The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

barterBook – Bridget used to work as a lawyer; now she stays at home with baby Julia while her computer-programmer husband Mark supports their little family. Bridget and Julia aren’t alone in the house while he’s gone, though. There’s a shadowy figure, a ghost that creeps through the rooms. Mark can’t see the ghost, but Bridget is all too sure it’s real.

A hundred years ago, Rebecca is the daughter of a doctor, and although she’s unsure she chooses to marry a farmer, an old friend, and become a farm wife. She struggles with her new life and fights with her husband almost constantly. Their life together may be interesting, but it’s anything but happy.

While alternating between the stories of Bridget and Rebecca gives some hints about the nature of the ghost that haunts Bridget, it remains a little unclear just what the connection between the two women really is. I found I enjoyed that; I like a little mystery with my scariness. I also liked that neither of the two main characters were really, well, nice. Rebecca is profoundly selfish, while Bridget can’t stop herself from looking down on her friends. That doesn’t mean they aren’t likeable, though – Bridget’s devotion to her daughter is extremely moving, and Rebecca is caught in an impossible situation that’s hard not to empathize with. I was enthralled by both of their stories, and I only wish I could have learned a little bit more about them.

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

orchardistBook – William Talmadge is a lonely orchardist tending acreages of apricots and apples at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest.  His life is forever changed when two pregnant girls decide to take refuge on his property.  He feels protective of these young women, since he is still haunted by his sister’s disappearance 50 years ago when she was a teenager. He slowly builds trust and a relationship with sisters Della and Jane, but tragic consequences  leave him unexpectedly caring for Jane’s baby as she flees  and tries to confront and take revenge on the ghost of her past. Talmadge is heartsick at her leaving and works at her redemption as he strives to protect her from her from the psychological traumas she had suffered.    Set in the early 20th century this story gives a great insight into the hardships and lawlessness of the old West. Beautifully written, The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin explores the complexity of human nature.  This book has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus and is a great choice for book groups.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

codeBook - Code Name Verity follows the World War II adventures of two young Scottish women.  Sensible Maddie, who grew up in her grandfather’s bike shop, has a skill with machines matched only by her love of aeronautics.  As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force she mostly flies supply planes, but her missions become a lot more interesting once she meets Queenie, the girl with many names.  Queenie is fearless and funny, brilliant and aristocratic—and a spy.  Thrown together under extraordinary circumstances, it isn’t long before the girls form a fierce friendship.  When Maddie’s plane is shot down over occupied France and Queenie is captured on a mission, however, both girls will find their strength, and their bond, tested to the limit.

Told through letters and documents written by both young women, Code Name Verity introduces two equally vivid lead characters whose affection for each other makes them jump off the page.  Elizabeth Wein does an extraordinary job of building tension and maintaining the novel’s pace, making it hard to put down.  Code Name Verity functions equally well as an action-packed war story and as a coming-of-age novel, but for me the absolute highlight is the friendship between the girls—perhaps the single best female friendship I have ever read.  There are mentions of off-screen torture that may be uncomfortable for some, and readers are definitely advised to keep their tissues handy, but the depth of emotion and exquisite writing in this top-notch story make it well worth the ride.

 

 

 

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

strangeBook – Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect. This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniBook – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.

China Dolls by Lisa See

china dollsBook – Meet Helen, Grace and Ruby – young women from very different backgrounds. Each fascinating with her own set of baggage and secrets.  However, they all share the same dream of fame and the three become fast friends working as dancers at the glamorous Forbidden City Nightclub in San Francisco in 1938 just as the World’s fair is set to open and rumors of war circulate.  The story spans 50 years and the girls tell their own stories through alternating voices.  They share in each other’s ups and downs and rely on one another through unexpected challenges and changes in financial situations.

Working at the prestigious club, these strong and independent women are looked upon as delicate “China Dolls” dressed in beautiful glittering costumes and makeup. They all hit bumps on their road to stardom, but manage to overcome the obstacles. But their bond of friendship is jeopardized with the bombing of Pearl Harbor that results in betrayal and the revelation of hidden secrets.

Well researched by author Lisa See this is a rich story of dreams, relationships, and the endurance of the human spirit.

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.