A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Historical fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

How have I never read this book? This will definitely be one of my top reads of 2022. Historical fiction immersed in the drive to commercialize the production of penicillin for the troops. Here’s a shocking statistic — over 50% of the deaths in the Civil War were from infection; over 30% in the “Great War.”

The story opens with Claire Shipley — photojournalist for Life magazine — covering the story of early trials on penicillin for humans. 1941 — just days after Pearl Harbor — a man makes an almost miraculous recovery from near death by the injection of penicillin — only to die days later when researchers literally run out of the drug: it is that difficult to produce. Together the U.S. Government, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (a real place — look it up), and reluctantly drafted pharmaceutical companies race to find a process to produce enough of the miracle drug to save the men on the front.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part home front war story, and part industry story, the author does an incredible job of making war-time New York City come to life. New York is a great setting for historical fiction as it is and always has been teeming with people, innovation, and secrets. While the main characters are fictional, the historical characters (e.g. Vannevar Bush, Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Sanger, Jack Reed) are presented realistically (without any fictionalized access to their inner thoughts). Beautiful writing — I highlighted a lot of quotes in the (physical) book but I was too lazy to transcribe them 😦

In addition to the description of the historical setting, what I loved about the book were the characters. Each had his or her own passion, and the author explored the depth of their work, their attraction to it, and the kind of personalities and background that made them so suited to it. The descriptions of Claire and her photos were completely absorbing and beautifully described; Dr. James Staunton leading the research at the Rockefeller Institute; his sister Tia the mycologist, exploring dirt samples from around the world to find other antibacterial “cousins” to penicillin; and Edward Rutherford, one of the very earliest venture capitalists, describing the process of making money from opportunity.

Completely captivating. This was her second novel, published in 2010. Novels 1,3, and 4 are all excellent as well!

Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer (Literary and Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5/5

A fabulous book full of all the literary things that I love.

Hannah Larson and her neurodiverse son, Nicky, move to a historic manor house outside of Cambridge to care for a beloved, elderly relative. Hannah uses the opportunity to take up her abandoned dissertation while simultaneously escaping a recent and devastating betrayal. While there, Nicky, through his “oddities” discovers a skeleton (dated ~late 1850s) in a bricked up room.

It’s a rich, multi-layered novel delving into both the mystery of the female skeleton, the historical context of her life, and the historical research process by which Hannah uncovers the story. In the current day story, Hannah faces a pretty major problem in her marriage and some real difficulties in raising her son who appears to be on the autism spectrum though is never officially labeled as such. He is finding a place — and friends and interests — in the new world he inhabits while continuing to have “incidents” that she is not able to control. In the past, our skeleton inhabits a world rife with religious conflict, plague, and famine. A strong theme running through both time frames is the choices women have made and the options they were given over the centuries. Interesting parallels and the author never slips into anti-man territory (thank you — so sick of that).

The author does a brilliant job at bringing to life both the world of the1800s for our bricked in skeleton and the current world of an American on leave from her “real” life in a place that opens her eyes to new possibilities. While each of these “worlds” is a context, it is a context experienced by people with different wants, desires, personalities, and situations. I love a book filled with individuals who not only don’t fall into the stereotypes of their culture, but actively question their decisions and roles!

Great for fans of Julia Kelly and Carol Goodman.

Quotes:

“The talents possessed by women had been overlooked, denigrated, dismissed, and suppressed for centuries. The diseases they might have cured. The technological advanced they might have made, the cruelties righted, works of art created, buildings designed — all denied. The tragedy and failure of it affected not only individuals but communities and societies. The women who’d found meaning by devoting themselves to their families had also been silenced by history, erased, the importance of their household labor unrecognized.”

“Even as I said this, I knew that one of the biggest roadblocks to understanding history was the false notion that the individuals of the past were more or less like us, thought like us, and would only do things we would do. I realized that I’d been thinking about Isabella this way all along. I had to stop seeing her through the filter of myself.”

“Her reign is referred to as theGolden Age, but it was a flowering of culture against a backdrop of religious suppression, torture, disease, and waves of starvation.”

“The first year of nothing, 1593, was the year when Catholics were required to have a license to travel more than five miles from their homes. It was also the year when a bill was introduced in Parliament calling for the removal of children from Catholic families, so they could be raised in Protestant homes. The bill was withdrawn, but the point had been made, brutally.”

“Such energy expended, to arrive at this restrained intimacy.”

“Four hundred years from now, was this how Anne Frank’s attic would be viewed? After enough time had passed and the trauma had faded, would the attic evolve into something fun for kids to see because it was gruesome in a shivery, Halloween sort of way, the horrifying truth rewritten to make the site more visitor-friendly? I prayed we’d never reach a day when kids could tour Anne Frank’s hiding place and after ward receive smiley-face stickers for their shirts”

“Bringing starvation and war into this discussion was like saying is was okay to cheat on an exam because the exam was insignificant compared to the atomic bomb. Individuals as well as societies needed moral standards.”

“Ah, yes, 1545 to 1610. Years of traumatic religious upheaval, played out against crop failures, famine, smallpox, sweating sickness, plague. Also, a flowering of culture, of poetry, music, and drama.”

“I wished I could view the world as Christopher did , a place where the most mundane errands were part of an adventure story.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.