NPR’s Books to Read, Books to Give

It’s that time of year when all the “best of” lists start popping up. NPR always puts together a nice, categorized list of recommended books called the Book Concierge. This year is no exception.

The site features NPR staff and critics guide to 2014’s great reads, and is easily filtered into categories for easy browsing, and you can choose more than one category. Want adult fiction AND a love story AND a short read – you can easily pluck it out using the filters! The lists include adult, young adult and children’s books. Give it a whirl and see what books you missed this year. Choosing new books was never so easy!

Waiting (not so) patiently for The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters?

British author Sarah Waters is beloved for skillfully incorporating suspense, illicit attractions, and even supernatural elements, into her atmospheric historical fiction novels. The Paying Guests takes place in the upper class home of the Wrays, a mother and daughter who have fallen on hard times after WWI and make ends meet by taking in “paying guests.” The addition of a working class couple to the family dynamic initiates a series of changes, not least of which is daughter Frances’ attraction to her new boarder.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt - Byatt’s historical fiction/family saga explores privileged, artistic families in pre-WWI Britain, and the darkness and social struggles that lie beneath the surface.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton long-simmering secrets come to light when a filmmaker comes to fact-check details of a 1924 event with a now-elderly maidservant, who recounts the loves, rivalries, and secrets of the family she served.

The Lodger by Louise Treger - Against the background of the British suffragette movement, Dorothy Richardson’s life takes a turn for the unconventional when she begins an affair with a friend’s husband, only to have her attractions shift when a new woman moves into her boarding house.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - The story follows four Londoners during and after WWII who are recovering their senses, trying to restart their lives, and guarding their secrets now that the blackouts are over and the fighting is done.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones - Enjoying Downton Abbey-style luxury while teetering on the edge of debt, a Torrington-Jones family gathering at their estate unexpectedly becomes a sanctuary for survivors of a nearby railway accident, but the circumstances become murkier as constructs of class and society fall away.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #498 - "Sometimes, one wants to have the illusion that one is making ones own life, out of ones own resources.” ~ Zadie Smith

Poet and short story writer Greer Macallister's debut novel The Magician's Lie * has been described as Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus.

1905. On a warm summer evening in Waterloo (IA), The Amazing Arden, "the most famed female illusionist in the world" vowed to do the impossible as she "weave (her trademark) web of beautiful illusions to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world". The only deviation from her routine - she would use an axe in her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage.

When Arden's husband was found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, young police officer Virgil Holt who was part of the audience happened upon the fleeing illusionist and took her into custody. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free... and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors as Arden recounted a life and a career "more moving and spectacular than any of her stage acts".

"(W)ell-paced, evocative, and adventurous... a top-notch novel."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #497 - “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” ~ Thomas A. Edison

For those interested in the history of books and printing, you simply cannot pass up Gutenberg's Apprentice * * * by Alix Christie - "(a)n enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany - a story of invention, intrigue, and betrayal, rich in atmosphere and historical detail, told through the lives of the three men who made it possible."

Caught at the center of the Gutenberg/Fust saga is Peter Schoeffer. At 25, an up-and-coming scribe at the Sorbonne, he is summoned home to Mainz by his father Johann Fust who adopted the orphaned Peter and spared no expense in his education. It turns out that Fust, a wealthy merchant and bookseller has met & financed the workshop of the "most amazing man", and to whom he intends to apprentice Peter.

Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary machine he calls a printing press. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in what the Catholic Church condemns as "the darkest art".

As his skill grows, so, too, does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: copies of the Holy Bible, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures: the generous Fust, and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery. "Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer's tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible."

"An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age." Readers who enjoyed The Justification of Johann Gutenberg by Blake Morrison might very well get the rest of the story here.

A note about the author... Native Californian Alix Christie dedicates this book to a long line of master printers, including the two master letterpress printers she apprenticed with. A published journalist who turned to fiction in the 1990s, she now lives in London.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #496

Classical violinist Louisa Treger (biography) depicts the life and loves of Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957), one of the most important writers of the 20th century in a fictional biography The Lodger, - "(a) compelling story of one woman tormented by unconventional desires."

