Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Visitors by Sally Beauman

In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter, funded by George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, discovered the first intact tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, and unleashed a frenzy of interest in the boy pharaoh that continues to this day.

That's the context for Sally Beauman's newest novel, The Visitors, which tells the story of Lucy Foxe-Payne, a young girl recovering from typhoid and the loss of her mother by vacationing in Egypt in the early 1920's.  While there, she makes the acquaintance of Frances Winlock, daughter of the head of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and through Frances, she comes to know Carter, Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn, and many other people involved in Egyptology in the early part of the 20th century.

Seeing this exotic world through Lucy's young eyes, you can't help getting caught up in the growing excitement surrounding the search for a new tomb, but The Visitors offers more than just an adventure in Egyptology.  Beauman's thoroughly researched novel  features deftly portrayed, emotionally complex characters.  It's written in a style that is both very readable and breathtakingly beautiful. Using the framework of the discovery of King Tut, Beauman has created a splendid, compelling story that's one of the best I've read this year.

The Visitors is due to be released in July, but it's already available in the VBPL catalog if you'd like to place a hold.  The library has a large collection of books exploring King Tut in both fact and fiction, and for another noted author's fictionalized look at Egyptian archaeology of the 1920's, check out Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

I'm a huge fan of the movie Casablanca.  If you haven't seen it, it is set in the city of Casablanca in the early 40's, where refugees fleeing Europe wait for passage to safety.  There's intrigue and romance and sacrifice and of course, danger.

I picked up The Two Hotel Francforts because on the surface, it seemed to have a lot in common with the classic film. Set in neutral Portugal instead of North Africa, it tells the story of two couples trying to get away from Nazi Europe.

Pete and Julia Winters' marriage is in trouble - Julia always swore she would never go back to the U.S., and is pushing to stay in Europe, even though her Jewish heritage puts her at risk.  Edward and Iris Freleng have made a life of drifting from place to place, playing manipulative sexual games. These couples meet by chance in Lisbon where Pete and Edward begin a complex, often painful affair as they wait for their passage out.

The intrigue here is personal, not political, and the focus is not the exercise of power on the world stage, but within the relationship of husband and wife and of chance-met strangers drawn together in obsessive romance.

For another reflective, bittersweet look at this period, also featuring a man struggling with sexual identity, try The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Atonement by Ian McEwan

It is 1935, and Briony Tallis is a precocious, imaginative, and somewhat sheltered child of 13.  When she misinterprets an interaction between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the son of their charlady, she sets events in motion that will impact Cecilia, Robbie, and Briony herself for years to come.

Atonement is a novel that builds gradually, with McEwan's elegant prose immersing the reader in the world of the English upper class of the 1930's and then plunging into the chaos and horror of the British army's withdrawal to Dunkirk after the fall of France.

While all of the characters are strong and compelling, it is Briony who really carries the story, and in many ways, Atonement is a coming of age story for her.  She begins the story as a child, largely shielded from the consequences of her actions.  But when she chooses to act upon the adult stage, she must learn to live with those consequences, and to make her attempts at atonement.

Atonement was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and I really need to go and read the book that won that year, because if it was better than Atonement, it must be extraordinary.  For another book set in the 1930's that features a single moment that has lasting consequences, try Amor Towles' Rules of Civility.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

For some reason, when I was growing up, I read a lot of books by authors from the UK.  There was something both exotic and familiar about the characters, setting and style that appealed, and continues to appeal to me. Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett has a lovely, old-fashioned feel that took me back to those experiences.

It is 1940, and London is under imminent threat of attack.  For their own safety, children are being evacuated from the city and sent into the countryside to live with strangers.  Fortunately, Jeremy and Cecily Lockwood are able to go north to their Uncle Peregrine’s estate.  Jeremy, a prickly 14 year old, wants to stay in London to do his part, but 12 year old Cecily is happy at Heron Hall, especially as the family takes in an evacuee, May Bright.  When the two girls go exploring  in the ruins of an old castle, they meet two boys who are not what they seem.

