Great Reads

Benjamin, Melanie. Alice I Have Been.

You may have heard that Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was based on a real life Alice who, while taking a boat ride on a lazy summer day, asked Carroll to tell her a story which then became the iconic children's tale. The daughter of the Dean of Oxford University, Alice lived both a charmed and restrained life next door to Dodgson, a.k.a Carroll, who was a mathematics professor at the university and a close family friend of the Liddells. Melanie Benjamin removes the idyllic lens that covers this myth and reveals the more complicated nature of the relationship between Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson, one which was speculated to be darker than it appeared.

The book follows Alice from childhood to old age as she struggles against the confines of Victorian culture and her family, naively navigating her strange relationship with Dodgson and the impact it has on the rest of her life; the strained connection she has with her competitive older sister and mother, as well as the opportunities and misfortunes she experiences in the realms of love and family.

If you are looking for a charming tale, you will not find it here. Rather, Benjamin paints a picture of a girl who became entwined in something far more damaging than she imagined; a memory that would come to haunt her for the rest of her life. For historical fiction fans, this is a gem. Benjamin is a wonderful storyteller who balances fact with human feeling very well. Prepare to have your perspective of this children's classic changed forever. Make sure to pick up Benjamin's latest novel, Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Atkinson, Kate. Case Histories.

This beautifully crafted story opens with Atkinson introducing the reader to three seemingly unrelated crimes: a missing child from thirty years ago, a murderous office rampage, and a new mother who kills her husband after a mental breakdown. Private investigator Jackson Brodie has been hired to solve the cases by the loved ones left behind who desperately need closure. While the investigations have been cold for years, Brodie slowly begins to weave together the details of each one until all three have startling revelations.

While the book contains a good mystery, Atkinson also delves into the lives of the family members who hired Brodie, touching upon the deep emotional impact of the missing and the murdered along with the power of suspicion and doubt. In all three cases, the resolution was closer than any wished to see. Readers will enjoy both Brodie's struggle to unearth long-forgotten evidence, connect with his clients as well as his attempts to resolve his own disappointments, both past and present. Those looking for a refreshing and different mystery will enjoy Atkinson. Make sure to check out the rest of the Jackson Brodie mysteries, including the latest, Started Early, Took My Dog.

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Bohjalian, Chris. The Night Strangers

Pilot Chip Linton is plagued by the guilt he feels after an unsuccessful water landing claimed the lives of 39 of his passengers and crew.  He and his wife Emily and their 10-year-old twin daughters decide to start over and move to a rambling old Victorian house in a small town in New Hampshire.  But Chip, suffering from PTSD, phantom pains, and depression, does not find rest and respite in their new home. He quickly becomes obsessed with a strange door in the basement—a door bolted shut with exactly 39 heavy-duty carriage bolts.  When Chip’s phantom pains increase, he begins to understand that what he’s feeling are the fatal injuries sustained by three crash victims—a young woman, and a father and daughter. The three begin appearing to Chip and the dead father attempts to convince Chip to kill his own daughters to provide playmates for the dead girl.  Meanwhile, Emily is being befriended by a group of women in the town, all of whom are named for plants, all of whom have greenhouses filled with strange and exotic herbs and flowers, and all of whom have a very unusual and sinister interest in the Linton twins.

The Night Strangers is slow-starting,  with a gradual and inexorable build-up to the truly creepy ending.  However, many readers may wish Bohjalian had focused more on either the ghost story or the herbalists’s plot, the two stories being so unrelated outside of their cast that at times it feels one is reading two different books at once.

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Grossman, Lev. The Magicians

Quentin Coldwater has always expected magic.  He read the Fillory book series—similar to the Narnia series—long after most children had moved on, and was always subconsciously expecting to find his own passage to those magical lands.  So when he pushed through the tangled over-growth in an old abandoned lot one wintry New York City afternoon and found himself walking across a warm and summery sunlit field toward a huge stone edifice, he was startled, certainly, but not really surprised.  He wasn’t in Fillory, though—just upstate New York, but the building he was walking toward was Brakebills Academy, a school for magic. Quentin, it seemed,  had been specially chosen to take the entrance exam.  And thus began what should have been the adventure of Quentin’s life! Except that learning magic was actually a lot of hard work, and the students and faculty were really a lot like the students and faculty at any pretigious private university, and Quentin was never quite certain just what to do with his magical life after he and his friends graduated.  But when another former student showed up one day claiming that not only was Fillory a real place, but that he had a way for all of them to actually go there, the adventure of Quentin’s life really began. Except…

The Magicians has been compared to Narnia and to Harry Potter, but written for adults, and that’s a fair comparison.  All three share magic and wonder and an escape from the real world. But Grossman sets out to show us that even when magic is real, people are people and life is life and there is no magic spell for happiness. Engrossing and inventive.

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Dawkins, Richard. The Magic of Reality

Famous evolutionary biologist Dawkins teams up with well-known illustrator Dave McKean to examine many of the most fundamental questions in science including why the seasons occur, whether life on other planets is possible, what are the building blocks of matter, and how evolution really works.  Dawkins presents many of these ideas from a religious or mythological perspective first before delving into the real science.  His writing is straightforward enough for most pre-teens or teens to grasp the concepts he’s presenting, but not so simplistic that average adults will feel that Dawkins is talking down to them.  McKean’s illustrations, beautiful and complex as always, do a wonderful job of both explicating the concepts Dawkins is presenting and also demonstrating Dawkins’ central theme: that scientific truth is beautiful and magical enough on its own without any need for mythical or supernatural trappings.

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