Great Reads

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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Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus

Two rival magicians meet and seal a pact: each will train a protégé, and those protégés will compete in a contest only their masters fully understand.  The ground on which the contest will be fought is Le Cirque des Reves—the mysterious monochrome Circus of Dreams, which arrives without warning to delight, amaze, and quite literally entrance its audience.  The contestants are Celia, a young woman naturally skilled in illusions which only pretend to be illusory; and Marco, a strapping young man whose talents were won through research and study but are no less mesmerising for the effort involved.  But when the two meet, their competition becomes a forbidden romance as both put their talents to work wooing the other and their masters look on, disapproving.  The situation seems primed for tragedy, but can the other members of Le Cirque des Reves lend their myriad talents to save the lovers?

 Whimsical, inventive, and wonderfully crafted, The Night Circus is a treat. Recommended for fans of Susanna Clarke, Peter Beagle, and Neil Gaiman.

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Brosgol, Vera. Anya's Ghost.

When Anya, a teenager who is uncomfortable with everything from her body to her Russian family, falls down an abandoned well, she is surprised to discover she is trapped with the skeleton of a girl...along with her ghost. While Anya eventually escapes the cold, dark well and resumes her normal life, she feels guilty for leaving the lonely mysterious ghost, Emily, behind. By taking a piece of Emily's skeleton with her, the ghost is able to leave the well and experience life with Anya. At first, Anya is enjoying all the perks of having a spiritual sidekick, until she suspects that Emily has a darker past than she previously thought.

When Emily becomes too involved in Anya's love life, she decides to bring her bone back to the well so she can live in peace again. But there's one problem, Emily is no longer a lonely ghost; she has her own motives, desires and has even learned how to move physical objects. This quirky story takes a dramatic and creepy twist when Anya must find out who Emily really is in order to banish her back to the well. While an interesting, illustrated take on a classic ghost tale, Anya's Ghost is also a touching coming-of-age story about self-acceptance. The muted purple color pallete that Brosgol uses to illustrate the story gets increasingly darker as it progresses, perfectly complimenting the darkening plot.

Gabaldon, Diana. Outlander

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Outlander, a legendary book that really has it all: time travel, romance, history, adventure and infinitely more. The story opens on Claire Randall, a strong-minded and independent nurse who is vacationing with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands after being separated for years by WWII. While investigating an interesting flower growing near a Stonehenge-type structure (botany being one of her many talents),  she stumbles into a crack between two stones and is transported to 1743, landing smack in the middle of a battle between the English and Scottish clansmen. Claire, at first a captive of the Clan MacKenzie, proves herself invaluable because of her skill with "healing" and becomes quite comfortable in her new situation, despite being a suspected English spy. A romance soon blossoms between Claire and the mysterious outlaw, Jamie, and she finds herself being held to that time and place even more, despite her complete foreignness, the constant danger and her husband still living in 1945.

The plot is full of twists and turns, clan politics, witchcraft, battles, close escapes and a certain villainous English Captain who strangley resembles her husband back home. Although not a slim book (over 800 pages), you will be glued to every page. A great vacation read for historical fiction, romance and adventure fans. Find out what all the buzz is about and why Outlander is still such a sensation after twenty years.

Skyhorse, Brando. The Madonnas of Echo Park

Skyhorse’s affecting novel-in-stories offers unsentimental, clear-eyed tribute to the working class LA neighborhood of Echo Park and the Mexican Americans who live, work, and die there.  Lurking at the center of all of the stories is a tragedy…a young girl, shot and killed in a drive-by on the streets of Echo Park. Her death is the stone in the pond, and the stories presented here are the ripples.  Among those whose stories are presented are Aurora, a young woman who was also on the street corner that day; Aurora’s mother Felicia, a cleaning woman who becomes her employer’s only true friend; Felicia’s mother, a wealthy woman who gave Felicia away as a child and now can never get truly warm; Felicia’s ex-husband, who takes a construction job that turns out to be more than he bargained for; several gang members involved in one way or another with the shooting; a bus driver proud to have escaped a life in that same gang but who is nevertheless involved in a preventable tragedy of his own.  Haunting and vibrant, The Madonnas of Echo Park is recommended for fans of Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Ana Castillo, but can be appreciated by anyone with a taste for thoughtful, character-driven stories.

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