A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

I jumped on the Game of Thrones bandwagon…and I am so glad I did! True, I’m a little late to the party, but hey, better late than never, right?*

Martin’s A Game of Thrones comes in at just under 800 pages. It’s intricate, weaving together many stories from the perspective of several characters spread across the Seven Kingdoms. It effortlessly becomes a sweeping story about politics, family, and a subtle dance of intrigue that can turn deadly in an instant. It’s such a tightly woven story it almost defies summary.

I give this first novel in the series a ringing endorsement. It’s the kind of book that draws you into another world and brings characters to life – complicated characters with motivations good and bad and somewhere in between. It’s the kind of book you think about when you have to set it down for awhile. It’s the kind of book that makes me look forward to the next one in the series!

Read it.

*I was also late the the Harry Potter party. I distinctly remember 5th grade sharing time when a boy in my class, Kyle, was talking about a book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. I thought it sounded dumb. Another year or so later, and I was totally hooked and I’m now a huge fan.


The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

I finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magician King over the weekend. As the sequel to The Magicians, it picks up a few years after Quentin returns to Fillory with Eliot, Julia and Janet. He and the other three are the four kings and queens of Fillory, and they have it pretty darn good. But, as Quentin wouldn’t be Quentin without some amount of dissatisfaction, King Quentin is looking for something more than what he’s got. And boy, does he get it. Along the way, we find out much more about Julia, which is interesting and drives the plot from a distance.

I have to say, I liked The Magician King much better than The Magicians. In retrospect, it seems that The Magicians was all lead-up to the events that happen in the sequel. Grossman also lost his tendency to skip big gaps of time and leave out details until they are immediately important (i.e. the fourth years disappearing in The Magicians was never mentioned until it was time for Quentin to disappear himself). Some of the ending is disturbing – I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers – but I’m still not sure how I feel about some of Julia’s story.

Overall, The Magician King was a great read. I’m glad I picked it up and didn’t let my misgivings with its prequel deter me. I would definitely recommend it!

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Sometimes I have to take a break from reading new books. After a series of disappointing reads from the library, I felt it was time to stop searching and just enjoy reading one of my favorites: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

Of course, The Hunger Games has become very popular of late, what with the upcoming release of the film in March 2012. I won’t lie, I’m super excited for the movie. I fully approve of (almost) all of the casting choices and I think it’s going to be great.

But I digress. The trilogy, consisting of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, take place in a future society that lives on what used to be the United States. This country is made up of 13 Districts that surround the ruling Capitol. The Districts rebel against the Capitol, causing the Capitol to destroy District 13 and devise a punishment for the remaining 12 Districts. This punishment: The Hunger Games. Every year, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are “reaped” from each District to become “tributes”. The 24 tributes are sent to a vast arena, which could be anything from a desert to a windswept, icy mountain. In the arena, the tributes compete to stay alive; the last living tribute is the victor. At the opening of The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss Everdeen, a young woman of District 12 who cares for her mother and younger sister.

I won’t continue, since from this point on in the plot, spoilers abound. Just read it. It’s young adult fiction, but it has an edge to it. (Clearly, as the premise is pretty barbaric.) The trilogy is breathless and exciting, emotional and complicated. It was great to once again be swept up by a story; that’s what I look for in books.

Up next: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road is a story of a Polish family reunited after the end of World War II. Janusz was a soldier in the army while his wife and son, Silvana and Aurek, were run out of Warsaw and lived in the forest for years. After six years of being apart, the family is reunited and live in England. There, they have a nice house with a proper English garden and kindly neighbors. But it is still a struggle to move on with their lives after the horrors they have each seen. Throughout the book, the underlying questions is this: does living in a house with a garden enough to make a family? Can a new car or an education for Aurek erase the past enough to build a future?

Told in alternating points of view and through flashbacks throughout the war, 22 Britannia Road shows a wide portrait of the effects of WWII – effects both immediate and lasting. An image that stays with me is that of Silvana cutting the pictures of lost and orphaned children from the newspapers, and sleeping with them under her pillow so the grey ink stains her hands and her pillowcase. The imagery throughout is lovely, haunting and often heartbreaking. But through the course of the story, Hodgkinson shows the resilience of the human spirit and love. Wonderfully written, 22 Britannia Road hits home.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

The year is 1933, and William E. Dodd has been appointed American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany by President Roosevelt. Before setting sail for Berlin, Dodd takes Roosevelt’s instructions to heart: to uphold American values. Thus, in the face of the economic hardships crippling the U.S., Dodd decides he and his family will live on his regular salary of just over 17,000 dollars – much to the chagrin of the State Department and the “Pretty Good Club” of independently wealthy Harvard graduates that made up the bulk of consular service. Dodd makes a fascinating ambassador: he is either completely inept, or totally brilliant. The truth is not always clear; however, he does his very best to carry out the task he believes Roosevelt set him, even in the face of an ever-strengthening Third Reich. Dodd’s daughter, Martha, is the second central figure. She has a brilliant social life, rubbing shoulders with members of the foreign press and important Nazi officials – even the surprisingly moral and upright chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

