A novel can give you a glimpse into another person’s life and give you a new perspective on your own life. But sometimes it can be hard to know what to read next.
We asked prolific reader Judy Ryan, who is now retired after working more than 20 years at Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids, to share recent book suggestions from her book club. Actually, Ryan participates in two book clubs; (we told you she likes to read.)
The Women’s Studies Reading Group meets the first Thursday of the month at 6:30 p.m. in the second floor conference room at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
The Art Lover’s Book Club meets on the third Thursday of each month at 4 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, in the Stamats Library. Both clubs are open to the public. Or check with your local library, bookstore or coffee shop to find a book club near you.
Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s books keep getting better and better. Still, if you’re new to her work, it’s best to begin with her early novels, to get to know the hard-to-find village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, and the people who live and work there. A cantankerous old poet with a pet duck, an unconventional artist, and unique purveyors of hospitality, literature and advice -- all are destined to become your friends.
They are more than just friends to Armand Gamache, who solves murders for the provincial police force, the Surete du Quebec. In the newest novel, Glass Houses, law and order seem to collide when Gamache takes the stand in a murder trial. Pinney slowly unveils complex layers of crime and intrigue after a silent but sinister visitor disturbs the peace of Three Pines. As always, murder is just the tip of an iceberg that obscures corruption, conspiracy, and desperate acts committed by people who can’t escape their history.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is a precocious 11-year-old who lives on a declining English estate in the 1950s with her well-meaning but aloof father and two older sisters. Left mostly to her own devices, Flavia spends hours in her personal chemistry lab (resurrected from a long-dead relative) where she finds ways to repay her sisters for their constant teasing. Outside of her laboratory her inquisitive nature often leads to danger.
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In this, the first of 10 Flavia de Luce novels, the mystery begins with a dead bird sprawled on the doorstep with a postage stamp clamped in its beak. Because she is only 11, and virtually invisible to villagers, Flavia has access to information and revelations that would otherwise be hidden. Mystery fans be advised, to know Flavia de Luce is to love her.
Fantasy Trilogy Openers
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In the midst of a harsh Russian winter, when snow buries the medieval countryside, a gifted maiden named Vasya is poised to become the heroine of Katherine Arden’s first fantasy novel. Vasya inherited an ability to commune with the spirits that inhabit her world, inside and out. She talks to the unseen folk who tend the hearth and hide in the forest and she honors their presence and purpose.
When a fanatical priest is exiled to her village, Vasya’s stepmother becomes one of his strongest supporters. Their crusade to banish the “evils” rooted in Russian myth and folklore make conflict inevitable. And there is more at stake than anyone realizes. It’s not a new plot, but medieval Russia and its legends provide an interesting setting. The next installment in the Winternight trilogy, The Girl in the Tower, is already on the bookshelves.
Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Witches and vampires and daemons. Oh my! Supernatural beings emerge from the shadows when historian Diana Bishop discovers a long-lost manuscript in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian LIbrary. Diana is herself a witch by birth, but she has spent her life denying her magical heritage, opting instead for the quiet life of a scholar. Her discovery makes that impossible.
One of the most capable competitors in the quest to capture and control the manuscript is a dashing 1,500-year-old vampire named Matthew, whose lineage is rooted in European history. In this, the first of her All Souls Trilogy, the author introduces the players and their families, and the rules that govern their behavior. Fraternizing between a witch and a vampire is definitely not allowed. Yet Diana and Matthew are fated to travel together across Europe, America, and even across time itself before the saga concludes. All three books in the trilogy have been published.
The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner
If you don’t fall in love with the novel’s namesake, a family-run bar perched above the sea on an Island off the coast of Sicily, you will surely fall under the spell of the family that owns and runs it. Amedeo, the family patriarch, first came to Castellamare to become the island’s physician. With his island-born wife, he resurrects an old drinking establishment that offers limoncello, rice balls, and warmth. Hospitality over four generations extends to locals celebrating their patron Sant’Agata, an English paratrooper who literally washes up on beach, and an array of judgemental elders and their offspring.
Like the folk tales Amedeo collects, love also endures, although not always smoothly in the face of globe-shattering events. This is the first adult novel from a British author who writes for teens, and it is makes a smooth transition into maturity. It’s too bad Castellamare is a fictional island, because it is a very appealing destination.
All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan
New York City provides the setting for a contemporary story of forbidden love. Liat, a student in New York, is from Israel and will return there before the year is out. When she meets a Palestinian artist who is also honing his talent in the Big Apple their attraction follows the course of young love. But while they can lose themselves in each other’s embrace, their families in the Middle East can never be ignored.
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More than a love story, Ribinyan’s novel is a demonstration of the insurmountable fissures between the lovers’ cultures. It is a the story of survival in a region of tumultuous history. What can cross the divide? What can survive? Like most stories of star-crossed lovers, there is no guaranteed “happily ever after” but there is much to be learned from a risk-taking novel that has been both rewarded and banned.
The Return by Victoria Hislop
Hemingway aside, it’s unusual to find a novel guided by events before and during the Spanish civil war. Hislop provides a portal into the past when a contemporary English woman visits Granada to learn more about salsa dancing, and discovers a Cafe with a compelling history.
Each member of the cafe’s Ramirez family personifies an aspect of conditions and events that tore Spain apart in the 1930s. The siblings are as embattled as their country. A flamenco dancing sister, her guitarist lover and an intellectual brother share loyalist passions while a bullfighting brother and others line up in Franco’s corner. Even the parents are implicated in clandestine activities. The book is a history lesson, where the complexities of the conflict are woven into a simpler tale of love and loyalty.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
This story of author Truman Capote and his companionship with mid-century New York socialites does not travel very far back into history, but it is a fictional reenactment of real situations with real people who glitter with drama and authenticity.
Propelled by his literary fame, Capote becomes the darling of a circle of elite women he describes as his Swans. Foremost among them is Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, the founder and chairman of CBS. Capote is as catty, gossipy, and ultimately as vicious as any of his friends. The novel follows their relationships from the 1950s through the 1970s, from the pinnacle of Capote’s fame and fortune to an emotional crash that leaves the group in tatters. It is an invitation to enter a time and neighborhood known only to special few.
Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth Century Icon by Gijs van Hensbergen
Victoria Hislop (The Return) used fictional people to outline the events of the Spanish Civil War. Pablo Picasso used paint to reveal its horror. The masterpiece that arose from the 1936 bombing of a Basque town called Guernica deserves its own biography. The story of the painting is inseparable from the life of its artist, and the events that brought it into being The book reveals the artists’ techniques and challenges, and the situations in Paris and Spain at the time of the painting’s creation. It also follows the paths this iconic work traveled after its introduction (including a stint at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Picasso was in exile in Paris when he was commissioned to produce a painting for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. Although he never returned to Spain, the pain he felt for his homeland gave the world one of its most stunning and enduring condemnations of war.