My Real Children by Jo Walton

my realBook – Patricia Cowen is confused. “Very confused,” it says on her medical chart most days. She forgets things. But she remembers things, too. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Now” and getting married and having his four children. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Never” and traveling in Florence and raising three children with Bee. She isn’t sure which one of them is right, or if both of them are, but she’s sure it means something.

My Real Children is one of those novels that could only be written by Jo Walton. It’s science fiction insofar as it’s about one woman and two different lives she could have had, both of them in worlds that are not exactly our own. (The split occurs sometime in the early fifties, and history progresses in sometimes surprising ways.) But the real story, the point of the story, is about Patricia – Trish in one lifetime, Pat in the other – and her life and her family. It’s a little bit about might-have-beens, but more about the small choices that you make that make big differences, both to yourself and to other people. I loved it, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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.

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.

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.

Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O’Farrell

instructions for heatwaveBook – Meet the Riordans. Gretta, a devout Irish Catholic, discovers her husband has gone missing during a crippling heat wave in 1976 England. Her three adult children gather together for the first time in years to help search for their father. Monica, the oldest daughter, is her mother’s rock and seems to have a well-ordered life. But her partner’s daughters despise her and she hides secrets that she has never faced. Her brother, Michael Francis, feels guilt over a past indiscretion and wonders if his wife, newly enrolled in community college, is having an affair. The youngest sibling, Aoife, has always had issues. She was a screaming infant and an unruly child, until finally, as an adult, she escapes to America and reinvents herself. The disappearance of their father is the catalyst that brings everyone together, and in the search for him, they discover and are forced to address the secrets and misunderstandings that have wedged between them. I listened to the audiobook of this title and was absorbed in the story and the narration by John Lee.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

cutting forBook – Cutting for Stone is a beautiful haunting epic story that will probably appeal to fans of The Kite RunnerSet in Ethiopia, the story is about conjoined twin boys Marion and Shiva Praise Stone who are born as a result of a secret love affair between a British surgeon and his surgical nurse and assistant, an Indian nun, both working at Missing Hospital near Addis Ababa. Tragically, the mother dies in childbirth and the devastated father disappears leaving the hospital and his newborn sons behind.  Hema and Ghosh, doctors from the same hospital, raise the boys as their own.  Though successfully separated at birth, the boys still have a very strong emotional bond to each other and their different personalities make them a complete soul.

The overthrow of the Ethiopian government disrupts their childhood and other events and personal choices result in the brothers drifting apart. Marion goes to the United States and becomes a resident at a hospital in the Bronx. He finds out that his biological father is a famous surgeon in the area. Shiva completes medical school in Addis Ababa and continues practicing medicine at Missing Hospital.  An event of life and death reunites the brothers with their father. The author, Abraham Verghese, was born in Ethiopia and started his medical training there.  He continues his medical career in the United States and has written other works based on his experiences.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

all girl filling stationBookThe All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion alternates between the present day story of Sookie Poole, a sweet, conservative wife of a dentist and mother of four who lives in Point Clear, Alabama and the 1940′s adventures of Fritzi Jurdabralinski, a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilot) from Pulaski, Wisconsin. Sookie receives a letter that brings unwelcome news and she discovers that the past holds secrets she never imagined. While she dodges her bossy, larger-than-life mother and fields questions from her friends and neighbors, she sets out to sort out the truth. Fritzi is a lively, determined young woman who dares to fly stunt planes, run the family service station with her sisters and train for military service. When the two stories weave together, Sookie learns that she’s braver and happier than she realized. I enjoyed learning about the WASPs and the musings of Sookie and her friends were sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Fannie Flagg has written several novels including Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe, Standing in the Rainbow and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

husbands secretBook - Cecila Fitzpatrick’s husband John-Paul has a secret. And it’s a doozy. She finds a letter he has written “To be opened only in the event of my death.” What she discovers shatters her orderly life in Sydney, Australia as a Tupperware sales rep, mother of three daughters and school volunteer. Meanwhile, Tess and her son Liam arrive in town. Tess has also received some shocking news and has fled to her hometown to figure out the next step in her life. She meets a man from her past and begins to question her own role in her marriage troubles. What lengths will we go to protect our family? How well do we ever know another person? As both women confront these issues, their lives head toward a cataclysmic conclusion. This book was a quick read with many humorous moments despite the gravity of the decisions the women face. Liane Moriarty also wrote What Alice Forgot.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

still aliceBook – Fifty-year-old Alice Howland is an accomplished Harvard psychology professor. A published author, traveling lecturer and beloved teacher, she is content with her life and work. But she begins to worry about her forgetfulness. She loses things, forgets words and then, one day when she’s out for a run, she doesn’t know where she is or how to get home. A visit to the doctor results in a devastating diagnosis: Alice has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice, her husband and three grown children must cope with the ravages of the disease. This book is told from Alice’s perspective and gave me a sense of her growing confusion, panic and sadness as the disease progressed. She tries to live in the moment, but also recognizes and mourns the loss of the life and memories that meant so much to her. Still Alice also deals with the varying reactions of her family, friends and colleagues as they struggle to address and accept the changes in Alice.

Defending Jacob

defending jacobBook – The unthinkable and disturbing has happened, a  14-year-old boy, has been brutally stabbed to death in the woods near a city park in a  small, middle-class Massachusetts town.  The boy turns out to be 14 year old Ben Rifkin, the classmate of Jacob Barber, son of Andy, who is the Assistant District Attorney. Andy focuses on a neighborhood pedophile as the chief suspect.  But soon Andy must face the unthinkable. Internet accusations posted on Facebook by Jacob’s friends and his bloody fingerprint on the victim’s clothes result in his son Jacob becoming the prime suspect.  Jacob also admits to showing off a knife to his friends. Andy finds the knife and immediately makes it disappear. But does he do it to protect his son’s innocence or hide his guilt?  Jacob’s mother, Laurie, struggles with the haunting suspicion that her son might be capable of such a horrific crime. As soon as Jacob is arrested, Andy Barber is taken off the case and suspended from his office.  He devotes himself and puts all of his resources into proving his son’s innocence.  This is a must read legal thriller and family saga.  The ending will rock your world. The author, Willam Landay, is a former DA turned writer.  His other books include Mission Flats and The Strangler. His books should appeal to fans of John Grisham and Scott Turow.  Defending Jacob is also a good selection for book clubs.