Due to COVID19, I have now been in Los Angeles 230 days. I used to travel nearly half of every month. Since I have not been able to move about, I have been escaping into the locations in some of my favorite fiction books.
Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
When I read that Magic Lessons was arriving soon, I re-read both Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic. You may have seen Sandra Bullock (Sally Owens) and Nicole Kidman (Gillian Owens) in the 1998 film from the first book in this trilogy. I loved all three of these books especially how history kept building backwards and how the siblings in each generation had somewhat opposite characteristics but together made a whole partnership.
Many of the books on my list are set in other locations and times because I missed traveling. Magic Lessons begins with Maria Owens, “in the 1600s, when she’s abandoned in a snowy field in rural England as a baby.” Maria learns the “Unnamed Arts” and the story takes place in England, Curaçao and Salem, Massachusetts. I loved reading about familiars, green magic, Grimoire and the history of the mysterious Maria from the first two books.
It felt strangely familiar to read about how “in the year 1675, when Maria turned eleven, there was another epidemic, of smallpox. Some towns and villages were emptied of all of their inhabitants, and the doors to houses swung open and robbers ruled the roads.” I felt like part of the magic as this tale wove its way through different locations, family members and tragedies. Remember, “Fate is what you make of it. You can make the best of it, or you can let it make the best of you.” During this time of uncertainty between COVID and the election, I liked reading about “Avra kadavra, I will create as I speak, I will force into being that which is impossible and illogical, all that is against the rules of men.”
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
I was talking with a friend about how I loved reading about witches and strong women in Magic Lessons and she recommended A Discovery of Witches. I literally devoured all three of these books. There were witches, vampires, love and one of my most favorite things ever, the library! And not any library but the library at Oxford!
At the beginning of Book 1 of the All Souls Trilogy, Diana who is the last of of the Bishop witches tells us that “with my hard-earned doctorate, tenure, and promotions in hand and my career beginning to blossom, I’d renounced my family’s heritage and created a life that depended on reason and scholarly abilities, not inexplicable hunches and spells. I was in Oxford to complete a research project.” Her parents, a witch and a warlock, named Rebecca Bishop and Stephen Proctor, met at Harvard and became anthropologists, as the paranormal do. Diana was orphaned at age 7 and from then on resisted magic and preferred as an adult to study “the period when science supplanted magic—the age when astrology and witch-hunts yielded to Newton and universal laws.” But at Oxford, once she touches “Ashmole 782, a palimpsest—a manuscript within a manuscript,” everything changes and our journey begins with many daemons and a very handsome vampire named Matthew.
I literally became absorbed into these books. I loved this explanation: “Magic is desire made real…When a witch concentrates on something she wants, and then imagines how she might get it, she can make it happen.” I wanted to be able to make the pandemic over but since I could not do that I simply kept reading.
In Book 2, we are told, “Magic begins with desire” and “that the practice of magic was not unlike the practice of history. The trick to both wasn’t finding the correct answers but formulating better questions.” I so wish that right now we had better questions being asked about our current predicament.
In each book, I loved the twists and turns and how the mysteries of the family continued to evolve. I won’t spoil any of the surprises for you and you can now watch A Discovery of Witches TV series on Amazon Prime!
Reaching Deep into our PAST
The Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike
I read both The Lost Queen and The Forgotten Kingdom written by Signe Pike who researched extensively about Languoreth who was a twin to Lailoken who inspired the legend of Merlin. She was a queen in sixth-century Scotland but the first book starts at Cadzow Fortress, Strathclyde Land of the Britons Late Winter, AD 550 when the ten-year-old twins lose their mother, Lady Idell. Although they have been brought up in the Old Ways of signs and omens, Languoreth is not to be a Wisdom Keeper or druid like her twin. She must deal with betrayal, bloodshed, brawls and a very handsome soldier named Maelgwn although she is pledged to Rhydderch, son of a Christian king.
