The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Romance, mystery, history, Victorian art, and rare books combine to make for an engaging read. The setting moves from the 1980s and 1990s in North Carolina and England to the Victorian era and Elizabethan England. In 1995, rare book dealer Peter Byerly has retreated from North Carolina to an English cottage after the death of his wife Amanda. Finally visiting a bookstore, he is stunned to find a Victorian watercolor portrait tucked into a book about Shakespearean forgeries. The portrait looks just like his wife, who studied Victorian art. When Amanda’s books don’t identify the artist, he is referred to an art society meeting in London, where he meets book editor Liz Sutcliffe. The mystery of the portrait and its artist are somehow connected to an Elizabethan novel Pandosto by Robert Greene, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. A copy of Pandosto with margin notes by Shakespeare and a list of people who owned the book could be proof that Shakespeare really wrote his plays; or it could be a forgery. The search puts Peter and Liz in jeopardy, while alternating chapters describe Peter and Amanda’s college years and the people who owned the copy of Pandosto. Peter’s joy in learning about rare books and his love for Amanda add depth to the story.
Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe
Mid 1980s London comes to life with Nina Stibbe’s letters home to her sister. Funny, poignant, refreshing, and thoughtful, I really enjoyed reading this memoir. At 20, Nina becomes the live-in nanny for Sam and Will Frears, who live with their mother, editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Sam has some significant health issues, and they are mentioned but not a focus of the book. Literary celebrities like Alan Bennett frequently stop by, and this makes for some unusual dinner table conversations. Great books are discussed, as well as how to swear in German. Nina’s sister sends her recipes, and some are more popular with the family than others. Nina and the boys have adventures in London, comment on Mary-Kay’s dates, and casually refer to Nina’s trouble parking the family car. Nina is encouraged to consider college, and struggles with the recommended reading list in English literature. Even after she starts school, she maintains her close connection with the family.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This is a well researched book by author Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist at Harvard, on a topic that is true for more than two hundred thousand people in the U.S. alone–that figure does not include their loved ones, who early onset Alzheimer’s Disease also severely impacts. Early onset Alzheimer’s is the label given to people in their 30′s, 40′s and 50′s who are stricken with this genetically inherited neurodegenerative disorder. This fictional story of Alice (who seems to represent a composite of many real individuals) is heartbreaking–but utterly fascinating. Its intrigue factor is one reason readers might stay with the story even though, arguably, it pushes “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath down the list of depressing reads! Perhaps what will draw you into this story the most is that readers only know what Alice is experiencing through her sense of recognition. So when this once brilliant, vibrant and formidable protagonist recognizes the person who helped save her from walking into traffic as “the kind stranger,” you, the reader, have to discern that this “kind man” is actually her husband based on the fact that a moment earlier she was holding hands with him and was fully aware of who he is and what he means to her. Although the author does an amazing job in reminding us that to be human is so much more than our perceived intellect…and that love is the one thing we require to feel whole (and Alice is fully capable of loving and of being loved until the story’s end), there is no escaping the sadness of this novel.
I hope other readers feel differently and instead see this as a story that, while tragic, is still one of triumph (I did see that to some degree, but just not as much as I wish I could have).
Lisa Genova is the New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice, Left Neglected, and Love Anthony. Check out her website at http://lisagenova.com/
Suggested read alike authors include Jodi Picoult whose novels revolve around everyday people coping with difficult circumstances and controversial issues; Oliver Sacks, neurologist, and author of numerous best-selling books that were inspired by case studies of people with neurological disorders. You may even want to stop in and check out the award winning movies “Awakenings” and “The Music Never Stopped” based on Sack’s printed works!
Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
Jane and David Vincent have been travelling with Jane’s family but now set out on their own to visit Venice and Murano in an alternate version of the early 1800s where magic works. The Vincents work with light and sound to create moving scenes called glamurals. Their ship is attacked by pirates, and David is injured. They arrive on the island of Murano with no money, documents, or luggage, and David’s friend Lord Byron is away. A banker from the ship offers them rooms and arranges for a line of credit while they look for glassmakers who will work with them to create glass globes with magic. When it appears that the banker has swindled them, the Vincents work with a puppeteer and a convent to unmask the criminals, clear their names, and get their papers back. Magic, Lord Byron, and a gondola race are all included, along with some romance. Their previous adventures are related in Without a Summer.
The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay
During World War II in England, every citizen was expected to do their part in the war effort. Imagine that your job was so secret that you couldn’t tell your family or friends anything about it, or why you weren’t in the armed forces. Then imagine keeping that secret for 30 years. That’s exactly what the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, 50 miles northwest of London, did. Mathematicians, linguists, historians, young aristocrats, engineers, and Wrens were all summoned to Bletchley Park, asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, and worked to break the enigma code the Nazis used in the war for their communications. It was extremely difficult to break one code, and it kept changing. Electronic machines, the Bombe and the Colossus, were developed to help with this work. Assigned rooms in private homes, working different shifts in cold huts in spartan conditions on the grounds of a stately home, eating food that was less than wonderful, several thousand workers, including some Americans, did amazing work. They probably shortened the war by two years, and kept supply convoys from being attacked at sea. The workers, mostly young, also used their creativity and energy to start a number of clubs, from sports to drama, and a number of romances led to marriage. Now a museum, visit Bletchley Park’s website for more information. For a similar book set in Tennessee, read Girls of Atomic City.
Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke
In the 17th culinary mystery by Joanne Fluke, Hannah Swensen and Lisa, her partner at the Cookie Jar bakery and coffee shop, haven’t had a mystery to solve in four months. While Lake Eden, Minnesota, is a small town, Hannah has a gift (or curse) for finding bodies. Unfortunately, an accident during a thunderstorm leaves an unidentified man dead. The only identifying feature is a diamond on one tooth. Hannah, along with her family and friends, try to identify the man. Hannah wins a large and unexpected prize in a raffle, which fascinates her cat, Moishe. Also, Hannah and her sisters Andrea and Michelle are trying to plan their mother Delores’ wedding to longtime beau Doc, but Delores changes her mind about the menu, flowers, and dresses every couple of days. Along with recipes for blackberry pie, blue apple muffins, and triple chocolate cookies, the reader enjoys another charming visit to Lake Eden. If you like to start at the beginning of the series, look for Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, but I think you can start with any of her books. Each book has several recipes, and there is also a companion cookbook, Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook. Enjoy!
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien is back home in west suburban Franklin, Illinois, working at a Vietnamese restaurant with her mother and grandfather after college. She has finished her Ph.D. in American Literature but hasn’t yet landed a teaching job. Her mother is never satisfied, while her brother Sam wants money and freedom instead of taking over the restaurant. Lee’s grandfather tells stories about life in Vietnam, and of an older American lady named Rose who visited the café there and left behind a gold pin engraved with a house on a lake.
Lee has always been fascinated with the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially as her family moved frequently around the Midwest, and wonders if the lady was Rose Wilder Lane. Maybe the pin really is the one mentioned in These Happy Golden Years. She impulsively decides to look into the writings and life of Rose and her mother Laura, and travels from Iowa to Missouri, San Francisco to Connecticut, looking for answers about Rose, and about her own dysfunctional family. She meets a man who may be the (fictional) grandson of Rose. There is much about Vietnamese food, Asian buffets, and the life of a young academic who’s finding her place in the world. Having recently read another well-researched novel about Rose, Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, it was fascinating to read about other parts of Rose’s life and her writings. The author, a Vietnamese immigrant who goes by Beth, is married with two children and has written two other books, but clearly remembers well the uncertainty of life after college, wondering about future careers, family, and home. I’m putting her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on my list of books to read.
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
If you enjoy reading about art or Paris, this book may be appealing. To begin with, I found the title a bit misleading. The main characters are Impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and I was expecting a grand romance. Degas gives Mary painting advice, and they are friends from time to time, when he isn’t being excessively critical or rude. Occasionally they are more than friends, but mostly not. The author’s focus is on painting, the artists’ community in 19th century Paris, Paris itself, and the illnesses and vision problems of the characters. Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet have a shared past, and Mary’s parents and sister Lydia, subject of many of Mary’s paintings, are the other featured characters, especially after they move from Philadelphia to live with Mary in Paris. The summary of the last forty years of Mary Cassatt’s life and work and the lives of her family and colleagues at the end was too compressed, but overall the book really kept my interest.
Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen
A year after her husband’s death, Kate Pheris realizes that she’s been all but asleep, and that her mother-in-law Cricket is taking over her life, and her 8-year-old daughter, Devin. Packing after selling their house, Kate and Devin find an old postcard from Kate’s Great Aunt Eby, inviting her to visit again. Not yet ready to move in with Cricket, Kate and Devin head for Lost Lake, a resort camp in Georgia, where Kate spent a memorable childhood summer. The author of Garden Spells and three other novels likes to put a touch of magic in each of her books. An alligator “speaks” to Devin at Lost Lake, perhaps with the voice of a boy who died long ago. Kate’s Aunt Eby is planning to sell Lost Lake, which is run down, but with cabins full of antiques she used to collect. Her cook, Lisette, communicates only in writing, and makes it clear that she’s not leaving the lake. Summer regulars return for a farewell visit and party, including Selma, who can charm men into marrying her, at least for a while, and Lisette’s very shy suitor. Jack, the boy from Kate’s summer at Lost Lake, now runs a pizzeria and a handyman business. Lots of quirky characters, an appealing southern Georgia setting, and a hint of magic make for an appealing read.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
This is a big book, 713 pages. But it is a fantastic read if you are willing to put in the time and effort. It took me six weeks to read it. I could take another six weeks and get just as much out of it. The novel consists of five books. The first book is set just after the events of the Humanitarian US invasion of Haiti, in 1995. Dottie (Dorothy) Chambers is the eponymous woman of the title. She believes that she has lost her soul or “conscience” after all the dark deeds that she has committed, during her many activities as a covert spy, working mainly for her father, Steve Chambers, who is a spy master with a dark past and intimately complicit in the transformation of Dottie from doting daughter and star student to undercover spy and rouge agent. She is in Haiti to consult with a famous “Shaman” about whether through some dark Voodoo ritual she can be made a whole person again. Of course we know better. Dottie is the most interesting and tormented female character I have encountered since reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
We learn through the rest of the other four books about the backstory of Dottie and her father. We visit World War II ravaged Bosnia, the mysterious city of Istanbul in 1986, and finally Haiti. There is also a lot of stuff here about CIA misdeeds and Special Forces shenanigans.
Bob Shacochis was a contributing editor to Harper’s, which sent him to Haiti in 1994 to cover the uprising against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the island nation’s first democratically elected President, and the subsequent intervention by U.S. Army Special Forces, with whom Shacochis traveled for nearly a year covering the invasion.
Booklist 2013 Top of the List “Editors’ Choice Award”.