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Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones (2014)

nightshanghaiA five star read! Night in Shanghai tells the story of a young jazz musician who left the U.S. to pursue his career in China. Nicole Mones thoroughly researched her topic to present the history, language, and culture of pre-WWII China. The ending of the book will stir emotion in the reader because you know where those ships are going.

Listen to an interview with the author (or just read the highlights) here on NPR. Visit her website to discover more about her research and browse galleries. Join us on February 11 when the Novel Idea group will discuss the book at 7pm at the library.

Four Souls by Louise Erdrich (2004)

foursoulsLouise Erdrich’s Four Souls is a beautifully written, fascinating installment in the ongoing story of Fleur Pillager, a Native American Ojibwe. She travels to Minneapolis where she plans to avenge the loss of her family’s land to a deceptive, wealthy white man, but instead finds herself entangled with a complex relationship.

Check out Tracks (1988) to see where Erdrich first introduces Fleur.

That Summer by Lauren Willig (2014)

thatsummerThe story is set in London and goes back and forth between 2009 and 1849. In the modern thread, Julia inherits a house and travels from New York to London to clean out the house before selling it. The story switches to 1849, where Imogen lives in the house with her dispassionate husband. Imogen has an affair with the artist painting her portrait – a painting that still hangs in the house in 2009. Modern day Julia pieces together Imogen’s life and finds love in Nicholas, an antiques dealer who helps her with the research.

I really enjoyed That Summer and loved the switching of the characters and the years. Very entertaining – I hope that a movie is made from Lauren Willig’s novel.

The Mangle Street Murders by M. R. C. Kasasian (2014)

manglestreetRenowned London detective Sidney Grice is irascible, vain, and a genius. When he takes in a young woman as his ward, he never dreams that her humanistic approach to life will assist him in his detecting. A chance meeting with a doctor and struggling writer Arthur Conan Doyle suggests that Grice and March Middleton, his ward, will become the model for his famous detective Sherlock Holmes.

Find a copy of The Mangle Street Murders by M. R. C. Kasasian today.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (2013)

callingmehomeI listened to the audio version of Julie Kibler’s debut Calling Me Home and loved it. The narration alternates between Isabelle, an 89-year old white woman, and Dorrie, an African American woman in her 30s. These two women have an unlikely friendship, which started many years earlier when Dorrie became Isabelle’s hairdresser.

At Isabelle’s request, they embark on a road trip from Texas to Ohio to attend a funeral. En route, Isabelle tells the story of her life during the 1930s. As such, the storyline alternates between late 1930s and the present day. Since I listened to this book in my car, I felt as though I were on the road with them, sitting in the back seat, eavesdropping on their captivating conversation.

The characters were so real to me that I felt the whole gamut of emotions while listening to this book. I think the book could be turned into a great movie!

A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (2009)

beautifulplacetodieWhen an Afrikaner policeman is murdered in a remote area of South Africa, detective Emmanual Cooper is brought in to investigate. It is 1952, and the Apartheid system has recently become the law of the land. How does an honorable policeman investigate when not all witnesses are considered equal and people of different races are only allowed to associate in very proscribed ways? What is most intriguing in this story is the application of "race laws" that overrule family relationships and human behavior. Check out Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die; for more mysteries set in Africa, see our book list.

Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo (2005)

actsoffaithPhilip Caputo sets this fascinating tale of aid workers against the background of Sudan’s civil war, where the Muslim government in the north fights the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) for control of the Christian and animist south. Acts of Faith presents multiple stories of a group of men and women who confront their own individual moral crises and fears as they work to alleviate the suffering caused by civil war in contemporary Sudan. Reporter, novelist, and nonfiction writer, Caputo has produced a compassionate and dramatic novel.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

inventionofwingsI loved everything about this book…the superbly-drawn, complex characters; the inspirational, and often intense, storylines of each character; and the wonderful setting descriptions that made me feel like I was there with the characters! The fact that this novel was based on real-life people makes it more powerful and unforgettable.

Set in Charleston during the early 1800s, the plot follows the life of two girls into adulthood, alternating the narration between the two. Sarah Grimke is the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, and Hetty is the young slave who is given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. They share a common goal – freedom! For Hetty, it is freedom from the bondages of slavery, and for Sarah, from the oppressive societal constraints on women. Sarah is vehemently against slavery, treating Hetty with respect, even secretly teaching her how to read, which was against the law at that time. Sarah becomes a strong activist in the abolitionist movement and civil rights for women. Hetty’s life is heartbreaking, yet inspiring in so many ways.

