Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Best Books of 2011 List (part 1)...

It's that time of year when we are inundated with "best of the year" lists. I'm gonna toss yet another one your way. BookPage has published their Readers' Choice Best Books of 2011 list. I like this list because it is the result of votes of "real people." Not from sales numbers or professional book reviewers (although some of 2,500+ voters may be. Who knows?). So, without further ado, here goes.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: science fiction/fantasy
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Night Circus will be available as a Spanish Nook book on February 21st.

It has to feel fantastic to have your debut novel received with so much praise! Night Circus was also picked by BookPage as having one of the 25 best book jackets of the year. Erin's blog is a pretty fun read as well. In addition to writing Erin is also an artist. She paints, mostly in acrylics. Her work includes the Phantomwise tarot deck painted entirely in black and white acrylic.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Genre: fiction- family saga
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
Another well-received debut novel and, like Erin Morgenstern, Vanessa Diffenbaugh lives in Massachusetts. Vanessa and her husband have two children of their own and have also fostered children. Inspiration for the novel came from Kate Greenaway's 1884 book Language of Flowers, and a 15-year-old girl she and her husband mentored. She says that her novel's message is to expose the difficulties that foster kids face when they age out of the system and she hopes that people will be spurred into action. She's launched the Camellia Network to support youths transitioning from foster care and offer an avenue in which people can help. In Language of Flowers, Camellia means "my destiny is in your hands."

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
 Genre: literary fiction
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.
What a year it's been for Ann! She had the book tour for State of Wonder this summer. She opened her bookstore, Parnassus Books, in November. And her book, Bel Canto was chosen as one of the give-away books for World Book Night. I wonder if she's going to take any time off before she wears herself out?

As a side note, her mother is author Jeanne Ray. I didn't know that until just the minute before I began typing it. I read her book Eat Cake. I loved it. She has another novel due for release on May 22nd titled, Calling Invisible Women.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
This synopsis is from Erik Larson's website:
Genre: nonfiction- world history
Journey to Berlin during Hitler’s first year in power, 1933, in the company of a real-life father and daughter from Chicago who suddenly found themselves transported to the heart of the city. They had no conception of the harrowing days that lay ahead. At the time, nothing was certain—Hitler did not yet possess absolute power, and few outsiders expected his government to survive. The family encountered a city suffused with energy and optimism, with some of the most striking, avant-garde buildings in the world. Its theaters, concert halls, and cafés were jammed; the streets teemed with well-dressed attractive people. But my two protagonists were about to begin an education that would change them forever, with ultimately tragic consequences.
The father was William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered professor who, much to his surprise and everyone else’s, was picked by President Roosevelt to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. His daughter, Martha, was 24 years old, and chose to come along for the adventure, and to escape a dead marriage to a New York banker. They and the rest of their family settled in a grand old house on the city’s central park, the Tiergarten—in literal translation, the Garden of Beasts.

Dodd expected to encounter the same warm citizenry he had known three decades earlier while a graduate student in Leipzig; he hoped to use reason and quiet persuasion to temper Hitler’s government. Martha found the “New Germany” utterly enthralling, totally unlike the horrific realm depicted in newspapers back home. For her, as for many other foreign visitors at the time, the transformation of Germany was thrilling and not at all frightening. Not yet.

As that first year unfolded they experienced days full of energy, intrigue, and romance—and, ultimately, terror, on a scale they could never have imagined. Their experience tells volumes about why the world took so long to recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler.

Here are some of the people you’ll meet in the Garden of Beasts:

—Rudolf Diels, the young, handsome first chief of the newly established Gestapo, who proved to be a man of surprising integrity—and became one of Martha’s lovers.

—Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the gigantic, buoyant Harvard grad who played piano for Hitler and who believed Martha might be just the woman to tame the Führer’s soul.

—Hermann Göring, whose immense size and passion for flamboyant uniforms made him the brunt of private mockery, yet whose lethal nature would soon be shockingly revealed.

—U.S. Under Secretary of State William Phillips, who hated Jews and led a cadre of like-minded State Department officials in a quiet campaign to unseat Dodd from his post.

—George Messersmith, the “peppery” American consul general who stood up to the Nazis at every turn—and wanted Dodd’s job.

—Franz von Papen, the handsome, boot-licking vice chancellor whose staff maneuvered him into making a dramatic anti-Hitler speech—and thereby set off a horrific cataclysm of terror and murder.

As the Dodds’ first year progresses, you’ll accompany them to parties and banquets, visit Göring’s bizarre country estate, and take drives through the German countryside to evade Nazi surveillance. You’ll feel the fear and tension rise in Berlin as Hitler gains power and confronts a potential rebellion, until the Dodds find machine guns outside their home and Berlin awash with blood and terror. . . . Welcome to the Garden of Beasts.
Tom Hanks has reportedly bought the film rights to In the Garden of Beasts.

Erik is a master, bestselling author of the historical narrative, though he doesn't think of himself as an historian. He considers himself "an animator of history." In his books he strives "to present, to the extent that he can, what something smelled like, what the weather was like." His own descriptions of his books are far better than the publishers synopses, and, at times laced with humor.

And finally, you have to love a guy that thinks that Airplane! is the finest comedy ever made, as I learned from reading his bio. I have to agree. That movie is freaking HILARIOUS! Speaking of funny, read his blog.

Erik Larson lives in Seattle with his wife, Dr. Christine Gleason, who heads the neonatology department at the University of Washington medical school, and his three daughters who are 17, 20, and 22 years old.

And Hubby thought HE was outnumbered with TWO girls in the house after the man-child moved out!

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Genre: literary fiction
It's the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
Have you read this book? I haven't. I've seen so many mixed reviews that I was wondering what you, my faithful reader(s), had to say.

It's undisputed that Jeffrey Eugenides is a gifted writer. He won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex. And this is his first novel since. "I envy writers who came from a world where social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I couldn't, being an American born in 1960. ... I didn't think it was possible to write a Jane Austen novel now, and in fact, it isn't. But I did want to traffic in the same ideas." Here's  the interview.

Jeffrey Eugenides on Writing, The Marriage Plot, and Nabokov

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Genre:  science fiction
In a sparkling debut, A Discovery of Witches became the "it" book of early 2011, bringing Deborah Harkness into the spotlight and galvanizing fans around the world. In this tale of passion and obsession, Diana Bishop, a young scholar and the descendant of witches, discovers a long-lost and enchanted alchemical manuscript deep in Oxford's Bodleian Library. Its reappearance summons a fantastical underworld, which she navigates with her leading man, vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. Harkness has created a universe to rival those of Anne Rice, Diana Gabaldon, and Elizabeth Kostova, and she adds a scholar's depth to this riveting story of magic and suspense.
Whew. I don't know where to start with this one. This is a debut for Deborah Harkness. But only in the fiction genre. She is a well-regarded historian and professor of European History at USC, and has published two works of history- John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007). On top of all of that, she also writes an award-winning wine blog, Good Wine Under $20.

Oh, and by the way, A Discovery of Witches is the first book in The All Souls TRILOGY! The second book, Shadow of Night, is set to release July 10, 2012.

Good grief...I feel like such a slacker!

Talk to you soon.
Happy reading,


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