Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead (the first mystery in the Bess Crawford series) has far too much life and vigor for the god-awful cover design it’s been dealt. It’s really a hideous cover: the image, the colors, the fonts, they’re all drab and uninteresting. But if you can look past them, this is an engaging mystery novel with a heroine anyone would love.
Bess Crawford is a gentleman’s daughter and an Army nurse in the Great War (if you’re thinking of Lady Sybil Crawley right now, you’re not alone!). She’s injured when the hospital ship Britannic is sunk, and during her convalescent leave, she visits the family of Arthur Graham, a wounded soldier she befriended, to deliver the deathbed message he begged her to pass on to his brother. What she finds in the Graham hometown of Owlhurst is a web of secrets and lies that the all-too-British neighbors have happily swept under the rug while they keep calm and carry on.
Bess is in-demand in Owlhurst for her nursing skills, and before long she is pressed into duty caring for a shell-shocked soldier and a possible lunatic. The effect of witnessed horrors and repressed violent memories on the mind is a big part of this novel, which is as much psychiatric as it is suspenseful. In a time when mental health was imperfectly understood, Bess’s intuitively modern understanding of the way our brains work is a mark in her favor.
While you’re waiting (and waiting… and waiting … ) for Downton Abbey to come to US shores next January, this novel can help fill the gap. Its shared setting, dealings with the same issues (the affect of the war on families back home), and the similarities between Sybil and Bess will keep you in the mindset of Downton while you wait for season 3.
If the slowly lengthening nights and cooling winds have you longing for the perfect title to take with you under the covers, check out any one of these lush, engrossing novels.
In Amanda Coplin’s dense debut novel The Orchardist, an orchard farmer called Talmadge has been tending the same grove of fruit trees in the foothills of the Cascades for half a century. His life is changed forever by the appearance of two young sisters and the violent men who trail them. This turn-of-the-century America is as wild as it can be: a nation where solitude is genuine and there truly are places that the law just doesn’t reach.
The Crimson Petal and the White offers a lurid, intoxicating look at the oft-visited streetwalkers, orphans, and gentle ladies of Victorian England. From the high to the low, the people who make up this fabled society are brought together through the dreams of a surprisingly well-read young prostitute named Sugar. Author Michael Faber invokes the gas-lit ambiance of that era but tinges his narrative with an irresistible modernity that makes this novel unique.
Margaret Atwood is my favorite author. You probably know her for her famous dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, but forget all about that and read The Blind Assassin instead. In this Booker Prize winner, Atwood traces the history of two sisters: Laura Chase, a novelist who dies mysteriously in her twenties, and Iris Chase, who recounts their story as an octegenarian. There is a novel within this novel, written by Laura; within Laura’s novel, there’s a novel within a novel within a novel: a science fiction tale called “The Blind Assassin” as told to Laura by her lover. It sounds impossibly convoluted, but it just works – Atwood’s genius isn’t just plotting, but stunning language: years later, sentences from this gorgeous book will still be rattling around in your brain. It’s unforgettable.
When you reach a certain level of notoriety and authorial success, your books stop being a publishing gamble and start being a given. Without even trying, Little, Brown &Co. are going to make a mint on Rowling’s newest offering, and they knew it from the day the contract was inked. In the same way that any book with James Patterson’s name on the cover will top all the charts (even if it’s mostly written by someone else), any book Rowling published was fated to succeed, no matter how dull it was. It sounds a little cynical, and it is – but there’s a silver lining, too. These blockbusters pave the way for publishers to take a risk on newer authors with smaller print runs and no guaranteed successes; for every book like The Casual Vacancy, you get a crack at a few dozen unknowns, little unlikely gems like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The other privilege – or perhaps curse – about this level of fame is the relationship you have with your editor. When you are a bona fide brilliant author with millions upon millions of your books in print, when you are a household name, when a character of your invention is shorthand for an entire cultural movement, who’s going to read your manuscript and tell you it’s just TOO DARN LONG? Certainly, nobody had that conversation with Joanne Rowling, whose first novel for adults uses 500 pages to tell the story of…a city council election. (Do you remember what other incredible feats of storytelling she’s managed to shoehorn into 500 pages, or even less? I do.) She has a lot of talent, especially for humor and dialog and characterization; she can inhabit and bring to life many different personalities and create unique, interesting, multi-dimensional characters. She’s just let her talent and her vision run away with her.
Pagford is a small English town; one of its city councillors has just died young and unexpectedly. Rowling tells us what follows through the eyes of no less than seventeen independent characters (and those are just the ones I could remember off the top of my head). That viewpoint is always in flux; in one paragraph you see the inner turmoil of teenaged Gaia, and in the next the thoughts belong to her mother Kay; on the next page of the same chapter, you’re in the head of a totally different person in a different family. It’s not easy to follow; I was halfway through before I could confidently tell Miles apart from Colin and Tessa apart from Kay. This constant shifting and the wide variety of inner monologues does provide the sturdiest backbone of the novel in showing how, no matter how petty or inconsiderate or mean or low our actions may seem, all people are virtuous in their own eyes, or are merely held hostage to their circumstances.
