Book Report: November and December

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Mrs. Osmond (Knopf) by John Banville
It would be audacious for almost any author to attempt a sequel to the Henry James classic The Portrait of a Lady. It is, after all, a near perfect novel, albeit one with a decidedly ambiguous ending that has long left some readers unsettled. The lady in question, Isabel, is headed back to Rome—to her loveless, debilitating marriage and sweet, desperate stepdaughter, despite the fact that she’s been offered an escape. “You must save what you can of your life,” the handsome Caspar Goodwood warns her. But by the closing pages, as she boards the train, Isabel seems resigned to return to her horrible husband—but is she? Readers have been in doubt since the book was first published in 1881.
Prize-winning author John Banville tackles the question with a consummate ease. As a professor at the University of Chicago, Banville teaches James, and gracefully channels his spirit for a modern audience. Banville’s own considerable talents also shine through. He isn’t just clearing up those lingering questions about the plot, but rather stretching the Portrait’s canvas for an even wider view, a grander perspective. The main character still feels like the same vulnerable heroine, as charming and effervescent as ever, but now she has a new depth and a firm resolve. At long last, Isabel Archer is determined to take control over her own fate—and her fans will be very satisfied. It’s almost been worth the 136-year wait. —John Hogan
Mrs. Osmond is available November 7

Keeping On Keeping On (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Alan Bennett

Though also a prolific writer for television and of fiction, Alan Bennett, a butcher’s son, is primarily known for his brilliant work for the stage. The author of The History Boys, Lady in the Van and The Madness of King George III draws on his own diaries for much of his weighty memoir. As a result, though there are plenty of insider tales about the theatre world, Bennett’s views and insights about the rest of life, including British politics and recent history, also play a part—with the author’s signature, razor-sharp wit. An inside look into the life and mind of one of our greatest living playwrights. —John Hogan
Keeping On Keeping On goes on sale November 7.


Till Time’s Last Sand
: A History of the Bank of England 1694-2013 (Bloomsbury) by David Kynaston

David Kynaston is the type of historian who takes “exhaustively well researched” as a challenge. His City of London: The History originally needed four volumes;  Austerity Britain clocked in at almost 700 pages, and now this: a massive account of England’s central bank. At 800-plus pages, it’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about one of London’s most foundational establishment institutions. However, readers don’t need a degree in fiscal policy to gain a return on their investment here. The author skillfully focuses on the interpersonal relationships that shaped the “Old Lady” of Threadneedle Street, such as the sometimes tricky dealings between bank governors and prime ministers. As a result, this history can be enjoyed by even those with a limited understanding of the financial complexity of investing and managing quids and dosh.
Till Time’s Last Sand goes on sale November 14

Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair (St. Martin’s Press) by Daisy Goodwin

This gorgeous companion book is the perfect gift  for fans of Victoria, all of whom are desperately awaiting the second-season premiere on Masterpiece on PBS. Between the show, the novel and now this non-fiction book, author Daisy Goodwin has created a multifaceted universe for the diminutive Queen that spreads across many mediums and dimensions.
Stunning images from the show and character bios are interspersed with topics pertaining to Her Majesty’s reign and era, such as primogeniture, “sly prostitution,” Victoria’s favorite authors and much more. These bits of 19th-century life—things that didn’t fit or weren’t fully explained in the dramatic flow of the episodes—are fully fleshed out in gracefully designed layouts. Quotes from letters and Victoria’s famous diaries are sprinkled throughout the pages. There are even excerpts about eccentric minor characters from the Queen’s life, such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African child who narrowly escaped human sacrifice to become Her Majesty’s friend, and “The Boy Jones” who somehow snuck into the palace to steal Victoria’s underwear—twice!
Goodwin’s genius lies in bringing Victoria, and now her Albert, so fully to life and with such personality and charm that we hope the Victoria-verse expands just as long and far as Her reign.
Victoria & Albert goes on sale November 21

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace (Dutton) by Jennifer Chiaverini 

The latest novel by New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini (Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Fates and Traitors) is the “memoir” of Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Sadly for Ada, her life was more influenced by her domineering mom than her fun-loving dad. Lady Byron flees with her newborn babe after discovering her husband’s wicked, wanton ways—and forever worries the girl will follow in her father’s lusty footsteps. Instead of poetry, she urges Ada towards more logical pursuits. As a result, the young heiress becomes a brilliant mathematician who works on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Inspired by looms, Ada is even the first to imagine computer programming. Though plenty of famous Brits appear in these pages—Charles Darwin, Dickens, The Duke of Wellington—she is the character that’ll stay with you. Her voice, like a lost Bronte sister with a gift for the hard sciences, is less flowery than her famous dad’s but just as memorable.
Enchantress of Numbers goes on sale December 5

The Country House Library (Yale University Press) by Mark Purcell

This “complete survey of libraries in country houses over the last two thousand years,” written by the former libraries curator to the National Trust, was made for bibliophiles and for Anglophiles. But the beautiful coffee table book will particularly thrill those who falls into the intersection of the two aforementioned groups—which, if you’re reading this, probably includes you. The double-height library at Alnwick Castle, with books piled from floor to ceiling, a roaring fire at its center, will have readers reflexively reaching for their glasses. The Long Gallery at Blickling Hall almost makes one wish there were a research thesis in need of completing. “In many country homes, the library is often the most spectacular room in the house,” Purcell writes, and he’s right. Viewing them inspires a pang of jealousy—if only one of those spectacular rooms (complete with books) could be one’s own!
The Country House Library goes on sale October 31

Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City (Hachette Books) by Kate Winkler Dawson

Some have an almost romantic view of London’s famous fog, practically a minor character in some British novels; Dickens made fine use of it, and it’s tough to imagine Sherlock striding along cobblestone streets that aren’t rolling with that grey mist. Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson, however, writes about December of 1952, when a high-pressure weather system held down the city’s filthy air and engulfed residents in a thick and toxic miasma. Running parallel to this story is the tale of John Reginald Christie who strangled several women that same season. The smog, however, is the truly scary figure in this book—a yellow-brown, poisonous serial killer that, aided by government incompetence, claimed around 12,000 victims.
On sale now

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