Posts Tagged ‘Uprooted’

bookwrapComing  up with a year-end list of favorite books is a piece of cake for me. They’re the same books I’ve been wrapping up as presents for my favorite people. Fa la la la!

One is my 2014 top book — Emily St. John Mandel’s beautifully written Station Eleven, now out in paperback. A dystopian novel, for sure, but also a hopeful one. I gave it 5 stars — “amazing” –on Goodreads, something I rarely do. This year, for example, my only 5-star rating went to Hanya Yanagihara’s  novel A Little Life, which was both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the ways in which the past impinges on the present. Dark and immersive, it was often as hard to read as it was to put down. I first read it as a digital galley, so I’m giving it to myself for Christmas. (Last year, I gave myself Station Eleven).

littlelifeAs to what books I’m giving to others, one of my friends from Maryland gets Anne Tyler’s latest Baltimore novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. Gently comic, it recounts the story of the Whitshank family, whose members charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life. Tyler has such a gift for illuminating ordinary lives so they seem extraordinary.

I’m giving J. Ryan Stradal’s wonderful first novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest to a friend who knows her way around a kitchen and also appreciates fine fiction. It’s about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, including her chef spoolfather, a high school boyfriend, a jealous member of her supper club, and a woman whose peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies but not by Eva. A few delicious-sounding recipes are included but it’s the words you’ll devour. I did.

Another friend who’s already read Stradal’s novel is going to get The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, who wrote A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon. This collection of interwoven stories is just as lyrical and poignant. It begins in the 1930s with a Russian artist working as  a censor under Stalin, who becomes obsessed with a painting of a prima ballerina. The ballerina appears in a later story, while others feature soldiers, prisoners, brothers connected by places or Kitchensphotographs, families and memories, and one particular painting. The book came out in October, but I’m just getting to it. I can’t read everything, you know, which is why I always read other year-end lists, looking for what I might want to read next. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which is a favorite of many, including President Obama, is next on my list.

Back to wrapping. The magical fairy tale of a novel, Uprooted by Naomi Norvik, will go to a fantasy fan, and I’ll also tell her about Sarah Prineas’ Ash & Bramble, another once-upon-a-time retelling I read recently. Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules is the first in a series called Prisoners of Peace, and will appeal to readers of The Hunger Games and Divergent.

tsaruprootedI read so many good mysteries and thrillers this year that I could wrap into the New Year. Terrific new series entries from Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, plus stand-alones from Karin Slaughter and Paula Hawkins. I began the year with Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and I’m ending it on another high note with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May and the Burning Man, both funny and timely.

And time to wrap this up. Oh, so many books, so little time. Wishing you book-filled holidays. Fa la la la–la la la!

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watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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