Thursday, March 27, 2014

What I've Been Reading: March 2014

Wow, this month has blown by!  I can't believe it's almost April, and that summer will be right around the corner.  However, this month has been chock full of good reads for me, and I can't wait to share. 

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell.  This isn't a new book (2007), but I happened across a copy as it was returned to the library and gut instinct told me I needed to read it.  Readers--listen to your gut!  Iris Lockhart likes her life, tending her vintage clothing store and trying to avoid her married boyfriend.  When she receives notification that her great-aunt Esme, a woman Iris never knew existed (Iris's grandmother, Kitty, had always claimed to be an only child), is being released from Cauldstone Psychiatric Hospital after thirty years, Iris finds herself plunged into a well of family secrets.  How did Esme come to be committed, and how was her existence expunged from all family memory?  How can Iris find a way to keep Esme safe, even if she's been labeled as sane enough to coexist with the outside world?  Full of mystery and tragedy, this was incredibly compelling and a month later I am still haunted by Esme's story.  I highly recommend it to fans of family sagas--I also think it would be excellent for book clubs.

The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton.  This was my book club's read for our March meeting, and what a great discussion we got out of it!  Young Grace Bradley went to work for the Hartford family at Riverton House before the beginning of the First World War, when she was just 14.  In the ensuing years, her life was inextricably linked to those of her employers, particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.  In 1924, at a society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself--only Hannah, Emmeline and Grace know what really happened, but the secret endures until Grace finally confesses...seventy-five years later.  A book of love, memory, war, and secrets.  Morton is masterful.  Very highly recommended.

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick.  I couldn't keep this one to myself, I loved it so much.  You can read my full review here.

Concealed in Death, by J.D. Robb.  When Lieutenant Eve Dallas's multi-millionaire husband, Roarke, swings a sledgehammer to begin the demolition of a newly acquired by long-abandoned building, the last thing he expects to find is a skeleton hidden behind the wallboard.  He quickly calls in Eve and her team, and when their long, gruesome day is done, they have uncovered the remains of twelve young girls hidden in the building's walls.  What follows is an emotional journey for all involved, at the cusp of the holiday season, a mixture of grief, regret, closure, and the reopening of old wounds even as Dallas gets closer and closer to uncovering the identity of a long-dormant killer, and those who helped him cover his tracks.  While this felt a little over-long and meandering at times, Robb still writes a mean suspense tale.

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett.  There are few novelists as wry, witty, subversive and marvelously entertaining as Sir Terry Pratchett who, even after over 40 Discworld novels published in the last 31 years, proves in his latest effort that he's only getting better with time.  Engineer Mister Simnel has created a ruckus in Ankh-Morpork, harnessing the power of earth, air, water and fire in one giant, steaming monstrosity.  That no one is actually in charge of this steaming behemoth is very unsettling to the Patrician, Lord Vetinari--and he means to change that immediately.  Who better for the job than the man who already runs the Mint, the Post Office and the Royal Bank, Moist von Lipwig?  While Moist is not a man who enjoys hard work, he does enjoy living, and Lord Vetinari's offer is not one easily refused--even if it does mean working among greasy goblins, angry dwarves, and a fat controller who has a terrible habit of throwing employees down the stairs...  Pratchett is, as always, laugh-out-loud funny.  I've never met a Discworld novel I didn't like.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain.  Chicago, 1920.  Hadley Richardson is 28, unmarried, and lives a quiet, loveless life in the wake of her mother's death.  Until she meets Ernest Hemingway through mutual friends.  Within a few short months their whirlwind courtship ends in marriage, and they move to Paris so that Ernest can write.  They are quickly absorbed into the fabled Lost Generation, which includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.  But the couple is unprepared for Paris in the Jazz Age and all of the hard-drinking, free-loving, and fast-living that come with it.  Ernest struggles to make a name for himself as a writer, even as he pours his heart and soul into The Sun Also Rises.  Hadley finds herself torn between her roles as wife, friend and muse, even as she grapples to maintain a sense of self.  A sense of dread looms over the narrative as the lies and secrets that will destroy the happiness they've fought for draws nigh.  McLain does a brilliant job portraying this poignant tale of love and loyalty lost--all the more heart-rending for Hemingway's declaration that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.  This is my book club's April selection, and I'm eagerly anticipating our next meeting--I can't wait to pore over the story with them!

6 titles for March brings me to 13 for the year so far.  75 titles for 2014 may yet happen--let's see what happens in April!

I'll be back next week to share some of the new fiction being published in May.  In the meantime, happy reading!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Top 10 on Tuesday: March is Women's History Month!

