the New York Times bestselling author of numerous psychological thrillers, which have been published in 51 countries and adapted for television. In addition, Hannah also wrote the self-help book, How to Hold a Grudge, and hosts the podcast of the same title.

In Hercule Poirot's Silent Night, the world's greatest detective puts his little gray cells to work solving a baffling Christmas mystery. On December 19, 1931, Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool are looking forward to a much-needed, restful Christmas holiday, but they are called to investigate the murder of a man in a Norfolk hospital ward. 

Cynthia Catchpool, Edward's mother, insists that Poirot stay with her in a crumbling mansion by the coast, so they can all be together for the festive time while he solves the case. As Poirot begins to dig into the case, he discovers that the murdered man was a retired post office master, and by all accounts was very well-liked. 

The investigation that was conducted by the local constabulary failed to reveal how someone could have entered a hospital room and killed him under the noses of the staff. 

Cynthia's friend Arnold is set to be admitted to the hospital soon, and his wife has convinced herself that he will be the killer's next victim, although she refuses to explain why.

Poirot, with no obvious motive or suspect, has less than a week to solve the crime and prevent more murders, if he is to escape this nightmare scenario and make it home in time for Christmas. 

There also is someone else, who is quite ruthless, with ideas about what ought to happen to Hercule Poirot.

Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot as her star in Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. An illustrated version of Murder on the Orient Express was recently released, and please click here for our coverage from September.

Good Taste: A Novel in Search of Great Food

By Caroline Scott

William Morrow Paperbacks; paperback, 432 pages; $19.99

Caroline Scott is a freelance writer and historian who specializes in World War I and women's history, with a PhD from Durham University. She was born in the United Kingdom, but currently lives in France, and her first book released in the United States, The Poppy Wife, was partially inspired by her family history.

Good Taste, which was originally released in the UK in October of 2022, is a work of historical fiction about a sharp heroine ahead of her time, and an adventure across the English countryside in search of great food. 

Set in England in 1932, in the grip of the Great Depression, we are introduced to Stella Douglas, the author of a much-loved but not very successful biography, and she is feeling a bit depressed about herself. When Stella is summoned to see her editor in London, and she is dreading that she will be told her writing career is over before it even starts.

Stella is surprised to learn that she is being commissioned to write a history of food in England and how the English like to eat. The publishers hope that this book will lift the spirits of the nation, as it will be quintessentially English and will remind English housewives of the old ways, and English men of the glory of their country. 

The only hitch is that all English food is not all that great, that anything good has been brought from elsewhere. Stella decides to invite recipes from all corners of England, in the hope of discovering a hidden culinary gem, but what she discovers is oatcakes and gravy and lots and lots of potatoes. 

In her quest to make this book as thrilling as possible, Stella heads off to speak to housewives. However, when her car breaks down, she is pulled in a different direction, as she is rescued by the dashing and charismatic antiques dealer Freddie. Through it all, this is a story of discovery and a woman's quest to make her own way as a modern woman.

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