The novel opens in 1906 with Dorothy Richardson being invited to spend a weekend in the country with her old school friend Amy Catherine (called Jane now) and her new husband Bertie (H.G.) Wells, a writer hovering on the brink of fame. The sumptuous meals and idyllic seaside setting stand in sharp contrast to Dorothy's attic room in a seedy Bloomsbury boarding house, and her £1/week wage as an assistant to a Harley Street dentist.

But what draws Dorothy most (though he first appears unremarkable) are Well's grey-blue eyes and "his intellect and impish nature". Despite her good intention not to betray her friend, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with Bertie.

When a new boarder arrives at the boarding house, the beautiful Veronica Leslie-Jones, Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie. Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.

"The early 1900s weren't exactly a friendly time for single women in London, and the book does a wonderful job of showing Dorothy's desire for independence as well as her fear of being alone... Treger's writing flows easily and the book is impeccably researched (including Richardson's twelve-volume autobiographical novel-sequence Pilgrimage), making this an enjoyable read."

"Dorothy Richardson may not be a household name, but Treger's novel does a fine job of showing just how compelling her life was in this novel full of passion, history and literature." For readers who enjoy Virginia Woolf (who btw, considered Richardson a literary rival) and Edith Wharton.

Vanessa and Her Sister: new fiction on the life of Virginia Woolf

Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar, is a brand new book that offers a look at a fascinating time and place in world history. The year is 1905 and pre-war London is bustling with young artists and intellectuals. The four orphaned Stephens siblings—Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian—decide to take a house together in fashionable Bloomsbury. All young, gifted and unmarried, they bring together a glittering circle of talented and outrageous friends that will eventually become known as the Bloomsbury Group. At the center of the circle are the sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. When the book opens, Vanessa, the painter, has never sold a piece of her work and Virginia, the writer, has just had her book review turned down. But as time passes, the sisters and the others in the circle begin to meet with success. When Vanessa falls in love, her complicated and possessive sister feels dangerously abandoned and begins a tailspin of self-destruction. With the threat of tragedy looming over the family, Vanessa must decide how to save herself and her loved ones while also protecting her own happiness.

This book is has been recommended for fans of Loving Frank, The Chaperone, and The Paris Wife and offers a fascinating and intimate viewpoint of the life of Virginia Woolf and her struggles with mental illness.

New Fiction by Anita Diamant: The Boston Girl

Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, Day After Night and The Last Days of Dogtown, has written a new novel to be published in 2015. Titled The Boston Girl, the book tells the story of Addie, a young Jewish woman growing up in Boston in the early twentieth century. Addie’s parents are suspicious of the changing world around them and want nothing more than to keep her and her two sisters close to home until they can marry suitably and begin families of their own. Addie’s curiosity and intelligence draw her outward, however, and she dreams of going to college and marrying for love, not convenience. As she ventures out into the world of short skirts, movie theaters, dancing, and opportunity, she experiences more than she would have ever dreamed possible. The premise of this lovely book is the question, “What made you the woman you are today?” asked of eighty-five-year-old Addie by her young granddaughter, which leads Addie to share her remarkable memories and experiences. “The Boston Girl is a moving portrait of one woman’s complicated life in twentieth century America,” reads the book jacket, “and a fascinating look at a generation of women finding their places in a changing world.”

Diamant’s books are notable for their focus on women in often-forgotten places and times in history. The Red Tent tells the story of the Biblical figure Dinah, a woman who’s life is only hinted at in the book of Genesis as the daughter of Jacob. Day After Night is a fascinating portrait of four female World War II concentration camp survivors who have escaped to Israel but are still trying to determine where they will fit in. Check these books and Diamant’s other works out at the AADL!

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #490

Librarian (Louisiana) Ashley Weaver's stylish and charming debut Murder at the Brightwell features "a spunky heroine, a tense romance and red herrings galore" that would bring to mind Agatha Christie who created some of the most endearing and enduring amateur sleuths.

