A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discoveryBook – A Discovery of Witches begins in the heart of academia in Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a bright young scholar, Diana, is researching centuries-old manuscripts for a presentation on the origins of science. The author’s detailed descriptions of the atmospheric library and Oxford’s history laden campus set a very pleasant tone for this story of romance, magic, history, and suspense. Diana has suppressed all connections to her family’s involvement with magic and is therefore taken by surprise when her contact with an enchanted manuscript on alchemy in the Bodleian library attracts the unwanted attention of a diverse supernatural community. This community includes another professor, a vampire studying genetics, named Matthew. A tentative courtship between Diana and Matthew includes yoga classes, carefully planned meals, scholarly conversation, and the finest wines. The realistic details of these romantic engagements obviously draw deeply from the life of author Deborah Harkness, who is a history professor, recipient of numerous fellowships, and an award-winning wine blogger. Whether Matthew is trustworthy, or actually one of the numerous entities jeopardizing Diana, is a mystery to be revealed. The second book in the series, Shadow of Night, is even more a work of historical fiction, and reveals the author’s knowledge of Elizabethan England.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

tale forBook – Ruth is a writer in a rut. That is until she finds a Hello Kitty lunch box, wrapped carefully in plastic bags off the coast of British Colombia, thought to have been carried across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 tsunami. Inside are letters, a decorative wrist watch, and a diary of a teenage girl named Nao.

Nao lives in Japan, and after years of bullying and not being accepted, she has decided to kill herself. But not before she tells the story of her great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is over 100 years old.

Ruth’s life becomes engulfed with Naos. Questions arise: Is Nao still alive? Is Jiko still alive? Can Ruth do anything to help Nao and her family?

This novel allows the audience to read Nao’s journal with Ruth. We solve mysteries and gain new information together, which makes for a rather exciting read. A Tale for the Time Being has been nominated for various prizes and awards, and also won the LA Times Book Award for best fiction of 2013.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

astonishBook – Joan has been studying ballet since she was a young girl. Her best friend in high school, Jacob Bintz, is in love with her, but Joan is intent on following her dreams of a dance career. She travels to Paris and becomes entranced with a Russian dancer named Arslan Rusakov when he performs during a rehearsal. They have a brief, intense affair and Joan evaluates her life and ambitions. As the story moves ahead, Joan’s future becomes entangled with her past in surprising ways. We get to know Joan’s family and friends and witness the complicated way relationships evolve and shift during their lives. I enjoyed this story as I learned more about the demands of ballet, the choices that performers may face and the way that talent can emerge and impact lives.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

louisa may alcottMovie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.

Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea

ernestMovieErnest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.

Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaBook – This is the courageous and adventurous coming of age story of 15 year old Dell Parsons. The book opens with, “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” This is Dell’s reflection, 50 years later, as he retires from his teaching profession.

The novel begins with the Parsons family moving to Great Falls, Montana in 1956.  Dell has a twin sister, Berner, who is bigger and stronger than he is and while Berner contemplates running away with her boyfriend, Dell immerses himself in chess and dreams of beekeeping. Bev Parson decides to leave the Air Force at the age of 37 and attempts many jobs and schemes to support the family.   In desperation, he convinces his wife that he has a foolproof plan and that they should rob a bank in North Dakota.  The parents are jailed for the bank robbery and the twins are left to fend for themselves.

Berner runs away to West Coast and Dell is taken to Saskatchewan by a family friend and turned over to Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious Harvard educated American who is lawless and has violent tendencies. Dell is put to work and most of it is hard and unsavory. He finds himself living a very barren and lonely existence. This haunting work of psychological fiction shows how Dell adjusts to his new circumstances and makes the best the out of almost hopeless situation. This beautifully written story by Richard Ford is a must read.

 

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!