It’s so lovely when a novel can turn a well-worn trope into a fresh, lively story. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger turns cliches into something more in Her Fearful Symmetry. The story follows 21 year old twins Julia and Valentina, who inherit their aunt Elspeth’s London flat and fortune on the condition that they live in the dwelling, without their parents or any other chaperone, for one year. The catch: Elspeth, mute and invisible, has clung to her flat and haunts it – and she’s getting stronger every day. Don’t groan! It sounds horribly cliched – identical twins; an inheritance contingent upon ridiculous demands; London; ghosts – but it’s so much more than it seems. Elspeth is the estranged twin sister of Julia and Valentina’s mother, Edie; the elder sisters have a history of secrets that Niffenegger unravels throughout the tale. Even more impressive is the host of delightful secondary characters: Martin, an obsessive-compulsive neighbor who writes crossword puzzles for a living, and his estranged wife Marijke (pronounced Mah-RYE-Kuh); Robert, a cemetery historian and Elspeth’s former lover; even the white kitten the twins adopt has personality and verve. They call him “The Little Kitten of Death.”

It’s a beautiful, unusual tale that unfolds slowly and doesn’t pander to the reader. Both of Niffenegger’s novels tell the stories of ordinary, although perhaps quite unusual, people who must find a way to navigate a frightening, supernatural situation. She tells the tale at the pace she wants, rather than dropping in action sequences and extra dialog where they don’t belong. If you liked the style of The Time Traveler’s Wife, you’ll be pulled in by this ghostly, ethereal tale. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was excellent in that format; a perfect companion for rainy springtime commutes!

The audiobook version of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is, for me, the ideal audiobook. It’s easy to pick up the narrative’s thread  after a day or a week if you just listen to it in your car.  Isaacson writes in a straightforward, journalistic style, accessible for listeners as well as readers.

It’s both fascinating in terms of the story of Steve Jobs as a person and as a  genius of electronic aesthetics. You learn a lot about computers,  design theory, and how to pull extremely clever pranks and practical jokes.

Isaacson presents a picture of a man with great flaws and immense talents. At the end of book, the listener is still not able to draw a pat conclusion about his character. The last part is, of course, painful to hear –  as Isaacson tells the story of a life and spirit cut tragically short.

The History of Love is a bittersweet novel that tells the intertwined stories of Alma Singer and Leo Gursky, a teenage girl and an old man whose lives collide under extraordinary circumstances.

When Alma explores her namesake, the main character of the book-within-a-book also titled “The History of Love,” she discovers a dense tapestry of love, heartbreak, and friendship that centers around another Alma, Leo Gursky, her deceased father, her bereft mother, an unknown writer from Poland by way of Chile, and the famous American author Isaac Moritz. Nicole Krauss makes this potentially convoluted tale feel truly magical by illuminating the long, tangled strings of time and events that bring her characters together. There are few detours from the plot and no wasted words, so the story is fully explored and feels deeper than its 272 pages. It’s sweet and sad and thought provoking, but doesn’t carry any depressing baggage to sour your mood. The ending is uplifting without being tidy and perfect.

I selected this book for my book club and I was delighted to see quotations from its pages popping up in my fellow members’ status updates and conversations. There are a lot of beautiful language moments and highly quotable passages (“her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – *swoons*), which help make the book such a joy to read.

Krauss is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer, and their novels make lovely companions. If you loved his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or  Everything Is Illuminated, you will fall for The History of Love, and vice versa. Both authors employ lyrical language to explore the topic of Jewish history (to put it broadly) through the eyes of fictional writers. In Everything is Illuminated, the protagonist is a writer who travels throughout eastern Europe looking for the history of his family and their village. In The History of Love, every major character and almost every minor character are writers in one form or another. Both books are so beautiful that it’s hard to decide which one I liked better, but either or both would make a great springtime read.

First of all, don’t attempt to read the last third of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in public. Find somewhere quiet and private so that you can read uninterrupted (because you won’t be able to stop) and where you can sob without alarming others (because unless you have a heart of stone, you’re going to cry) On the other hand, don’t let that warning scare you off – this book is also laugh-out-loud funny. It’s raw and honest and sweet and poignant and you’ll come out the other side a little different for it.

16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has never been anything other than terminal since her diagnosis; treatments have extended her life, but there is no cure. She no longer attends school, her best friends are her parents and she has to carry an oxygen tank with her at all times. Her path is set. Then Augustus Waters – hot boy she meets at Cancer Kids Support Group – bursts into her life, and that path takes on new and completely unexpected turns both heartbreaking and hilarious. A life well lived isn’t defined by quantity; it’s defined by quality.

Hazel and Augustus find common ground beyond their illness; they laugh and bicker and watch movies together and share adventures. They fall in love. They grapple with big questions and support their friends and each other. They live the days they’re given. “It is a good life, Hazel Grace” says Augustus. And it is.