It is an unsettling read in many ways. First and foremost, In the Garden of Beasts (by Erik Larson) is a work of non-fiction. There are quotes throughout which illuminate some truths from that era: for example, the tide of anti-Semitism throughout the United States – including many prominent members of the federal government. Perhaps the most unsettling thing is reading about how Hitler was able to rise to such extreme power without anyone stepping in from outside to stop him. The signs were there, though carefully concealed behind a thin veneer of “normalcy” experienced by American visitors to Germany during the early 1930s. Even Martha Dodd is originally seduced by the apparent loveliness of Germany and the Nazi party’s efforts to create a “better Germany.” Only after many months living in Berlin does the truth become evident to Martha and the rest of the Dodds: that Germany is gearing up for war. And even then, Dodd’s reports to the State Department – and, indeed, to Roosevelt himself – are ignored or dismissed as overly dramatic, based on the reports of short-term visitors to Germany. Amid the Americans’ strong isolationist bent, the truth about Hitler and Germany was suppressed or ignored in order to keep the country out of “European squabbles.” It seems incredible that the leaders of the 1930s truly believed that appeasement – just giving Hitler what he wanted – could solve the “Jewish problem,” as the growing persecution of Jewish people was known.

Both terrifying and fascinating, In the Garden of Beasts offers a real-life narrative of life in Berlin as Hitler rose to power, peopled not only with the Dodds and their friends and colleagues, but also with those such as Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, and Hitler himself. Fear, uncertainty and paranoia permeate the events of the book, instilling in the reader a faint semblance of what life was like during Hitler’s rise.

The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

I first heard of David Liss while listening to a program on either MPR or NPR – I can’t remember which. In any case, they were discussing his forthcoming new book, The Twelfth Enchantment, and I was intrigued. At the library not long after, I went to see which of Liss’ books were in the collection. They had several, and I chose The Coffee Trader, one of his older works, figuring if I liked it I could work my way up to his more recent novels.

Indeed, I liked The Coffee Trader. It was perhaps a little more simplistic in style than the books I’ve read recently (i.e. the poetic language throughout White Oleander), but overall it was an interesting piece of historical fiction surrounding the introduction of coffee into major European markets in the mid-1600s. The plot itself was interesting and tense, but the characters fell a little flat. The main character, Miguel, was not fully fleshed out, and as a result I felt little connection to him. Hannah, Miguel’s sister-in-law, was an intriguing character, however, as a woman divided in many areas of her life: duties as a wife vs. attraction to Miguel; desire to be a meek wife vs. desire to learn; the Catholic faith of her childhood vs. the abrupt revelation of her true Jewish heritage. Alferonda is another interesting character – he is neither good nor evil; having been wronged by his community, he has made the most of his life and become a puppet-master of sorts. The plot delivers twist after twist until the very end, making it an exciting and compulsive read. I read it in two days; it is by no means a difficult read.*

I’ll be returning to the library for more of Liss’ books in the future.

*Especially if, like me, you skim over the economics parts that explain the Dutch stock exchange in the 1650s.

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is practically prose poetry the whole way through. The language is rich and textured, rendering the details of each scene in heartrending detail. The story follows Astrid Magnussen, whose mother, Ingrid, is a poet who tells Astrid they are descended from Vikings. Ingrid despises weakness and worships strength and intelligence – especially her own. When she is rejected by a lover, she is driven mad and kills the man, landing herself in prison and Astrid in foster care. There follows six years of foster homes for Astrid, from the cruel to the ignorant to one tender woman that Astrid actually comes to love. Tied to her mother’s legacy and harshness through letters and a few visits to the prison, Astrid struggles to find herself and peace with the world as she grows from girl to woman.

The whole book is heart wrenching. At times, Astrid is strong, at others she is weak; she is human. As the story progresses, I found myself perched on the edge of my seat, just waiting for the next disaster to befall Astrid. This is fabulous writing, since it conveys Astrid’s own fear and sense that everything is temporary to the reader. At times, I was tripped up by the choppiness of the prose, but the vast majority of it is expressive, poetic, and emotional. I was unsure as I neared the end of the book how the story could possibly end with any sort of finality,* but ultimately it was wrapped up in such a way that I was satisfied with Astrid’s development as a character, the events surrounding her mother’s trial, and the forecasted future for Astrid.

*Not, of course, that finality at the end of a novel is a necessity. Some books simply end – and that bugs me.