September 2020 | Rebecca Rego Barry

What's New in Bibliofiction, Fall 2020

Courtesy of individual publishers

Five new novels with bookish themes.

A bumper crop of books about books this summer/early fall has kept me up past my bedtime, and all to your benefit, dear reader. Highlighted here are five novels with bookish themes that I have enjoyed these past few months and which I can recommend. If you’re looking for great bibliofiction, choose the one—or two, or five—that suits you best.

Let’s begin with plague, because, well you know why. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a rich, dark novel about the Black Death, true, but as its title suggests, it is also about William Shakespeare. More precisely, it tells the story of Shakespeare’s free-spirited and intelligent wife, Anne Hathaway, here called Agnes, and his children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith. O’Farrell vividly evokes marriage and motherhood in Elizabethan England, all the while spinning a subtext to Shakespeare’s famous play, “Hamlet.”  A national bestseller in the UK and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet is charged by its originality and its emotional depth.   

From Shakespeare to Brontë  … and why not? In Brontë’s Mistress, author Finola Austin, aka the Secret Victorianist, takes the gossip surrounding Branwell Brontë’s affair with the older, married Lydia Robinson, and develops a complex and compelling tale that gives Lydia a voice. The novel opens (deliciously) with the discovery in a Yorkshire school’s “storage room” of a manuscript written by Lydia that describes her scandalous relationship with Branwell, the ne’er do well brother of novelists Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—all of whom would certainly have blushed to read this account of their illicit romance.

Charlie Lovett is the author of several bookish novels, including The Bookman’s Tale, First Impressions, and The Lost Book of the Grail, and his new one, I am happy to report, keeps bibliophila front and center. Escaping Dreamland features a dual storyline that toggles between modern-day author Robert Parrish, who is obsessed with a set of children’s books, and the three friends who penned the books in New York City circa 1906. Fans of the Stratemeyer Syndicate—i.e., Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift—will get a kick out of the spotlight Lovett shines on anonymously/pseudonymously-written children’s book series, and just about anyone who calls themself a “book lover” will relish his latest.

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux also weaves together two captivating narratives. In the present day, Rose Newlin is a bookseller and book restorer whose client, artist William Lomazzo, brings in a manuscript dated 1571, likely written by his ancestor, Giovanni Lomazzo. That manuscript, a palimpsest, is both an art treatise and a chronicle that recounts the personal and political machinations Gio gets mixed up in as the Ottoman fleet nears Venice. Sparks fly between Rose and William—and between Giovanni and Chiara, his patron’s courtesan—and the result is utterly enticing.

And, if you perused our current issue or read last week’s Q & A with the author, you’ll already be familiar with Bradford Morrow’s new bibliomystery, The Forger’s Daughter, the sequel to The Forgers (2014). This time around, the main character, Will, becomes ensnared in a plot to counterfeit a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane, a notable rarity. Morrow creates authentic, complicated characters, and he revels in the minutiae of rare books. What more could you ask for?    

Need more recommendations? Stay tuned for mini reviews of a few standout nonfiction books about books next week, and, in the meantime, revisit my summer or spring roundups.