But it isn't the story of Cecily, May and the two boys that makes this book work for me.  It’s the story of Cecily, Jeremy, and May and how they each cope with the changes that World War II has forced upon them.  It’s the children’s growing understanding of what war means, how power can be used or abused, and how even the powerless have choices. 

Children of the King has vivid, memorable characters and is beautifully written.  There’s no dumbing down in this book, which to my mind, is the mark of excellent children’s literature.   If you want to read about true experiences of children during World War II, check out Children of the BlitzFor a different cultural perspective on the costs of war, try Weedflower, about a Japanese girl interned in a camp here in the U.S.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

If you're reading this, you probably like books.

Do you like books about books?

If so, stop reading this, and put The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry on hold immediately.

A.J. Fikry owns a small bookshop on Alice Island.  After his wife's tragic death, he now lives alone in an apartment above the store, with only a very-valuable first edition Edgar Allen Poe volume to keep him company.

When this rare book is stolen, he decides he has nothing else of value, and starts leaving his door unlocked, only to come home one day and find something very unexpected left waiting for him in his store, changing his life forever.

With a host of sympathetic and well-drawn characters, Zevin paints a full picture of a charming island town and its inhabitants. Her love of books is evident, both in the chapter intros (each a summary of a well-known short story) and her depictions of life in a bookstore.  For example, this paragraph about describing the selections of a book group made my laugh out loud with recognition:
"In April, The Paris Wife. In June, A Reliable Wife.  In August, American Wife. In September, The Time Traveler's Wife. In December, he runs out of decent books with wife in the title.  They read Bel Canto"* 
A beautifully-written, quick read, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a must-read for booklovers (and especially librarians) everywhere.

Readers who enjoy this should also check out The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde

*sidenote: I do highly recommend Bel Canto (reviewed here on vbplrecommends by Lennis) .

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

It's the summer before college, and Elizabeth and Lauren have both just received the official email informing them that they will be roommates in the fall.

Elizabeth, excited to be leaving home in New Jersey, shoots off an email to Lauren introducing herself and discussing the usual things (who will bring the microwave?).

Lauren, busy helping to care for her five younger siblings, only has time to send a short, brief reply... after all, she really wanted a single anyway.

And thus, begins their correspondence. Over the course of the summer, they begin to share more of their lives... their arguments with friends, the boys they're getting to know, their family dramas.

Zarr and Altebrando each write one of the characters, and details what is happening in their lives, interspersed with the text of the emails they send to each other.  The tension between what is actually happening and what they share in their emails adds a realistic touch to the novel.

This is a great summer read for high schoolers getting ready to head to college (or even for those of us who went to college in the pre-smartphone-dark-ages).

Readers may enjoy other YA collaborative novels, such as Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Dash and Lily's Book of Dares (both by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn),  Will Grayson, Will Grayson, (by David Levithan and John Green), and Team Human (by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Panic by Lauren Oliver

In her newest novel, Panic, Lauren Oliver moves away from  her YA dystopian series, Delirium and back to the realistic fiction genre of her debut, Before I Fall.

Panic tells the story four teens spending the summer in Carp, a small town in the middle of nowhere.  Hard-hit by the recession, Carp has few opportunities for young adults, and all four teens are looking for a way out of town.

Thus, they end up involved in "Panic", a summer game started years earlier, where just-graduated-seniors participate in a series of progressively more dangerous challenges.  Those who complete a challenge move on to the next one, and ultimately, the teen left at the end will win $60,000.

Oliver switches between the perspectives of four of the main characters.  Each  has their own reasons for participating -- one just wants to pay for college, one is trying to get away from her abusive, alcoholic mother, and each has secrets that they're keeping from the others.

Panic is fast-paced and gripping, and readers will root for each of the characters to succeed, even as they compete against each other. Those who enjoyed Oliver's earlier novels will recognize her style, even in a different genre.

If you enjoy Panic (or while you're waiting to read it), check out Lauren Oliver's other YA and youth novels (including Liesl and Po -- review by Ashley).  Readers who enjoy contemporary novels about teens in tough situations may also enjoy the works of Katie McGarry (including Pushing the Limits) and Laura Wiess.