I realize I'm a little late to the party on this one, as March is rounding the bend and heading for April, but since March is Women's History Month, I thought this would be a great opportunity to share a few of my favorite historical novels featuring female protagonists.  I love reading about history, but I also really enjoy reading fiction, so well-researched historical fiction is one of my go-to genres and I have lots of favorites to choose from.  Here are my top 10 (subject to change as I read new ones!). 

1. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.  It's 1996 when Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is called upon to analyze the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a 600-year-old Jewish prayerbook that has been salvaged from a destroyed Bosnian library.  As Hanna works to conserve this piece of history, she also uncovers mysteries hidden within its bindings, unwittingly involving herself in an intrigue of fine art forgers and international coverups.  Based on a true story, a beautiful read.  Bonus: the audiobook is a true delight. 

2. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.  Vida Winter, reclusive author famous for a collection of twelve enchanting stories, has made a habit of never telling the same story twice, a habit which has held true in interviews and in the telling of her own history.  Storyteller meets biographer when Ms. Winter chooses young, unworldly bookseller Margaret Lea to transcribe her true, tragic history.  A gothic tale of two women facing pasts they'd prefer to forget, with pitch-perfect details.

3. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood.  Based on the true story of one of the most notorious women of the nineteenth century, Alias Grace follows the story of Grace Marks, who has been convicted for her involvement in the murders of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress.  She is now serving a life sentence, though she claims no memory of the murders.  Dr. Simon Jordan, a specialist in the burgeoning field of mental illness, has been engaged by reformers and spiritualists who hope for a pardon for Grace.  The story follows Dr. Jordan's sessions with Grace as he draws her closer and closer to the days she cannot remember, seeking to discover what happened, and what kind of woman Grace really is.  Fascinating and brilliantly told.

4. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  1962 Mississippi.  Three very different women, three extraordinary voices.  Skeeter, a recent graduate from Ole Miss, has aspirations of writing for a living, but her mother won't be happy until Skeeter is married off.  Aibileen, a black maid, wise and regal, raising her seventeenth white child even as she mourns the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way.  And Aibileen's best friend Minny, whose sass and lip have cost her job after job, until she finds herself working for a woman who has secrets of her own.  Their lives are drawn together by the need to share their stories.  The audiobook is phenomenal.  The movie is also very well-done.

5. The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani.  In 17th century Persia, a father dies and leaves his young daughter with no dowry.  She lives by her skill in designing and weaving intricate carpets, and hopes this will be enough to maintain her dignity.  The story is as complex and the details as fine as one of the protagonists carpets. 

6. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant.  Told in the voice of Dinah, whose existence is only hinted at in the Bible, but whose father, Jacob, and twelve brothers are chronicled in the Book of Genesis.  Diamant pieces together the turmoil and traditions of the world of women in such a society, their existence surrounding the red tent.  Intimate and affecting.

7. Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier. Mary Anning, poor and uneducated, lives near the English coast and is in possession of a rare gift--she can spot fossils that others cannot see.  When she discovers an unusual fossilized skeleton near her home, it throws her community into chaos even as it sets the scientific world alight.  As cruel as the elements and her neighbors can be, Mary finds hope and friendship with two very unlikely people.

8. The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir.  Before turning her writing prowess to novels, Weir first made a name for herself as a historian and biographer.  Here she uses her deep knowledge of Tudor England, its politics, culture, society, and people to reconstruct the youth of one of England's most famous monarchs, Elizabeth I.  The result is a richly detailed illustration, set within the confines of known history and embellished only where facts are absent, but in Weir's beautiful style, this is anything but dull history.

9. One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus.  One Thousand White Women is the story of May Dodd and a colorful assembly of pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians. The covert and controversial "Brides for Indians" program, launched by the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, is intended to help assimilate the Indians into the white man's world. Toward that end May and her friends embark upon the adventure of their lifetime.  It has been years since I read this, and the story still continues to resonate with me.

10. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare.   I realize that this Newberry Award Winner is a children's book, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the historical novel that first caused me to fall in love with the genre as a young reader many years ago.  Kit Tyler is sixteen, alone and desperate when she sails from her beloved home of Barbados in 1687 for the unfamiliar shores of Connecticut to live with family she has never met.  Kit struggles to fit in with her new surroundings, but there are so many rules and restrictions compared to her cheerful, colorful upbringing in the islands.  When she finally finds a kindred spirit in Hannah Tupper, the friendship with a woman who the colonists believe to be a witch proves taboo and forces Kit to choose between her heart and the duty she owes to family.  I'm actually reading this one again--it's just as good now as I remembered. 