1932 England. Young Amory Ames, on impulse, accepts an invitation from her former fiance Gil Trent to vacation at the Brightwell, a luxurious seaside resort catering to the society set. The express purpose is for Amory to intervene in the forthcoming marriage of Gil's sister Emmeline to Rupert Howe, a disreputable ladies' man. No one sees the sharp prick of the irony more then Amory whose floundering marriage to the notoriously charming playboy Milo is a constant source of sorrow.

But when Rupert is found murdered and Gil is arrested for the crime, Amory must set aside their marital ennui, and reluctantly enlists Milo's help in finding the killer and clearing Trent's name. Soon, the pair's sleuthing puts them at the scene of a second murder, and in harm's way.

"A pleasant debut novel, nicely evoking the 1930s with strong atmosphere and the beginnings of some intriguing characters."

Readers eagerly anticipating a follow-up might want to get cozy with Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man series (and the 1934 film adaptation that is now a classic); the Australian Miss Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood (adapted into an exquisitely-costumed period television series); and the Dandy Gilver series by Catriona McPherson, set in Scotland.

Pioneer Girl: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Autobiography!

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has been beloved by readers for over eighty years. As many of us know, Wilder based the books on her true experiences growing up in the Midwest in the later half of the 19th century. It was her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who eventually convinced Wilder to write down her memories and helped her edit them into the books that were published between 1932 and 1943. Today, the series has been expanded to include fictional books telling the stories of several generations of Wilder women, from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother Martha through Rose herself.

Although Wilder has said that many of the stories told in the Little House on the Prairie books actually happened, not all are completely rooted in fact. If you’re looking for a completely true account of Wilder’s amazing life, her soon-to-be-published annotated autobiography, Pioneer Girl, is the book for you. Wilder and her daughter had attempted to get this autobiography published in the 1930s, but the rougher aspects of her stories prevented publishers from accepting the book. It is true that many of the charming stories that readers are familiar with from the Little House series are present in Pioneer Girl, but Wilder also describes the less-than-pleasant aspects of growing up in the still-developing Midwest. Overall, Pioneer Girl is a moving and fascinating story and a must-read for Little House fans.

You can find out more about the Little House books, including which order to read them in on the Little House website.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #487 - “There are two ways of seeing: with the body and with the soul. The body's sight can sometimes forget, but the soul remembers forever.” ~ Alexandre Dumas

In What is Visible *, debut novelist Kimberly Elkins presents a "wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched" fictional memoir of the life and challenges of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind woman to learn language, some fifty years before Helen Keller. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history.

At age 2, Laura lost her sight, hearing, and the ability to taste and smell from scarlet fever. At age 7, she was taken from her family home in Hanover, New Hampshire by Dr. Samuel Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston, and taught to communicate via hand spelling. Laura soon became celebrated figure attracting hundreds to exhibitions at the Institution, including a visit by Charles Dickens and Dorothea Dix. But Laura suffered greatly when Dr. Howe married and began a family of his own.

"Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife Julia, and Laura's beloved teacher Sarah Wight, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection."

Blind * * *, a YA debut by Ann Arbor native (Community High) and Alex Award winner (Big Girl Small) Rachel DeWoskin is "one of those rare books that utterly absorbs the reader into the life and experience of another."

When 14 yr. old Emma Sasha Silver loses her eyesight in a freak accident, she must relearn everything from walking across the street to learning to decipher braille. After a year at the Briarly School for the Blind, she is finally able to return home. But just as she is able to start high school and try to recover her friendships and former life, one of her classmates is found dead in an apparent suicide.

"DeWoskin...skillfully balances the pain of loss with the promise of new experiences and discovery.... The life of a formerly sighted teen blossoms in Emma's strong voice as she explores the world, conquers fears, and attempts living everyday life again with her large, bustling, Jewish suburban family. A gracefully written, memorable, and enlightening novel. "

”A vivid, sensory tour of the shifting landscapes of blindness and teen relationships."

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews

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