Great Reads

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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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.