ReadingChallengeBWHere it is, the end of March and the finish of another month in our Online Reading Challenge. So, how’d you do? Did you read anything amazing? Or was this month just kind of “meh”?

My March book was The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern. This is a lovely, magical story with many layers and, at its heart, a love story.

A circus, consisting of multiple black and white striped tents, mysteriously appears in the night. It stays for a few days, performing only at night, delighting the locals with various fantastic and magical acts, then disappears again as if it never existed. There is no schedule for when or where it will appear again, but it draws a loyal following wherever it opens.

What most people don’t realize is that the circus is actually a stage for a duel being played out by two fierce competitors, each pitting one of their students against the other. The students, Celia and Marco, have been trained since childhood. The purpose of the duel is never explained to them nor is the fact that the duel is to the death until long after they have fallen in love with each other. What would you do to save the one you love? Would you sacrifice yourself? Or allow them to sacrifice themselves to save you? What would you do to spare the innocent people caught in this mad game, one you never asked to be a part of?

Beautifully written with a large supporting cast of unique and interesting characters, The Night Circus is by turns charming and fun, serious and suspenseful. I especially loved the stories of Poppet and Widget and their performing kittens, but there are many characters to love. The story jumps back and forth through time, and changes viewpoint multiple times which can make it difficult to keep track of what is happening, but also adds to the secretive and not-knowing-all-the-answers of the action. I recommend it highly, but be prepared for a sometimes wild ride!

So, what is your opinion of Magical Realism?  What is the appeal of magical realism in fiction? I think it has something to do with the fact that, no matter how sophisticated we become, or how much we tie ourselves to technology, there is a basic need for joy and delight and the unexpected. I think we also wish for the impossible sometimes, for an outcome that can only happen with the aid of something inexpiable.

Let me know in the comments what you thought of this month’s reading choices and any recommendations that you might have!

ReadingChallengeBWHello Fellow Readers! Here we are at the middle of March already. How are you doing with reading a Magical Realism title? Is this a theme that you’re enjoying, or are you struggling to find a book that catches your fancy? Remember, the Online Reading Challenge is all about exploring new genres and finding great books to read.

My choice for Magical Realism is Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, about a magical circus that appears and disappears mysteriously. There’s a lot more than this going on though, including a complicated game with dire consequences, the twisted ties of family and the binds of love and friendship. I’ve already finished (although, I’ll admit I cheated a bit – I had started this a few months ago so I only had a few chapters left) and it’s quite good. It jumps back and forth through time and between several different characters which may bother some readers, but I enjoyed the varying perspectives.

Since I only had to read part of this book I’m going to tackle a second Magical Realism book, The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag. This book is lighter than air, about a seamstress that, with a few extra stitches, can set your deepest desire free. Something fun and light is always a good idea.

Are you still looking for a title to read? Here are a couple more suggestions:

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh – The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey messages of romance but for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. An unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender – Being able to taste people’s emotions in food may at first be horrifying. But young, unassuming Rose Edelstein grows up learning to harness her gift as she becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – Nearing the end of his life, Enzo, a dog with a philosopher’s soul, tries to bring together the family, pulled apart by a three year custody battle between daughter Zoe’s maternal grandparents and her father Denny, a race car driver. This is one of my very favorite books – beautifully written, filled with great sorrow and deep joy and thoughtful insights only an outsider can see. Yes, the outsider is a dog (magical, remember?) but his viewpoint is no less valid in this amazing book. Read it.

Let us know what you’re reading in the comments! And don’t forget to stop by the library for a Reading Challenge bookmark!

mr penumbra's 24 hour bookstoreI’m a cover girl. No, not the makeup kind of CoverGirl, but the type of person who makes her personal book reading choices by whether or not the cover art is saying, “You muussttt reeeaddd meeee,” as I meander the stacks of the library or the book store. That eye-catching cover and blurb is what led me to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I was at a conference and saw a poster advertising an author panel that had Robin Sloan, the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and several other authors that I was vaguely aware of also as panelists. I just happened to be right down the hall, the blurb about their panel was interesting, and bonus: you could get a free book signed by the author if you came. So I went.

I’m glad I did. I picked up my signed copy of Sloan’s book after the panel ended and started reading. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of the mixture of books and technology, the old and the new. The main character, Clay Jannon, was hit by the Great Recession and lost his job as a web-designer in San Francisco. Walking the streets one night, he stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and manages to land a job working the night shift. Quickly he learns that the patrons of Mr. Penumbra’s store are not like regular bookstore customers. They come and go at odd hours of the day and never buy anything. Instead they find and select somewhat odd and old volumes, books that Clay has been told not to read or touch, through an elaborate and long-standing arrangement with Mr. Penumbra. His curiosity piqued, Clay opens one of those forbidden books and finds them written in code. He decides to bring in some friends to help him solve the mystery of what these people are checking out, as well as the mystery of what exactly is happening in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

This book combines elements of mystery, adventure, fantasy, technology, and friendship to bring about a fascinating story of the conflict between the new and the old. Technology and print seem to battle it out within the pages of this book, as Clay soon realizes that Mr. Penumbra’s sudden disappearance from the bookstore has something to do with the mystery books in the store and the people who come to check them out. Add in a secret society called the Broken Spine, something called the Founder’s Puzzle, and Clay and his friends soon find themselves faced off in a race to solve the mystery before the Broken Spine has the chance. Sloan has woven together a story of global conspiracy that draws on the battle between old and new that will leave readers on the edge of their seats waiting to see who will triumph in the end.

