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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
Many of us read about Francie Nolan and her life 100 years ago growing up poor in Brooklyn when we were young ourselves. Try it now as an adult. Although the writing is at times a little stilted and too often we are told things instead of shown them, the spirit of Francie and her practical and hardworking mother and her dreamer of a never-do-well father comes through. Some scenes are absolutely delightful: Papa taking Francie and her brother on a fishing trip or Aunt Sissy finally finding a way to get herself a baby. Other parts are poignant beyond words: Six-year-old Francie having to take her younger brother for their vaccinations before starting school or Francie finding that she must work instead of going to high school.

Preview this American classic and check out the reading group guide.

Guernica by David Boling

Guernica by David Boling (2008)
David Boling’s first novel is the tale of Justo Ansotegui, the strongest man in Guernica and a successful farmer; and Miguel Navarro, a fisherman's son too prone to seasickness to be of much use on a boat. In a broader sense, it's about Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and beginning of World War II, and the Basque who proudly held onto their traditions at a time when their language and customs were outlawed by the Spanish government.

Boling tells the story of Guernica and her people while telling the story of human suffering, heroism, and amazing fortitude. He draws a wonderful picture of the Basque culture and describes the countryside of Spain so well that you can see, hear, taste, and smell it. The bombing of Guernica on the eve of World War II was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe. Boling, along with many historians, sees the bombing of Guernica as an act of terrorism. Perhaps, as I did, you will make a connection between that long-ago atrocity and the modern world. And perhaps as I did, you will finish this novel with a sense of hope.

Learn more about the bombing of Guernica at PBS.org. Visit the author's website for reviews and his bio.

Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom

Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom (2008)
Set in 1940-41, this is a political novel in the very best sense. It offers a taste of the hardship and fear gripping Madrid under its new Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. It is a novel that thoughtfully considers what can happen to an ordinarily decent man in wartime. Harry Brett, Sandy Forsyth and Bernie Piper who were together at school are the players. The underlying question of Spain’s neutrality has the British worried. While Spain considers its options Harry Brett is recruited by British intelligence to discover if Sandy Forsyth has found gold reserves that will strengthen Franco’s hand. Bernie Piper vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama. An attempt to rescue him becomes a dangerous game which draws the strands of this saga together. A first rate thriller.

Check out the book discussion and read reviews at Amazon.com.

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine (2005)
The Minotaur is classic Barbara Vine – an enthralling gothic-creepy tale. It has a 1960s family living in an ancient house with mysterious rooms and neurotic relatives. Set in rural Essex, it is the story of the dysfunctional Cosway family, who are locked in a power struggle. The story is narrated by the young Swedish nurse hired to care for the only son, John who suffers from what we now know as autism. True to her style, Vine tells the story in flashback, which has a dramatic impact.

Preview the book before you visit the library and read a review at Mystery Ink.com.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (2008)
It’s a really touching story that makes you feel like you are in Sarajevo during the 1992 siege. You become very closely involved with four individuals and their high points and low points. Expected human nature is sometimes not there. At other times, individuals participate in unimaginable acts of kindness.

Listen to Joseph Planta's interview with the author and read more about the book at RandomHouse.ca.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (2008)
Raimund Gregorius teaches classical languages at a Swiss college. After a chance encounter with a mysterious Portuguese woman and the discovery of an extraordinary book by Amadeu de Prado,  he begins to question his life. Carrying with him the book by Prado, he takes the night train to Lisbon in the hope that he will begin to comprehend the author’s life. Prado turns out to be a doctor whose practice and principles led him into confrontation with Salazar’s dictatorship, and a man whose intelligence and magnetism left a mark on everyone who met him. Gregorius becomes obsessed by what he reads and his investigations lead him all over the city of Lisbon, as he speaks to those who were a part of Prado's life. Gradually, the picture of an extraordinary man emerges.

It may take a while to get involved with the story, but once there it is easy to be drawn into the events that unfolded. It is worth the effort as you begin to appreciate the thoughts that are being expressed by both Gregorious and Prado. For those who want a good, intelligent read that’s an excellent analysis of character and poses some fascinating questions about life and love, you won’t go wrong with Night Train to Lisbon.
Read the reviews at Amazon.com.

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani (2007)
In a literal way, the title of this book refers to the dye that carpet makers make from the petals of flowers. In another more poetic way, our heroine does give her life’s blood to learn the secret of carpet making in 17th century Persia. Eventually her talented persistence permits her a spiritual rebirth and a decent life. The journey from abject poverty and helplessness to self-respect is a beautifully conceived and artfully written story. I recommend this book for its absorbing content and rich character development.

