City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of ThievesBook - City of Thieves is, in the author’s own words, a semi-biographical look at the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. A thief and a deserter are arrested and given an impossible choice, find a dozen eggs in a city cut off from all outside supply lines or be executed. While this is a rather weak quest, Lev and Kolya bring the city and the war to life for readers.

While most ‘modern’ authors tend to write accents out phonetically so that you know they are speaking a different language, David Benioff restructured the sentences to give them a wonderful Russian cadence. Admittedly I don’t have much experience with the Russian language, but it flowed as if I was listening to Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof speak.

For those who enjoyed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyCity of Thieves is a humanizing account of World War II that reminds you of the entire story, not just what you were taught in school.

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.

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.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetBook – With great pleasure I will be giving away free copies of the book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford on Wednesday, April 23rd (Shakespeare’s Birthday) for World Book Night. This is a beautiful, sentimental heartfelt story suitable for teens and adults. Set in Seattle during World War II, 12 year olds Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe form a friendship, drawn to each other since they are the only non-Caucasians on scholarship at a prestigious private school. Unfortunately the relationship is forbidden and Henry must keep it a secret from his family since he is Chinese and Keiko is Japanese. Henry is forced to wear a button reading “I am Chinese”   by his father, who has a deep-hatred of Japan. Japanese residents of Seattle have begun to be shipped off by the thousands to relocation centers due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Eventually, Keiko and her family are sent to an internment camp in Idaho and Henry vows to wait for her.  Forty years later, Henry learns that the Panama Hotel will be renovated and that the basement contains the belongings of many of the Japanese that were forced to leave Seattle during WW II.  His fond memories of Keiko are rekindled and he relays of his friendship  to his own son, in hopes of preventing the dysfunctional relationship he experienced with his own father.  This is a good choice for a book club and if you enjoy this novel you may want to read Jamie Ford’s new book Songs of Willow Frost.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

Book Pompeii- This historical thriller will keep you turning pages in anticipation of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  Set on the island of Pompeii in 79 A.D, hydraulic engineer Marcus Attilius is summoned to repair the aqueduct system that supplies fresh water to the residents.  Attilius discovers a blockage that threatens to deprive a large area of the empire of water, but he is also troubled by the strange environmental occurrences that may be an indication of an impending natural disaster on a massive scale. He falls in love with Corelia who supplies him with proof that something sinister is afoot on Pompeii.   As he races against the clock to make repairs, his angst increases and he is hindered by corrupt violent officials from warning the inhabitants of impending and unstoppable disaster. Will Marcus get off the island with Corelia before the volcano blows its top? This novel is well researched with rich historical details transporting us to this ancient world.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great WatersBook – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.

This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.

The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian

Jack Aubrey SeriesBook – Although I’ll read just about anything, I primarily consider myself a science fiction fan. I love the experience of exploring new worlds full of strange and unfamiliar things, people, and attitudes. Patrick O’Brien’s excellent series of Napoleonic War naval adventures scratches the same itch for me. There’s the technology, certainly – antiquated rather than futuristic, but the attention to detail is the same, and just like you don’t need to know how faster-than-light travel works in order to enjoy a science fiction story, neither do you need to understand the finer points of sailing against the wind in order to follow one of Aubrey’s fantastic chases. But there’s also the characters, a tightly-knit cast, constantly changing, of people facing physical and emotional danger of all description. The characters are what keeps me coming back to this series, again and again. (Well, and the sloth.)

The series really acts as one long book, telling the story of Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin’s friendship, from the time they meet at a concert in 1800, through a final, unfinished novel set after the Battle of Waterloo. But although the series is best appreciated in sequential order, I do sometimes recommend that for a first attempt, the reader starts with something other than the first book – Post Captain, perhaps, or The Fortune of War (one of my favorites, set during the War of 1812), or even Far Side of the World, as I did when the movie came out and I didn’t know any better. You can always go back and start over again at the beginning, and if you fall in love with the characters, you’ll probably want to anyway.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

stella bainBook – This novel begins with a compelling mystery as the main character awakens in a field hospital in Marne, France during World War I, not knowing her name or anything about herself beyond what is evident from her British nursing uniform and her American accent. This beautifully written historical fiction has the reader rooting for the courageous nurse as she forges on with nursing the wounded, pursuing threads of her identity, and ultimately facing a court trial. The audiobook is narrated by Hope Davis, and her pleasant, soothing voice matches Shreve’s spare, graceful presentation of a tragic yet intriguing story revolving around the development of psychotherapy for victims of shocking events. The courage, generosity, and intellect of individuals who aid the victims of war and prejudice are highlighted in the telling of “Stella Bain’s” story. The historical setting also provides a nostalgic backdrop for a love story that develops sweetly during this hopeful tale of rebuilding. If you enjoy this book, the library collections contain numerous novels by this award-winning author.

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

passion of artemesiaBook – The Art Institute of Chicago is currently featuring a special exhibit, Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes”  displaying her sensational painting on loan from Florence through January 09, 2014.   Artemisia was as beautiful and strong as the women in her paintings, frequently using herself as a model.  This fictionalized account of her artistic life gives readers insight of this true Renaissance woman and the obstacles and conflicts that she overcame to be one of the most famous and skilled painters of the Baroque era, a woman centuries ahead of her time. Artemisia’s mother died when she was twelve and was raised and apprenticed by her artist father, Orazio while living in Rome.  At the age of 18 she was raped by her father’s friend Agostino.  Though he is brought to trial, she ends up being publicly humiliated, shamed and betrayed by her father.  She feels that she has no other choice, but to leave Rome and agrees to marry Pietro Stiatessi, an artist in Florence. Her marriage soon develops rifts as Artemisia begins to have some success.  She wins the patronage of the Medicis and is the first woman to be elected to the Accademia dell’Arte before her husband.  She continues establishing herself as an artist, acquires more commissions and friendships with intellectuals including Galileo. Pietro is jealous of his wife’s success and they soon separate and she continues her life as a working single mother, unheard of for an admired reputable woman during that time period.  Art truly is Artemesia’s passion and Vreeland beautifully conveys that in her book. Other books by the same author include Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and others.