This book is also available as a book on cd and as a playaway.

dress shop of dreamsThe Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora.

But magic spells–like true love–can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways. (description from publisher)

first frostIt’s October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree… and all the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store.

Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. Though her handcrafted confections – rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds – are singularly effective, the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and her belief in her own precious gifts. Sydney Waverley, too, is losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby – a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?

When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost.

Lose yourself in Sarah Addison Allen’s enchanting world and fall for her charmed characters in this captivating story that proves that a happily-ever-after is never the real ending to a story. It’s where the real story begins. (description from publisher)

One of the most buzzed-about books of the summer, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker raises the question:  what would happen if the Earth’s rotation suddenly began to slow down?  Narrated by 11-year-old Julia, the novel explores not only the ramifications of this global disaster but also how it affects the already tumultuous time between childhood and adolescence.

I read this book several weeks ago and held off on blogging about it because, frankly, I was disappointed.  But I realize now that perhaps I just went into it with the wrong expectations.  As a reader who adores sci-fi and fantasy literature, I felt that the earth’s slowing rotation and its effects were extremely underdeveloped.  I wanted more information about why it happened, good descriptive passages about the effects it had on life all over the planet, and to feel the sense of danger and dread that should have been felt with this sort of catostrophic event.  But that’s not really the focus of this book, and if you go into it prepared to practically ignore the science of it all, it becomes a better story.

The Age of Miracles is really a coming-of-age story about Julia, who just so happens to live in a time when the earth’s rotation is slowing.  It’s a novel about growing up and the changes that come along with it no matter what kind of crisis is happening in the outside world: friends still grow apart, bodies still change, your parents still don’t understand you.  The passages focusing on Julia’s feelings and her relationships are beautifully written.  Walker quickly draws the reader into Julia’s story and makes you care about her; you’ll want to jump right into the book and punch the bully who picks on her at the bus stop right in front of the boy she likes.  Overall I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a nicely written coming-of-age story in a unique setting, but aren’t too concerned about sci-fi elements.

Though first published in 1996, A Game of Thrones and its four sequels (collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire) have become a phenomenon in library hold queues of late thanks to HBO’s serial adaptation (season 2 premieres on April 1) and the summer ’11 release of the bestselling A Dance With Dragons. If you’re interested in the series but were turned off by the verbose visuals and relentless attention to detail, you are not alone. Try these titles for an alternative jaunt into gritty, political, and subtly-fantastical realms.

If you are intrigued by the era of Martin’s inspiration, England’s Wars of the Roses, try The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, or any of her rich historical novels set in a similar time period, including The Red Queen (a direct sequel), The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Other Queen. For a factual (but nonetheless exciting) version of the story, try Alison Weir’s The Wars of the Roses.

Part of the appeal of Martin’s work is the very small part that magic and fantasy play in the narrative. If you appreciate that ratio, consider The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, in which a modern woman is embroiled in the continuing high-stakes mystery of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula). Another tale of subtle magic is Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, which explores the lives a Southern family with a unique talent for growing (and using) magical plants in a successful catering business.

If the gripping political drama of a royal family pulls you in, but the fantasy elements are off putting, you’ll love Bernard Cornwell, whose Arthur books (beginning with The Winter King) make the mythic saga fresh, exciting, and utterly believable.

If you enjoy gritty fantasy but not a lot of length, consider The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch or The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Both are #1 in their respective serials, but can be enjoyed individually. Additionally, they each still come in very far below the page count Martin sets. In hardcover, A Song of Ice and Fire numbers 4,223 pages in total – a truly intimidating figure. By contrast, Abercrombie’s entire trilogy numbers only 1,810, and Lynch’s tale wraps up in a snappy 752.

The thing about librarians is, they’re always reading about books and hearing about books and reading books. So they’re bound to know the best books. Here’s the next in our end-0f-year recap of best books.

Rita listened to her favorite book, Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. “When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer. Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans – and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.

“This recording kept my attention from beginning to end. It is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait for the next one. The writing is excellent, her description and use of words is brilliant. This book is for anyone who enjoys good literature and fantasy”.

Our roll call of Personal Favorite books of 2010 from our Blogging Libraries continues….

Rita had two favorite books this year : “I couldn’t decide between these two as my favorite, of all the books I read and listened to this year. They both have a little magic in their stories. I enjoyed both books very much. I will let you decide.”

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman – For years, 12-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt has been the cartaker of her psychotic mother, Camille – the tiara-toting, lipstick-smeared laughingstock of an entire town. But when Camille is hit by a truck and killed, CeeCee is left to fend for herself. To the rescue comes her previously unknown great-aunt from Savannah, Tootie Caldwell, who whirls CeeCee into her world of female friendship, strong women, wacky humor and good old-fashioned heart.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen – Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew – a reclusive, real-life gentle giant – she realized that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life.