The jacket copy describes this election as a “war,” but I wouldn’t apply that term to sullen teenagers playing pranks and old women ramping up their catty gossip and a few hundred people voting in a city council election. I’d just call it everyday life, and I don’t think everyday life needs this many point of view characters or this many pages. If this 500 page novel were half that long, it could be brilliant and beautiful – instead it’s bloated and boring.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels, but don’t worry: since they’re written for a YA/mature child audience, it’s not nearly the kind of time commitment that most fantasy series are. The first novel follows Lyra Belacqua, a precocious 12 year old girl who lives in a universe parallel to our own: in her world, each human is accompanied at all times by an animal daemon – a physical manifestation of their soul and a lifelong companion. For children like Lyra, the form of the daemon is in flux, taking the shapes of different animals depending on the person’s mood or circumstances. Lyra is a wonderful fantasy heroine: she’s tough and smart and relatable, and her journey isn’t just an adventure but a moving tale of growing up. She sets out to rescue a friend who’s been kidnapped by the mysterious, possibly malevolent Magisterium; on the way, she meets gypsies and witches and powerful Magisterium officials, and learns how to use a device called an Alethiometer that can answer any question with absolute truth.
The next two novels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, follow Lyra’s further journey to fulfill her destiny. The trilogy has been banned or challenged on the grounds of Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint, and Violence. To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.
If you adore Harry Potter, do yourself a favor and check out Harry Potter: Page to Screen, the Complete Filmmaking Journey. It’s a big, heavy, hardcover behemoth absolutely stuffed with photographs and text from all 8 Harry Potter films. Interviews with the cast and crew give insider information, and viewpoints from the set designers, costume designers, directors and actors show how meticulously the details of these movies were planned. From the small things – Hermione doesn’t wear red or green, as “those are Ron colors,” the story behind Harry’s blue eyes (a controversial change from the books’ oft-referenced bottle green), and the talon design of Bellatrix’s wand – to the big things: hours of makeup for dozens of actors cast as goblins; the complex design of the set for Snape’s final scene; the massive miniatures built to stand in for Hogwarts castle, and the equally massive undertaking of covering those miniatures with “snow” for the winter scenes (and then meticulously brushing and cleaning that “snow” away before the salt it was made of could corrode the material beneath).
Whether you’re into the boy wizard or just into movie magic, you’ll adore this book. It inspired me to re-read the novels and re-watch the movies, which of course launched a relapse of full-on Potter mania at my house! These are some of the other library items I’ve been checking out:
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik is a lighthearted, escapist novel, and part one of a series. I downloaded it from WILBOR and read it on my kindle, though many Rivershare libraries own paper or audio copies. If you enjoy alternate history or dragons, the Temeraire series is your new best friend! In Novik’s world, the Napoleonic wars are fought on the backs of dragons, sentient aerial warships that are manned by not just a single rider, but a crew of trained aviators. Throw in a bit of Austenian comedy-of-manners, a touch of Serious Military Jargon (it’s much pleasanter when it’s applied to a dragon instead of a ship or some other boringly realistic war machine), and finish with a sharply interesting main character and you have a summertime winner.
That sharply interesting main character is not Laurence, the human whose point of view we read: it’s Temeraire, the dragon he befriends and rides. Temeraire is vastly intelligent, aloof, regal, and enigmatic, but he’s also kind, deliberate, and deeply loyal. His motivations are largely a mystery, as Novik chooses to spend more time on aerial action, b-stories, and descriptive passages than on the depths of the dragon’s psyche. Why would a dragon, with immense strength and intelligence and free will – not to mention the occasional ability to spit acid or breathe fire – choose to remain subservient to humans and fight in their wars? Why would a species capable of creating its own society lack almost any interest in doing so? These are the questions His Majesty’s Dragon leaves hanging. There are five additional novels in this series to tackle them!
Headed to London for the Olympics? First of all : jealous! Second : I hope you have tickets/hotel/transportation already arranged – the grand old city is bound to be bursting at the seams. Still looking for some tips on how to occupy your time between watching the handball semi-finals and the whitewater rafting qualifying? Here are some books that will give you lots of ideas, whether you’re in town for the Games or just dreaming of visiting someday.
DK Eyewitness Travel London – Offers maps, history, and general features, detailed guides through the various areas of the city. and suggestions for specific walks. Also provides a street finder and hints on shops and markets, entertainment, children’s interests, transportation. Colorful photographs adorn every page.
Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places by Christopher Somerville – Storm-battered headlands, hidden waterfalls, tumbledown cottages, the ruins of haunted chapels deep in forgotten woods, medieval Green Men, old mines and quarries being recaptured by nature, rusting sea-forts tottering on sandbanks. Britain and Ireland are full of wild places, some remote, many often astonishingly close to civilization.
