Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

quicksilBook – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)

Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

whereBook – Bernadette is married to a brilliant man, Elgin, who works for Microsoft, and her daughter Bee is a top student at a private middle school. When Bee asks to go to the Antarctica as a reward for her grades, Bernadette is thrown into a tailspin. She has lived a reclusive life in their rundown Seattle home for more than a decade. Using a virtual assistant from India to complete everyday tasks such as shopping and making reservations, Bernadette has tried to avoid mingling with parents from the school and her neighbors. As Bernadette takes increasingly drastic measures to avoid the trip, Elgin becomes more worried and then, Bernadette suddenly disappears. Bee is determined to solve the mystery and, in the process, discovers that people aren’t always who they seem to be. The story is told in a series of emails and correspondence from Bernadette, Elgin, Bee and various friends, doctors and co-workers. This book is fun to read and often laugh-out-loud funny. Bernadette has a wicked sense of humor, but she’s so vulnerable and lonely that I was rooting for her and hoping for a happy ending. I didn’t want to put this book down and was delighted to give away 20 copies for World Book Night on April 23.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

written redBook – In Written in Red Anne Bishop introduces a world where humans are perceived primarily as prey by the “Others”, a variety of earthy creatures spanning folklore descriptions from shape-shifters to furies. In this urban fantasy the Others have the power, but they allow human communities to exist because of the interesting products humans produce. A few marketplace communities that are operated by the Others exist where humans and the Others mingle very tentatively, and Meg Corbyn finds sanctuary in one such community when she is hired as a Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard business district. Yet, is she technically human? And from what does she require sanctuary? The entities populating the Lakeside Courtyard find themselves taking a keen interest in their new liaison and must decide whether she is worth their protection. Meg’s process of settling into her new community is told with an amount of domestic detail that makes this a cozy read at times. Suspense builds when Meg’s hiding place is discovered and the human world breaches the Courtyard walls.

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

weightBook - Family is everything in small towns, but Lucy Dane has a hole in hers. Her mother Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and people in town still gossip about her, suggesting witchcraft or something worse was behind her sudden appearance and disappearance in their small Ozark town. Then Lucy’s friend Cheri disappears, and her body is found in horrifying condition near the edge of town, and Lucy finds herself investigating the web of secrets surrounding these two women’s disappearances.

It’s not just the setting that The Weight of Blood has in common with Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, it’s a whole atmosphere, a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in the wide-open, tight-knit rural world of the Ozarks. This is McHugh’s first novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she writes, as smooth and confident as any more seasoned writer, and with an excellent grip on her readers’ emotions. Set some time aside when you start this one – I ended up canceling my weekend plans to finish it!

Grain Brain by David Perlmutter

GrainbrainBook – This book’s popularity is likely due to Dr. Perlmutter’s assertion that one’s genetic predisposition to mental aging is not set in stone, and that by altering our diets we can reduce the neurological degeneration that our parents and grandparents may have exhibited. Gluten free, low-sugar diets have become increasingly prevalent for a variety of reasons. In Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter shares compelling research linking gluten and sugar consumption to neurological degeneration such as that which occurs within dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Dr. Perlmutter has the distinction of being both a neurologist and a nutritionist, and this book recounts incidences where a change in his patients’ diets alleviated symptoms from various neurological disorders. Grain Brain is also filled with references to other researchers’ studies on the impacts of elements such as “good fats” on the brain. His main premise is that all gluten sources are damaging to the brain, including whole grain sources. More easily digested is his confidence that the consumption of “healthy” fats found in fish, nuts, and eggs, will prolong the health of our brains. Grain Brain includes a 4-week plan of healthy eating and exercise. This book will obviously appeal to anyone who is already inclined to try a low-carb, or “Paleolithic” diet. However, proponents of a diet relying heavily on whole grains, as symbolized by the USDA Food Pyramid, have been less pleased with Dr. Perlmutter’s recommendations.

 

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Book - The Storied Life of A.J. FikryA.J. Fikry is a curmudgeonly bookstore owner who lives on Alice Island. He recently has been widowed and is in a deep depression when he meets Amelia, the new sales rep from Knightley Press. He is curt with her during their first meeting and after she leaves, goes upstairs to his apartment, eats a frozen dinner and drinks until he passes out. When he awakens the next day, he discovers that the only item of value he possesses, a first edition book, has been stolen. Police Chief Lambiase takes the theft report and during the investigation, the men strike up a friendship. Lambiase is summoned back to the bookstore a short time later, because a toddler named Maya has been abandoned at the store. Fikry’s life is forever changed in the ensuing events, as he begins to discover things about himself and the people in his life. This is a charming tale, with a gentle humor, eccentric characters and observations about the unexpected paths our lives can take.   

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

princesBook – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.

This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.

I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.

Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

Live By NightBook – Live by Night by Dennis Lehane.The story begins in 1926, during prohibition. Joe Coughlin only 19 years old, the son of a prominent Boson Police captain turns his back on a strict upbringing and aspires to become an organized crime boss. He starts as an outlaw forming relationships with gangsters and dirty cops to keep distilleries and speakeasies in business. The mob then sends Coughlin to South Tampa to oversee their bootlegging operation where he falls hard for a Cuban revolutionary beauty, Graciela. As years pass, he creates a huge empire in the illegal rum trade and builds a life for himself and Graciela in Cuba.  But is he in over his head competing with ambitious ruthless men who will stop at nothing to maintain their control over cash, illegal booze, and guns? The novel is sizzling, gritty, and riveting. The movie based on this book is produced by Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio and is scheduled to be released in theaters on Christmas Day 2015. Ben Affleck also directed and will star in the film.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's DragonBook – Capt. Will Lawrence of His Majesty’s Navy is very happy with his career. When he captures a French corvette transporting a rare and precious dragon’s egg, he takes responsibility for the egg, which means being there for its hatching. Unfortunately, the little creature – who he christens Temeraire, after the ship – has taken a liking to him, and that means that Capt. Lawrence is going to have to leave the Navy and enter His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, to fight Napoleon from the back of his very own dragon.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think that the Aubrey/Maturin series is great but would be even better with dragons, and people who think the first type are crazy. If you’re the first type, this series is for you. While the first book is a fairly straightforward adventure, later books explore more parts of the world and how the presence of dragons changes them from what you’d expect. As Temeraire (and Will) learn more about how the rest of the world does things, they begin to seriously question the society in which they live.

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful MysteryBook -  I picked up this book on audio, because it was billed as one of the best mysteries on audio, it received starred reviews from Library Journal, BookList, and Publisher’s Weekly and received numerous awards including the Agatha.  I was not disappointed by this locked room mystery. It is set in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loupes on a remote Island in the wilderness of Quebec. No outsiders are allowed in the monastery of 24 monks who live a serene and very isolated life, but Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir are summoned to investigate the murder of Frère Mathieu, the monastery’s renowned choirmaster and prior. The investigation is difficult as the monks in the community haven taken a vow of silence. Ironically they have become world famous for a CD of their singing Gregorian chants. Their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as the beautiful mystery. The investigators soon find grim discords among the seemingly unified and peaceful brothers as they search for the motive and murderer.  This is the eighth book in the Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries. I now plan on reading the entire series. This book should appeal to fans of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.