The plot here is not particularly groundbreaking or unusual – the probable outcome is fairly predictable – but the characters and their stories will keep you riveted and will stay with you long after you put the book down. Hazel and Augustus are amazing of course, but the supporting characters are also wonderful, especially their friend Issac and Hazel’s parents. There is no romanticized stereotype of the “brave cancer patient.” The people here are real – funny and sad and inquisitive and so angry, struggling with the Big Questions but also not waiting around for death. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t been touched by cancer or other serious illness in their life – either yourself, a family member or a close friend or maybe all three – and you’ll recognize these emotions as real and honest. This book takes on the fear and the unknown, acknowledges them and then does battle with them. It’s a battle well worth joining.


If you enjoy P.G. Wodehouse, you will love Simon Brett’s newest mystery, Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter  Blotto is even more clueless than the aristocratic Bertie Wooster.

While Wooster has his butler, Jeeves,  Blotto is also lucky enough to have a  much smarter sidekick.  In this case, the handsome son of the Duke of Tawcaster (pronounced taster) is guided by his sister, Twinks. She is not only smart, but beautiful and loves to use her analytical skills to solve mysteries. In this book, she feels fortunate to have a dead body right in her own home, Tawcaster Towers. Her mother, the Duchess, forces the local constable to spirit away the dead body before her dinner party adjourns for cigars.

Britain’s ruling class is parodied in a cheerfully absurdist writing style, and the time between the two world wars seems refreshingly innocent.

Did you know pizza was a patriotic treat invented to display the colors of the Italian flag under Queen Margherita? Hence, Pizza Margherita. In fact, over there in the roots of original pizza, there are only a couple ingredients, and there are now very protective regulations about its creation and service. What, no Taco or Supreme? I must eat it all the the restaurant…no leftovers? They’re not playing around!

Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day  by Jeff Hertzberg — what is that about? Though I haven’t given it full lab work, I suppose it is feasible after the author’s caveats.

You’ve premixed a big batch of dough (eight 12” pies) ahead of time and stored it in your fridge, where it will keep well as a living, breathing, yeasty organism for up to a couple weeks.  You’ve preheated the oven to 500 degrees. You’ve rolled the dough out by hand super thin.

When ready to rock, claw out a wad of that goo, sprinkle with a few yum-yums and slip it off your pizza peel onto the white-hot stone.

The simple genius of it is, even with your most unsatisfactory efforts you’ve STILL got a pizza for pretty much no money. Five pounds of flour is a little over a dollar.

The author mentions in the forward there is a remarkable dearth of recipe books focusing exclusively on pizza. While it could use more photos, there are a lot of great ideas in here, even if you’re not going to pursue the five minute-approach.

Try a topcoat of tomato slices when people are foisting them on you. How about corn or rye flour in the mix when you want a hint of a Reuben sandwich or tortilla taste?

I saved someone else’s bread maker from the landfill and run it on half a cycle. It isn’t five minutes, but I’m not exactly being gouged 24 dollars either.  It’s funny how the barometer for culinary forgiveness gets fudged when it was your hands kneading the dough.

Little Bee offers a lot to talk about, but without a lot of substance. It exhibits a weird tension between visceral and twee, with its pretty cover, gimmicky blurb, Dickensian coincidences, and gritty portrayal of humanitarian crises in western Africa. It’s a book that doesn’t make you decide between ‘drama of unimaginable cruelty and violence’ and ‘saga of suburban ennui and infidelity’ – it just has both, and by virtue of that uniqueness, it’s already worthy of discussion. Additionally, the sadness of the subject matter and its real-life inspiration make this a heart wrenching book that will absolutely give book clubs fodder for great discussion.

There’s a lot of good in Little Bee; it’s snappy and readable, even beautiful in its language at times. Its setting contrasts the familiarity of London with the unknown of its asylum-seekers and Nigeria’s oil conflict in a surprisingly effective way. But there are lots of negatives too: the plot has turns so contrived you’ll wince, and Little Bee herself is so perfectly perfect that her nobility can be tiresome. Few of the characters are memorable and even fewer are sympathetic.

It also suffers from the plight of Changed Title Syndrome, wherein the publishers change the original title in an attempt to appeal to American audiences (this also famously happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – because presumably, American kids would never stoop to read something with a word as dull as ‘philosopher’ in the title). In this case, the wonderfully apt and evocative title “The Other Hand” was rewritten to the rather plain and accessible “Little Bee.” Rather than calling attention to the central metaphor and most vivid scene of the book, the new title simply names the main character, and it’s rather banal by comparison.

“Little Bee” is an unusual, readable book that, while imperfect, would make a great choice for book clubs (provided all members are comfortable with some gritty, violent scenes).