After I finished The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and did some research on Sarah Grimke to learn more about her real life.

Highly recommend this book!

The Impersonator by Mary Miley (2013)

impersonatorIn 1924, vaudevillian Leah Randall finds herself unemployed. When approached by shady Oliver Beckett with a scheme to impersonate a missing heiress and share in her inheritance, Leah is at first dismissive. When no paying roles materialize, Leah gives in and finds herself in a mansion on the Oregon coast impersonating Jessie Carr. Jessie disappeared seven years before. Is she alive, and if not, what happened to her? Could what happened to Jessie now happen to Leah? Mary Miley’s The Impersonator is a fun jazz-era mystery inspired by Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (2013)

girlyouleftbehindSophie and Liv struggle through tragedies, tough decisions, and community ridicule nearly a century a part. A hauntingly beautiful portrait of Sophie with penetrating eyes painted by her impressionist husband connect the womens' plights across time. Liv feels a deep connection to Sophie and risks everything to keep the painting out of the wrong hands.

Sophie is left behind in occupied France during WWI as her husband goes off to fight. Liv is left behind after her husband's untimely death in 21st century London. Liv meets Paul and finds out he is on the opposing side of her quest to keep Sophie's portrait. Their relationship develops in opposite directions. She is not sure if he can pull her out of her deep depression left by her husband's death, financial ruin, and public criticism, or push her further down.

As Liv finds herself at the end of all hope, Jojo Moyes allows the reader inside the mind of Sophie on the brink of death at the hands of the enemy. In The Girl You Left Behind, parallel narratives converge as the two women continue to struggle. A satisfying epilogue ties up loose ends in both worlds, yet leaves enough for the reader's imagination to wander a bit.

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl (2014)

deliciousI savored Ruth Reichl’s first foray into fiction (sorry for the pun – couldn’t resist!). I vacillated between eagerly turning the pages and pausing for a break, simply because I didn’t want the story to end. In Delicious!, we meet Billie as she prepares for an interview as the assistant to the editor of a food magazine.

In the engaging characters she encounters, the mouth-watering food she describes, and the foodie side of New York City she explores, the reader is drawn in to all of Billie’s new experiences. With an unexpected WWII tie (Billie discovers letters between James Beard and a precocious 11-year-old Lulu), a mystery, and unresolved family issues, this book is hard for me to describe – other than it was lovely and wonderful and completely worth a read.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (2014)

liedunmoreDaniel Branwell returns to his small Cornish village at the end of WWI. Daniel, although very smart, is from a very poor family and had to leave school to support his widowed mother. Now back from the war, he helps an elderly neighbor, and when she dies, moves into her home. Without education and prospects, traumatized by the war, and deeply missing his childhood friend, Frederic, who died in battle in front of him, Daniel wanders through life searching for meaning. The Lie by Helen Dunmore is a quietly beautiful and moving novel.

The Blessings by Elise Juska (2014)

blessingsI really enjoyed Elise Juska’s latest novel, which centers on a large, Irish Catholic extended family living in North Philly. Told in alternating points of view by various family members and spanning 15 years, The Blessings is a lovely, sometime heartbreaking, tale of a family and what unites them.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (2014)

index.aspxIn New York City in 1911, a fire devastated both the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village and destroyed the amusement park Dreamland being constructed above Coney Island.

These public events are the framework for a spellbinding tale in which the author weaves realism and fairy tale. This novel, a romance and a tightly plotted mystery, is set among carnival sideshows, freak shows, and the midway of Coney Island. Her portrayal of New York City during a pivotal year in the city’s history turns the city a character in its own right.

Alice Hoffman’s storytelling magic is here in The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a love story rich with history and a sense of place.

The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P. S. Duffy (2013)

index.aspxNova Scotia fisherman and amateur artist Angus MacGrath leaves his wife and son to enlist in the army during WWI. MacGrath has been lead to believe that his skills as an artist will be put to use as a cartographer. Instead he finds himself in the middle of the fight, witnessing horrors he never imagined. At home his emotionally distant wife and young son must deal with his absence and that of a beloved brother and uncle. MacGrath returns to his beloved Nova Scotia a man changed, perhaps forever.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P. S. Duffy is a beautiful balance between realistic characters and setting and dream-like quality adopted by some of the characters to survive. For other modern novels about WWI see our bibliography.

Join us! Our Novel Idea book discussion group will discuss the book on Wednesday, September 10 at 7pm.