Featured favorites: Historical novels and books on wild animals


Historical novels recommended by Bunch of Grapes

“Longbourn” by Jo Baker – This is a retake of Jane Austen’s most celebrated book, “Pride and Prejudice,” told from the servants’ of the Bennett Estate point of view. While the drama of husband hunting for the five unmarried daughters takes place upstairs, the servants seek their own hopes and dreams as they clean boots, drive carriages, prepare and serve meals, and mend petticoats. Sarah, the housemaid, becomes enthralled by the mysterious new driver, James.

“The Maid’s Version” by Daniel Woodrell – In 1965, young Alex goes to West Table, Mont. to spend the summer with his grandmother Alma, a hardworking maid to a wealthy family. He discovers the bad blood between his father and grandmother stems from her opinion about what happened just before the explosion in 1929 at the local dance hall that killed 41, including her sister. The incident is rarely discussed, but Alma is certain the explosion wasn’t an accident.

“Nostalgia” by Dennis McFarland – Summerfield Hayes, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, spends time pitching for a baseball team, until he impulsively enlists in the Union Army. In 1864 he finds himself in brutal hand-to-hand combat in The Battle of the Wilderness. Wounded by shrapnel and bleeding badly, he ends up in an army hospital in Washington, D.C. He is unable to speak or tell the difference between what is real and what is a dream. Slowly he makes his way back to life, saved by the kindness and compassion of others.

“Quiet Dell” by Jayne Anne Phillips – In real life in 1931, a man woos a young woman – recently widowed with three young children — with love letters and promises. The bodies of the widow and her children are later found in the basement of a garage in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. Phillips takes the facts she does know and weaves them together with what she thinks the characters must have thought and felt before they came to their terrible end.

“The Winter Palace” by Eva Stachniak – Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst is 14 years old when her very ambitious mother brings her to the Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a potential wife for Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, the future Peter III. Varvara is engaged as a servant to befriend and spy on young Sophie. Sophie becomes the Grand Duchess Catherine, disliked by the petulant Peter, and distrusted by the ailing Empress.

Historical novels recommended by Edgartown Books

“A Man of His Own” by Susan Wilson – Island author Wilson offers up a sort of “War Horse” for dog lovers. Pax, the beloved pet of Rick Stanton and his wife, joins the army’s K-9 Corps during WWII. Pax performs heroically, earning the undying devotion of his soldier-trainer Keller Nicholson. As the war ends, an unusual love triangle forms when Keller reluctantly returns Pax to Rick, only to discover that Rick has been paralyzed in combat. Keller stays on with the Stantons to serve as Rick’s aide and to remain close to Pax, who is torn between a sense of duty to two doting masters.

“Longbourn” by Jo Baker – “Pride and Prejudice” was only half the story! Elizabeth and Darcy take a backseat in this engrossing Austen homage, which focuses on the lives of the servants of Longbourn rather than the Bennet family. A must-read for fans of Austen, this literary tribute also stands on its own as a captivating love story.

“Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination” by Jim Lehrer – Lehrer has crafted a uniquely focused novel about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the ripple effect it had on both individuals and the nation as a whole. Utilizing his firsthand knowledge and experience — he was actually a reporter in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — the author shifts away from the big-picture event in order to zero- n on two seemingly minor players in the national tragedy.

“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall Book 2) – “Bring Up the Bodies” is the second part of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Wolf Hall takes in a huge span of time, describing Cromwell’s early life, and reaching back into the previous century, to show the forces that shaped England before he was born. The foreground action of the book occupies several years, ending in July 1535, on the day of the execution of Cromwell’s political antagonist, Thomas More.

Books on animals in the wild recommended by Book Den East

The only animal that thinks it is cute, and tries to act so, is homo sapiens. All the others pretty much stick to the business of survival: eating, breeding, and fleeing their enemies. It is good to learn about other animals for perspective and insight. Consider the wolf: In “The Company of Wolves” (1995), naturalist Peter Steinhart explores the tangled relationship between wolves and man. $20.

“Mongoose Watch: A Family Observed” (1986) by Anne Rasa is a 15-year study of another very social species: the dwarf mongoose of Kenya. These African cousins of Rikki-tikki-tavi exhibit startling similarities to human behavior. “They woo, worry, rage and play; form friendships and sexual liaisons; practice deception and persuasion; and at times behave with striking thoughtfulness for others.” Just like the meerkats on “Animal Planet.” $12.

“A Natural History of Zebras” (1976) by Dorcas MacClintock with illustrations by Ugo Mochi combines the talents of a trained mammalogist with the artist’s unique knife-cut portraits of a most attractive, designer animal. And whatever you’ve wanted to know about these wild, striped horses of Africa is presented in an interesting, informative format. A lovely book, this copy was inscribed by the author. $20.

The time has come, the walrus said…for something completely different. Visit “The World of the Walrus” (1998) by Peter Knudtson. Read of the activities of this tusked marine mammal – which consist mostly of eating shellfish and then loafing on a beach or an ice floe, and keeping a wary eye out for the occasional polar bear. Something like a vacation on the Vineyard. Great photos, lively text. $15.

“A Social History of the American Alligator” (1991) by Vaughn L. Glasgow is a compendium of natural history, folklore, and ‘gator economics, and the psychological impact of the alligator on American. Alligator mississippiensis, denizen of southern wetlands, is one of our most successful forms of life, having been around for some 70 million years. Entertaining reading and illustrated with more than 175 photos, drawings, and cartoons. $15.