Berlitz Handbook of Great Britain – What sets this guide apart is the illuminating Unique Experiences section which are packed full of practical advice on how to make the most of all the opportunities unique to Britain – from visiting royal residences to watching a soccer match, or exploring Brontë country in Yorkshire.
Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in London– Features walking tours of London including the Royal Parks, Jack the Ripper’s trail in the East End, a walk along the Thames, literary themed walks that feature the inspirational settings ranging from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
These true tales range from the funny and flippant to the gritty and gruesome. Give nonfiction audio a try! You may find that nonfiction (which doesn’t always have a strong narrative thread you need to follow) is ideal for listening in stops and starts.
- Devil in the White City by Erik Larson; this gripping tale of a serial killer at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is so spellbinding, you’ll want to extend your commute to hear more!
- Bossypants by Tina Fey, read by the author: this book is shriekingly funny. Truly one of the best audio books around – Fey is witty and direct, never sappy, and always gut-bustingly hilarious.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; a universally praised book that mixes science with history and family drama.
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling Lexie reviewed the book, and I agree with her: this book is FUNNY. You’ll want to be best friends with Mindy by the end.
- I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron: Ephron’s candid observations on life and getting older are enjoyable and crisply humorous.
- Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: The gritty true story of the tribulations of Abduhlraman Zeitoun and his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
- At Home by Bill Bryson, read by the author: see my review for a longer rant on the excellence of this very excellent book.
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, read by the author: You know Sarah Vowell’s voice already – she vocalized for Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles. You’ll also recognize the many luminaries/musicians/comedians/TV personalities who make cameos in her delectable book – Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, for example. Oh, and it’s full of intelligent and interesting essays about history and American culture, too.
For this segment of Amazing Audiobooks, I’m focusing on the behemoth novels that fill up disc after disc of listening material. These exciting, immersive *bugcrushers will eat up time spent on the road, on the treadmill, or doing chores – listen while you cook dinner or fold the laundry; listen when your knitting needles click or break out your headphones when you want to keep reading but your partner insists on lights out!
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, read for you by John Lee: A beloved gargantuan novel of the people building a cathedral in 1100s England – filled with mystery, suspense, rich historical detail, and captivating characters. This 32-disc novel is a winner! Its sequel, World Without End, is similarly enthralling.
A Game of Thrones, written by George R.R. Martin and masterfully performed by Roy Dotrice. This single novel takes up 28 CDs, or 33.5 hours. More than enough for the usual road trip! The four sequels to this novel are each around 30 discs of listening material, which would supply your listening needs long enough to drive from Davenport to Orlando Florida and back – three times!
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, written by Susanna Clarke and performed by Simon Prebble, is a fantasy novel that answers the question: what if a society of proper London magicians were around to magically assist the armies of England in the Napoleonic wars? And what if the leaders of that group were fighting against each other as well as taking on malevolent forces from the realm of Faerie? And what if all of this was written in a superb Jane-Austen-esque style that evokes all the sparkling wit and manners of the times without sacrificing the edge-of-your-seat action that modern audiences expect? Or, to put it more simply: This is an amazing novel and you should listen to it or read it right away. 32 hours of listening pleasure on 26 discs.
Some more excellent, lengthy novels:
*Bugcrusher: A book that is so big and heavy, you’d like to have it in hand to squish a scary bug.
The titular beauty of Beguiling the Beauty is Venetia Easterbrook, a young widow widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in London society, who vows revenge against the Duke of Lexington when he slanders her good name. Since he knows her by her famously stunning face, she wears a veil to seduce the Duke, London’s most eligible bachelor, while crossing the Atlantic on a luxurious steamer, planning to ditch him at the end of the journey and teach him a lesson about love gone wrong. Little does she know that their shared love of fossil-hunting and study of dinosaurs will cement their intellectual compatibility even as their physical chemistry sizzles.
Sherry Thomas’ newest novel, first in a planned trilogy, is a delight: it’s absurd, it’s sensual, and it’s great fun! In what other novel is the gift of exquisitely preserved tetrapodichnites (fossilized dinosaur tracks) fraught with emotional significance?! Where else in literature does a veil that blocks the wearer from seeing, eating, and kissing seem like a glamorous accessory with only the addition of a few paillettes? Nowhere!
With the exception of the denouement (which is silly) and the groundwork laid for the two planned sequels (which is distracting), this romance is a pure, unadulterated delight. The historical setting feels genuine rather than slapdash, and Thomas’s writing is smart and snappy. A flat-out perfect beach read for any romance reader, though it doesn’t stand up to vigorous literary scrutiny: after all, the Beauty is the one doing all the Beguiling here, and if even the title doesn’t take this book too seriously, how can readers? Despite that, the conceit of the masked seductress combined with the interest in paleontology makes this romance uniquely entrancing – or even beguiling.