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 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.
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).
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.
Here’s the last entry in our Best Books of 2011 from our blogging librarians.
Maggie says “My favorite of 2011 is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. It’s a dense, relatable, beautifully written book by my favorite author. It’s also the most moving book I read this year. P.S. very hard to pick just one….”
And here’s Ann’s choice. “2011 wasn’t a particularly “good” reading year for me; I read several entertaining books, but nothing that knocked my socks off. However, there was one book from this year that will always be a stand-out for me – Rick Steve’s Paris 2011. With the huge number of travel books available, Rick Steves is a great choice for the first-time traveler, showing you the basics yet encouraging you to get off the beaten tourist path. You can be sure that all of his recommendations have been personally vetted (and they have never steered me wrong) And yes, the trip was fantastic!”
Now it’s your turn – what was your favorite book that you read in 2011? Let us know in the comments!
Best wishes for a Happy New Year in 2012 – may it be overflowing with great books!
More best books from our Blogging Librarians! Michelle and Lexie kind of cheated since they each picked two titles; however, they’re both so good at picking books we don’t mind a bit.
Michelle starts with a mystery. “Louise Penny’s quirky, yet endearing characters make A Trick of the Light one of my favorite mysteries of the year. Penny’s clever writing style combined with her main character, the legendary Inspector Armand Gamache, make for a superb mystery book (and the latest release in the series)”. Read more in her blog post from earlier this year.
A fiction book is Michelle’s second pick. “Katie Lee’s debut work of fiction, Groundswell was a favorite beach read in 2011. Groundswell follows a main character who becomes caught up in the glitz and glamour of stardom only then to discover what is important in life after a traumatic event”. Michelle’s blog post about this book is here.
Lexie says go big or go home with George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. “An epic fantasy series set in a land where seasons can last for decades. The series is filled with political intrigue, plenty of shocking plot twists, romance, and engaging characters who don’t fit into a traditional mold of good or evil. This complex world that Martin created has become an absolute obsession for me; the fifth book was just released in July and I’m already eagerly anticipating the next installment”. Read more from Lexie about it in her earlier blog post.
Her second pick is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. “31-year-old “carer” Kathy looks back on her youth, which was spent in an isolated English boarding school with her two best friends and plenty of secrets. This book is haunting and incredibly thought-provoking. I couldn’t put it down once I started, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it once I finished”. Lexie blogged about it here.
Whoosh! That’s the sound of 2010 racing past. With 2011 nearly here, let’s take some time to remember our favorite books of the past year. Follow us this week as our Blogging Librarians once again give us their personal Best Book and why. These books weren’t necessarily written in 2010, just read this year. You’re sure to find some great titles to add to your list!
Lynn gets things started with her favorite : “The last (sadly) book in the Izzy Spellman series is The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz. All the members of the Spellman family are eccentric, and uniquely eccentric. They pursue their own ends aggressively and obsessively but ultimately act in the best interests of the family and the family-owned private investigation business. It’s one of those books that is truly hard to put down once you start.” Read Lynn’s full description here.
Tana‘s pick is one of the biggest books of 2010 : “My favorite book for the year was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. (Ann blogged about this book here) I thought the author did an excellent job of evoking time and place, ie, Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s. I think I also enjoyed it from a personal perspective. Since I still have aunts who live in the South, I have memories of visiting them when they all had “help” of their own.”
It’s not very often that a new genre comes down the pike for arts and literature. You may have heard the term “steampunk” bandied about but didn’t investigate. It’s kind of like Goth only without the sad faces, black (the only color fit to adorn a tormented soul) and boo-hoo defeatist music.
Also in a Victorian setting, what sets steampunk off is an emphasis on advanced modern technologies utilizing non-transistor and vacuum tube methods. Think Phinneas Fogg cross-pollinated with Q from James Bond. Like a more elegant cast of the short lived television series Wild Wild West sans stagecoaches.
Steampunk has proven quite popular melding with Internet culture as evidenced by this sweet modded computer at left.
Here are what Library Journal considers the top ten steampunk novels.
This Sophie Kinsella novel is much better than the Shopoholic series, IMHO. Samantha Sweeting is an ambitious lawyer in a cutthroat London law firm. One day she makes an incredibly costly mistake and starts wandering the city and, eventually, the countryside blindly. She ends up outside an English manor house where, it happens, they need a housekeeper.
Samantha, hilariously, pretends to be an expert cook, laundress and housecleaner when she is really completely clueless, or, as the title says “undomestic.” Her attempts to bluff her way through the most basic of tasks are described with typical English deadpan absurdity. The unusual couple that she works for and the gardener who turns out to be her accomplice round out an appealing cast of characters.
Undomestic Goddess has it all – humor, romance, plot, and a satisfying resolution. Put your feet up and take a break from all that housework.
The 2010 All Iowa Reads book was announced at the annual Iowa Library Association conference at the end of October. Praised as a “quiet masterpiece,” Driftless is the newest novel by David Rhodes.
Rhodes has an interesting back story, so to speak. He was a rising young writer at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, and had several books published in the 1970’s.
A motorcycle crash in 1977, which partially paralyzed Rhodes, ended his publishing career till Driftless came out this year.
“Driftless shares a rhythm with the farming community it documents, and its reflective pace is well-suited to characters who are far more comfortable with hard work than with words,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Watch the Davenport Public Library newsletter for announcements of events and discussions concerning Driftless throughout 2010.