I'll be back on Thursday to share what else I've been reading this month.  In the meantime, happy reading!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Can't Keep It To Myself: The Good Luck of Right Now

You may recognize the title of this one, as it was on my "Meg's Picks" list for February.  Well, I finally got a copy of Matthew Quick's The Good Luck of Right Now, and I have been totally absorbed in it ever since. 

Bartholomew knows he isn't like other people.  At thirty-eight, he doesn't have a job or friends.  His life has been spent taking care of his ailing mother, going to the library, and attending Mass.  When his mother passes away, Bartholomew is adrift, seemingly without purpose in his life.  He finds a letter among his mother's things, a form letter about the Free Tibet movement signed by Richard Gere.  This becomes his talisman, Richard Gere his confidant and imaginary life coach in a series of letters as he, Bartholomew, puzzles through his new life.  He works with a grief counselor, sets life goals, learns to be social, and slowly pieces together a motley group as a new family (a defrocked priest, a filthy-mouthed movie-theater worker who is grieving the loss of his cat, a library volunteer who believes she's been abducted by aliens).  This unlikely group travels to Canada to see cat Parliament and meet Bartholomew's birth father, but the trip becomes so much more for all involved.

When critics called this book quirky and endearing, they were not kidding.  Jung meets the Dalai Lama, philosophy goes hand in hand with faith, the mysteries of women...all are revealed in Bartholomew's long, nakedly honest letters to Mr. Richard Gere.  In Quick's previous work, the extremely popular The Silver Linings Playbook, he showed a knack for portraying deeply flawed, intensely human characters in a way that made them immediately, truly knowable to readers.  I would say that he is honing his skill, because I was utterly in love with Bartholomew and his new friends, and hated to turn that last page and leave them.  I think they'll all stay with me for years to come.  Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Meg's Picks: April 2014, part 2

Yes!  And that's just why I do what I do--for this librarian, there are few greater satisfactions than recommending a book and having that reader come back and tell me that they loved it.  I'm human, I don't always hit the mark, but when I do, it's a great feeling.  Here are a couple more titles I'm recommending ahead of time.  I've got them on my reading list--do you?

In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Hader Rahman.  Rahman's debut novel is making quite a stir among the critics, and that has my interest piqued.  One day in September 2008, an investment banker approaching forty, his career in collapse, opens the door of his West London townhouse to a surprise visitor--the man who had once been his college friend, a mathematics prodigy who had disappeared years ago under mysterious circumstances.  Now he has resurfaced to make a confession, one with powerful repercussions.  This is being billed as a novel of love, war, betrayal, longing, and money.  This has been called the first truly great book of the new century.  High praise indeed, and worth checking out, to be sure.

Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead.  Shipstead won the Dylan Thomas Prize with her debut novel, Seating Arrangements (which I loved, by the way).  Joan is a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her connection to world-famous dancer, Arslan Ruskov, whom she helped defect from the Soviet Union to the US.  However, she finds that as Arslan's career takes off in New York, her own slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and marries her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob.  She gradually settles into her new life as mother and teacher in California, watching her son, Harry, become a dance prodigy himself.  When Harry's success brings him into contact with Arslan, however, a powder-keg of secrets is touched off, forcing Joan to confront her past and make peace with her present.  Shipstead showed a deft hand both with satire and interpersonal relationships in her debut--from the advance praise, I believe it's safe to say she hasn't lost her touch.

I'm currently reading something I just can't put down--I'll be sharing more details on Thursday!  In the meantime, happy reading.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Meg's Picks: April 2014, part 1

There's nothing like a good book.  From the anticipation of turning to the first page to the satisfaction that lingers after you finish the last sentence, there are few things that make me quite so content.  A stack of new books waiting for me to read them?  Thrilling.  Yes, I'm a woman of simple pleasures.  And because I'm also a sharing kind of person, here are a few of the titles that I'm eagerly anticipating getting my hands on next month.

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue.  Donoghue won the hearts of readers with 2010's deeply moving Room, but I've been a fan of her work since reading Slammerkin way back in 2001.  Which means, obviously, that I am very much anticipating this newest novel, which follows Blanche Beunon, French burlesque dancer, over 3 days in the scorching San Francisco summer of 1876.  Her best friend, Jenny, has been shot and killed in a saloon, and Blanche's search for Jenny's killer leads readers through a city of arrogant millionaires, desperate paupers, and free-loving bohemians.  It's also a city filled with secrets, including what Jenny herself had been hiding.  If this is half as good as the critics are claiming, it is going to be stellar.

Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman.  During World War II, Jack Wiseman had been in charge of storing the possessions found on the "golden train", which contained the accumulated wealth of the Hungarian Jews who had been shipped off to the concentration camps.  Decades later, Jack is dying.  The only thing he has ever asked of his granddaughter, as he hands her an enameled locket, is to find the rightful owner of the necklace.  Waldman leads us back to the aftermath of the war, then to the years proceeding, pitting complicated politics against the idea of one's ability to control personal destiny.  I'm very intrigued.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.  A.J. Fikry's life is not turning out the way he'd expected.  His wife has passed away.  Sales at his bookstore are dwindling.  And his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen.  Slowly but surely, A.J. is withdrawing from everyone and everything in his small community.  Even the books in his store no longer hold pleasure for him.  Until the arrival of a small but weighty package one day, its contents requiring A.J. to reevaluate his life and find joy again.  This is, I think, going to be a book for all book-lovers.

I'll be back with the last of my April picks next week.  In the meantime, happy reading.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reading Ahead: April 2014, part 3

This post wraps up the Reading Ahead list for April, but stay tuned for my personal picks for April--posts are coming this Thursday and next Tuesday.  Today's list is a mix of genres--everything from mysteries and humor to suspense and historical fiction.  Ready to dive in and see what I've got for you?

The Other Story, by Tatiana de Rosnay.  As a young man, Nicholas Duhamel uncovered a very carefully concealed secret about his family's history, sending him on a long road to uncovering the truth, only to run from it, desperate to put it behind him.  Years later, in the wake of his success as an author, he finds that every secret has a way of coming out, and must confront his family's past once and for all.  By the author of Sarah's Key.  Book clubs especially will want to check this out.

The Collector, by Nora Roberts.  Leila Emerson is a woman with no ties--a professional house-sitter with no home to call her own.  When she witnesses a murder/suicide during current gig, she is quickly entangled with Ash, who doesn't believe his brother could have done such a thing.  As Leila and Ash seek to unravel what has happened, they find themselves in the thick of a circle whose desire to collect rare antiques could turn deadly at a moment's notice.

Night Diver, by Elizabeth Lowell.  After a family tragedy, Kate Donnelly left the Caribbean behind forever. But a series of bad management decisions has left her family's diving and marine-recovery business drowning in red ink. Now her brother pleads with her to come back to the island nation of St Vincent. Without Kate's financial expertise, the iconic treasure-hunting enterprise started by her grandfather will go under. Unable to say no to the family she has left, Kate heads back to the beautiful and terrifying ocean that still haunts her nightmares. 

And the Dark Sacred Night, by Julia Glass.  Glass revisits some past characters in her new work.  Kit Noonan's life has stalled: he's unemployed, has twins to support, and a mortgage to pay.  His wife, frustrated, insists that Kit could start to turn things around if he would pursue the mystery of who his biological father was.  At a loss for what else to do, Kit complies, and the secrets that have been kept from him all his life begin to unravel.  A story of secrets, family, and forgiveness.  Another title that I think would be excellent for book clubs.

Destroyer Angel, by Nevada Barr. Eighteenth installment in prolific Barr's Anna Pigeon series, US Park Services ranger Pigeon sets off on vacation--a canoeing trip to the Iron Range in upstate Minnesota with a couple of friends and their respective children.  When Anna goes out for a short solo trip on the Fox River, she returns to their campsite to find her friends and their children being held hostage by armed thugs.  Anna now has no resources, no way to contact the outside world, and just two days to rescue her friends or lose them forever.  Barr is a pro, and this should be an excellent addition to the series.

Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore.  Readers who are unfamiliar with Moore's quirky, irreverent sense of humor are really missing out.  Riffing off of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, we find three cunning fellows (merchant Antonio, senator Brabantio, and naval officer Iago) awaiting a most despised dinner guest: envoy of the Queen of Britain, Fool Pocket.  For such a small man, he has proven to be a huge obstacle to keeping these men from what they want--power, wealth and glory.  And so they have lured him to a dark dungeon, promising wine and women.  But the wine is drugged, there are no women, and now the game is afoot, for our Fool is no fool, after all.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reading Ahead: April 2014, part 2

While I know that it's been a long, cold winter and most of us are having rather a hard time believing that warm weather is really coming (we hope!), our friends in the publishing business are giving us plenty of books to add to our summer reading lists.  If you're thinking ahead to longer days, vacations, downtime to relax minus the cup of tea and blanket (funny how what was "cozy" just a few months ago has completely lost its appeal these days), this list of family sagas and gentle romances might be just what the doctor ordered.

Blossom Street Brides, by Debbie Macomber

Cavendon Hall, by Barbara Taylor Bradford

A Family Affair, by Fern Michaels

All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner

Chestnut Street, by Maeve Binchy

Otherwise Engaged, by Amanda Quick