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.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (2014)

index.aspx1930 was the year of New York Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance (his body was never found). This novel tells the story as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best: his wife Stella, his mistress Ritzi, and the maid Maria. Their story, expertly woven around these events, comes from the author’s imagination and she builds a fascinating tale of what may have happened.

Author Ariel Lawhon saves the why of Judge Crater disappearance until a twist in the very last pages. The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress will transport readers to a bygone era of chorus girls, speakeasies, bootleggers, Tammany Hall corruption, gangsters, and irritating rich people.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013)

index.aspxChristina Baker Kline introduces a fairly unexplored piece of American history in this tender story of two resilient women navigating their way through the past and into the future. Orphan Train is a touching story of two characters whose lives intertwine with one another, opening up buried secrets, upheaval, and an unexpected friendship.

Foster teen Molly Ayer finds herself serving community service hours at the home of aging widow Vivian Daly. The boxes in the attic haven't been touched for years, but Vivian has finally decided that it is time to clear through her old things. Molly and Vivian take on the task together and as they sort through the possessions, memories of earlier times for Vivian reveal that the two women aren't as different as it seems. Vivian, an Irish immigrant, was orphaned in her youth in New York City, and was one of hundreds of children shipped west on what became known as the orphan train. Molly discovers that her youth and perseverance can help Vivian reveal unknown truths about her past, and in doing so, uncover some insight into her own life.

Hyde by Daniel Levine (2014)

In this novel based on Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hyde seizes control. Though Hyde’s ramblings on the dark streets of Victorian London are often told with brutal detail, the novel takes an intriguing concept and tells an intelligent tale. The boundaries between good and evil are blurred and a dark and brooding re-imagined story emerges.

This retelling is a richly detailed and engrossing portrait of Stevenson’s characters, but Daniel Levine’s Hyde is not the first novel to re-spin Stevenson’s original. Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin told the tale from the point-of-view of Jekyll’s household maid.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)

This was a moving story of young love facing insurmountable obstacles. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes place in Seattle at the start of World War II chronicling the friendship between Henry, a Chinese-American boy and Keiko, a Japanese-American girl. As the war progresses and the Japanese are forced into internment camps, Henry struggles to make sense of the world around him. Jamie Ford accurately captures life on the home front during this troubled time (find more books that take place on the home front during WWII). The audiobook is a great experience as narrator Feodor Chin effectively distinguishes between each of the many characters.

This book is one of the titles we will be giving away during World Book Night on April 23 at local businesses in the community. Visit ippl.infofor information on our participation in this international event.

Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani (2003)

This is a story about a woman recalling what her life was like in the 1950s. The story she tells is all about her family, romance, and what it was like to have a career, which most women at that time did not have.

Lucia, Lucia made me laugh and cry. It touched upon both the humorous and the challenges of life. I love all of Adriana Trigiani’s books, including the Big Stone Gap series.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch is a remarkably fast read, despite its size. The title refers to the tiny painting of a pet bird in captivity by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius from 1654. The Goldfinch becomes central in Theo’s life after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother one rainy day. Tragedy strikes at the museum and Theo is left practically an orphan. Over the next ten years, Theo struggles with the loss of his mother and the post-traumatic stress of incident. This is a beautifully written story that captures the essence of New York, the pain of loss, and power of objects.

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat (2013)

The title character is a 7-year-old girl whose mother died giving birth to her, “so her birthday was also a day of death,” a day to visit the cemetery every year. Claire goes missing in the first chapter and stays missing until the very last pages, but the novel goes on to portray characters whose lives intersect with Claire and her father Nozias.

Through this fictitious Haitian village, we are brought to an understanding of life on this island nation with its extremes of poverty and excesses of wealth.

Moving back and forth through time but returning at the end to the night of Claire’s birthday, Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light has a fable like quality and is beautifully written…but it is ultimately about loss so not an easy read.

The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani (2012)

As the development of the characters evolved, I was drawn into the story of Enza and Ciro.  Although The Shoemaker’s Wife was relatively easy to read, the novel was packed with a variety of situations and events. The story flowed and kept me involved as a reader.

We (along with nine other libraries) created a lot of discussions and programming around Adriana Trigiani’s novel capturing the immigrant experience of the early 1900s as part of The Big Read 2013. Visit thebigread.org for more information.

Tell us: What was your favorite Big Read event or favorite part of the novel?

Sutton by J. R. Moehringer (2012)

William Sutton or “Willie the Actor” led quite a remarkable life robbing banks, stealing an estimated two million dollars during his lifetime. J.R. Moehringer’s characterization of the notorious bank robber in Sutton is of an intelligent “Robin Hood” figure. Told from Sutton’s perspective, the story begins on Christmas Eve 1969 when Willie is released from prison for good behavior and ailing health, after spending half his adult life behind bars. A reporter and photographer from the newspaper get an exclusive with Willie in exchange for room at a luxury hotel. However, Willie insists that they drive him around to locations in New York City as he recounts his story in chronological order. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the actor Dylan Baker who does an amazing job capturing all of the different characters.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1999)

In Stardust young Tristran Thorn grows up in the Village of Wall which lies on the edge of Fairie land. The villagers only enter the land beyond their walled town once every nine years when they mix with magical folk at a temporary market. Following his heart, Tristran embarks on a journey into Fairie which reveals his gifts and subjects him to great challenges. Gaiman's fantasy is entertaining, at times amusing, and very engrossing.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (2013)

Melanie Benjamin mixes history and conjecture into an epic story of love, triumph, heartbreak, and betrayal. In The Aviator’s Wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh is portrayed as a strong woman, accomplished in her own right, who stood behind her hero husband even when he didn't act like much of a hero. Through tragedy and scandal, she held her head high as she silently grieved.

This excellent piece of historical fiction makes the reader want to delve further into the biographies, histories, and actual literary works of one of the most famous couples of the twentieth century.

Lorna Raver's rich mature voice reminds listeners of the audio version that this story is told from Anne's perspective in her later years as Charles is dying. The story begins and ends in 1974. Flashbacks have Anne recalling her life with Charles with the wisdom of having already lived through it.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

If you enjoy historical fiction, especially the Tudor period featuring King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, you may enjoy this richly detailed and complex winner of the UK’s 2009 Man Booker Prize. Wolf Hall is centered on the improbable rise of Thomas Cromwell, from an angry, violent, and abused blacksmith’s son, to the right-hand man of the king. The writing style takes a little getting used to, but once you become familiar with Mantel’s quirks, the tale is a spellbinding look into the highest levels of power and politics, as well as the mundane details of ordinary life in early 16th century England.

The second book of the planned trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (2012), is currently available (and also won the prestigious Man Booker Prize).