Great Reads

Byatt, A. S. Ragnarok: the End of the Gods


In Byatt’s slender, slender, semi-autobiographical novella, an unnamed young girl who has fled to the countryside during the Blitz attempts to make sense of the war-torn world around her. Her father is a flier in the war so far away and the girl is convinced he will never return. The darkness and violence that the adults speak of in hushed tones does not match the brightly optimistic emptiness of the words mouthed at church each week. It isn’t until a copy of “Asgard and the Gods” comes into the girl’s possession that the world around her begins to make sense as seen through the lens of the much darker and more violent Norse mythology contained in her book.

Interspersing scenes from the daily life of the girl with retellings and reinterpretations of the mythology she is reading, “Ragnarok: the End of the Gods” serves as an able allegory for our times as well.

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Groff, Lauren. Arcadia

In the 1970s, a group of idealistic hippies come together with a vision of utopia, following their charismatic leader, Handy, on a cross-country trek which ends in western New York state at a decaying mansion known as Arcadia House. Bit (the littlest bit of a hippie) is the first child born to the new Arcadians and he grows up in the commune among the optimistic, romantic, and ultimately all-too-human adult founders. We see through his eyes as his mother struggles with a deep and abiding clinical depression, as his father challenges the increasingly haphazard “leadership” of Handy, as the commune grows from a tightly-knit core of like-minded individuals with a vision of cooperation into a sprawling morass of the lazy and the criminal and the insane, as the commune eventually dissolves away into nothing after Handy’s arrest. Having never lived “Outside,” young Bit is thrust into a whole new world and must make sense of it as well as he can until, as an adult, circumstances return him to an Arcadia very much changed, but still a place of refuge.

A plot summary cannot do justice to the lyrical and poignant power of this novel. Bit is a thoughtful, sensitive, and entirely sympathetic narrator and it is a pleasure to grow up alongside him, watching as his perceptions and understandings change with time. Highly recommended.

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Winspear, Jacqueline. Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie Dobbs has a truly impressive history: housemaid, Cambridge student, wartime nurse and now, a private detective. With help from her former employer, Lady Rowan, Maisie's natural ambition, intelligence and empathy aid her in solving some complex mysteries.

In the first book of the series (the ninth book in the series will be released this Spring), Maisie is faced with the strange task of investigating a retreat for traumatized war veterans which turns out to be very close to home. She must draw upon her unique detective training, going beyond the facts in a case, using psychology instead, to come to conclusions; a truly new and fascinating method. What she discovers is closely linked to England's post-war culture; why society shuns the emotionally and phycially damaged and how those in power take advantage of these poor souls.

Maisie is a wonderful heroine who is sure to grab historical fiction and mystery fans alike.

Thompson, Craig. Habibi.

In this epic, illustrated love story, two young slaves who come to find one another against the harsh landscape of the Middle East, must struggle against overwhelming obstacles to be together. A mix of religious stories, mysticism and contemporary social commentary, Craig Thompson (author of Blankets) beautifully renders how a nine year-old Dodola and infant Zam escape slavery, grow into adulthood on an abandoned ship in the desert, and then are forced apart once more just as they begin to feel passion for one another as adults.

The complex plot follows both Zam and Dodola through their journeys apart while symultaneously telling the story of how they met and came to love each other. The magical saga is told through Thompson's outstanding illustrations that are able to convey both the lushness and barbarity of the characters' experiences and beliefs. Take a journey with Habibi and discover the power of love and fate.


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Lupton, Rosamund. Sister


Beatrice Hemmings is convinced that her younger sister Tess, a vibrant, life-loving artist, would never have committed suicide. But she is the only one who believes that; everyone else believes that  Tess was suffering from postpartum psychosis following the stillbirth of her child and took her own life in a fit of despair or hallucination.  Beatrice, determined to get to the truth, sets out to investigate her sister’s death, relating her progress in the form of an extended letter to her sister.  As her investigations proceed and everyone around her begins to believe that Beatrice, too, has been unhinged by grief, the reader will wonder the same thing. Was Tess murdered? Is Beatrice simply unable to accept the truth?  Not until the explosive and gripping conclusion will the answers to everyone’s questions become plain.

Literary, intelligent, and defying easy genre classification, Lupton’s debut is both a moving meditation on grief and also a gripping psychological thriller. Recommended.

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