Find a reading guide, author information and reviews at Book Browse. Go to the book's website for additional interviews, reviews and related links.

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh (2008)
This story of pain, beauty, sickness and health, love and betrayal revolves around the McKotch family, a flawed but very real New England family dealing with the realities of life. The characters are so well developed in this book you can feel their pain and hope they make it even when you can barely stand the choices they make. The family dynamics are palpable and "the condition" of being human draws you in. This would be a good book discussion choice. The author, Jennifer Haigh, is an exceptional writer and I have enjoyed her previous two books (Mrs. Kimble and Baker Towers) and would recommend them too.

Browse the book before you visit the library and read the New York Times review.

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey (2001)
Different in tone from her alarming psychological tales (Homework, The Missing World), this novel is a deceptively simple coming-of-age story set in Scotland in the early 1900s. Eva’s mother dies giving birth to her and she is raised by her father and her practical Aunt Lily. Eva is a woman whose life is accompanied by invisible "companions" whose “guidance” is both helpful and harmful. Eva’s relationship with them is colored by both humor and melancholy. This isn't a ghost story, but rather a love story of the best kind.

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (2008)
A young man is torn among loyalty to his English family, his Chinese grandfather, and his Japanese Aikijujitsu mentor during the Japanese occupation at Malaya, 1939-1945. To many he was a collaborator, to others a hero. He first tells his story 50 years later to a Japanese woman who had loved his mentor during their youth. Reincarnation and moral ambiguities drift through the story. It kept my attention.

The Gift of Rain was nominated for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Check out the review in USA Today.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005)
This book reveals more about Chinese culture in the 19th century than any book I’ve ever read. As the story unfolds, the friendship of the two main characters, Snow Flower and Lily, reflect the needs of women everywhere. We sigh with empathy for both of these women.

Visit the author's website to learn about the story behind the book, read an excerpt, or view book discussion questions.

The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe

The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe (2007)
The story is told by Rosamund, who believes she will soon pass away. She is recording her family history on tape for the mysterious Imogene. We learn Imogene is blind and adopted out of her family at the age of three and that is why Rosamund feels the need to recount her family history for the girl.

Rosamund was evacuated from London to her aunt and uncle’s farm in Shropshire during the war. It was there she met her older cousin Beatrix. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent Aunt Ivy abuses Beatrix, mentally, emotionally and physically. The cycle begins and we learn that it has extended over three generations. Ivy toward Beatrix, then Beatrix toward her daughter Thea and finally Thea toward her daughter Imogene.

Rosamund’s narration touches on family love and tragedy. Chance happenings that have an influence on people’s lives and a family saga that is complex makes for a brilliant read.

For local reviews, check out the Daily Herald or TimeOut Chicago. Find an excerpt, reader's guide, and more about the book and the author at the publisher's website.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1994)
A courtroom drama provides the framework for this tale of the legacy of racism following WWII in the northwestern United States.

The reading group guide for the winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award contains historical background for the  novel, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading. You can also compare the novel to the 1999 movie starring Ethan Hawke.

Run by Ann Patchett

Run by Ann Patchett (2007)
A beautifully written story that proves several themes tied around relationships. A prominent man has raised his son and two adopted African-American sons since his wife’s death years ago. His relationship with his oldest son is lacking and his plans for his adopted sons are at odds with what they want for their lives. The tangle of feelings within the family, including the hole left in their lives when the mother died, are brought into focus when an accident brings new people into their world. In fact, their world is turned upside down. The characterizations are wonderful. I didn’t want the book to end.

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates (2004)
This coming of age novel is a wonderfully written, unique and imaginative, first novel. Set in the 1960s, this is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, over the course of a summer.

Told through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. Su-Jen’s elderly father and beautiful young mother are unhappy in their marriage. Su-Jen’s mother is miserable in this new small town.

Su-Jen is rapidly adapting to life in Canada and goes through all the ups and downs of a typical 1960s childhood. She develops a friendship with Charlotte, a spirited girl who behaves in a way that is older than her years. There is also tragedy, foreshadowed, yet still a shock when it finally occurs.

The first and last paragraphs of Midnight at the Dragon Café are poignant and are Su-Jen’s reflections on a fate she thinks should have been hers.