I felt like I was walking in the woods with her as the descriptions are so vivid. We are now dealing with violence and political intrigue, and like Languoreth we must learn who we can trust and how to adapt to changing times. As Cathan tells her, “Each of us has the power to fight.” Languoreth tells us, “We are a people of choices, and in these choices we find our freedom. I choose for whom I fight.”
I am so glad that Pike has shared the story of Languoreth with us as we need these stories of strong women. Ariane told Languoreth that, “We may not always have the choice we would like. But we always have a choice.” Please use your choice to vote in our upcoming elections and be part of making a change.
When we are allowed to travel again, I will visit Scotland and the sites Ppike describes. Pike tells us, “My hope is that these novels will encourage you to undertake a journey of your own. For although the legends of Arthur and Merlin have their roots in events that took place nearly 1,500 years ago, their enchantment and ability to enrapture us has failed to diminish over time. But their magic is still accessible to any who seek it.” Where will your journey take you?
The Forgotten Kingdom, Book 2, starts with an imprisonment which mirrors how many of us have felt during COVID, stuck at home. As Trish Todd, Vice President & Executive Editor of Atria Books, shared: “In recent months, we’ve all felt like Languoreth, locked inside our homes waiting for the battle outside to be over. What will the world look like when we open the door? Who has survived? When will we see our loved ones again? The Forgotten Kingdom echoes the frightening uncertainty of our time while showing us that disasters that seem unprecedented or insurmountable have always inspired us.”
I hope you enjoy both of these books as much as I did. I will be waiting for the arrival of Book 3 in September 2023. I wonder what will happen with Angharad. I wish I could read it right now!
The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett
Although Ken Follett has been writing books since 1974, I first started to read his books when Pillars of the Earth was published in 1989. I loved this entire Kingsbridge series and am always so impressed by an author who can write a prequel that informs how their books began. The Evening and the Morning begins in 997, we know right away that our main character, Edgar, is smart about numbers, calendars and ready to go his own way at nearly 18 years old. He is a boat builder with his Pa and two brothers. The story begins with an invasion of 10 Viking ships which destroys his village and their business.
Our villain brothers, Bishop Wynstan of Shiring, Wigelm, and Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring, give Edgar, his mother, Mildred, and his brothers a farm with poor land in Dreng’s Ferry to get them out of Combe since they believe them to be troublemakers. They have no idea what they have started as Edgar is a man with ideas and helps the evolution of Dreng’s Ferry to Kingsbridge which leads to the other 3 books in the series.
In France, the Lady Ragna of Cherbourg, is a young noblewoman with many ideas about who she should or should not marry. Her choices and conflicts inform much of this story and her chance meeting with Edgar early on in this book changes her life and his. I was enthralled from the beginning to the end of this book. Reading about what people wore, how they treated their slaves and when or if they bathed kept me intrigued as the people built their towns, fought the foreigners and pledged loyalty to king and church.
If you are looking for more to read after the four incredible books in this series, remember that Follett has sold over 170 million copies of the 36 books he has written which have been sold in over 80 countries and in 33 languages.
The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian is another author who I have been reading for decades and first learned about in 1998 when Midwives, a novel about a rural Vermont midwife, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. I loved that book as well as The Buffalo Soldier (2002) and Trans-Sister Radio (2000). Each of his books is such a deep dive into characters’ lives and a truly unique story and perspective. Really, I have loved all of his books and so many are now either plays, movies or television series and his latest, The Red Lotus, is in development for a TV series with the same team that created the TV show for A Discovery of Witches.
Reading this book during a pandemic was a bit eerie. In part, I was thrilled to read about Vietnam and remember my own travels there. But in this tale, clearly something has gone very wrong.
Alexis, an ER doctor, first met Austin when he had a bullet wound. Later, on a bicycle tour of Vietnam to honor his father and uncle, he doesn’t return from his ride. She must use all of her detective skills to navigate his family, the FBI and her understanding of their relationship. I felt unnerved reading it and wondering what would happen next, why did this happen and what ever was going to happen next. I could not put it down and I do not want to give any of it away.
Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell
Although Lisa Jewell’s sixteen novels have sold over 2 million copies across the English speaking world, it was my first time to read one of her books. Invisible Girl is a real page turner. I stayed up much later than I realized because I had to keep reading even when the tale turned creepy because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. It reminded me to be careful of judging people and making assumptions. We often do not have the entire story and even when someone has made several poor choices that does not mean we know what happened next.
Everyone needs a friend and someone in their corner especially when they feel alone or vulnerable but this story reminds you to be careful who you confide in since the person you trust might not be who you think they are. This story will stay with me as it marinates in my brain for when I might have known sooner what the final twists would have been. A few times, I thought I saw the way it would end but there were more shifts than I imagined in this skillful telling. I expect to see it on the big screen in the near future.
This tale is not an escape like some of the others on this list into a different time but more of a deep dive into the drama of men’s anger. At first, I thought about not finishing it since I have had enough of politics, posturing and madness, but I wanted to see where it went and I am glad I kept reading. It is a masterful weaving of people and their actions in the past and present.
The Archer by Paulo Coelho
I have been reading Paulo Coelho since 1988 when I entered the world of his book, The Alchemist. I loved Brida, which is about a young Irish woman who is interested in dance, magic and great wisdom as well as Eleven Minutes, Hippie, Veronika Decides to Die and now The Archer.
It is by far the shortest book on this list and possibly the most existential. The main character, Tetsuya, is known as a carpenter, but is “the best archer in the country.” Another archer searches for him and challenges him. However, Tetsuya explains to him: “You have a good grasp of technique and you have mastered the bow, but you have not mastered your mind. You know how to shoot when all the circumstances are favorable, but if you are on dangerous ground, you cannot hit the target. The archer cannot always choose the battlefield, so start your training again and be prepared for unfavorable situations.” During COVID, we have not chosen the battlefield and we are vastly unprepared for the tasks. This book shares about how to confront unexpected trials and the need to practice until you achieve precision.
Tetsuya explains that you must search for “the kind of people who transform the world and, after many mistakes, manage to do something that can make a real difference in their community.” I hope that our political leaders are listening as we really need transformation at this time. And a most important final lesson: “Try to develop the gift of kindness: this gift will allow you to be always at peace with your heart.“
In many of Paulo Coelho’s books, he shares about his personal life and being committed to a mental institution because he wanted to be a writer. I hope that you find solace in one of his tales which have now sold more than 225 million copies worldwide and he is the most translated living author. He has won 115 international prizes and awards and in 2007 was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
Twenty-one-year-old, Zelda is a Viking enthusiast and an unusual narrator. Her goal is to be legendary. She was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and lives with her brother who is her protector since their mother died. Gert has to make hard choices and definitely has made mistakes.
Zelda is on a quest for the things many young women want including autonomy, a boyfriend and a job in the library. I love the library! I started to think if I wanted to work in the library and then I remembered it is a pandemic and everything is closed. So I just kept reading.
While Zelda is aware that she is different, she is fortunate that her tribe supports her in her efforts. Things do not always go well in this story, this is not a fairy tale. Zelda is brave and willing to take risks and I felt inspired to think about going on a quest myself. Zelda would want me to be my own hero.
Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
I have to admit it is hard for me to pick a favorite part of this story to share. Just open the book and start laughing. I love the drawings and the prose.
In #20 The Ugly Duckling 2 is about how “we aren’t very good at explaining things to children.” At one point the character says, “don’t tell children that everything is pointless. Tell them a frog story.”
In Story #23: “It is the year 2015 or 2019 or something…just over the horizon, a creature attempts to survive. Things are happening, many things are happening, Too many things have happened!” This is the best description of the pandemic I have heard and it isn’t even about that.
I loved the review from The Philadelphia Inquirer that said: “I would gladly pay to sit in a room full of people reading this book merely to share the laughter.” I want that too!
Two of my most favorite authors
Fortune and Glory (#27) A Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich
I absolutely love the Stephanie Plum novels. I wait every year for a new one to appear in November. I know I am not the only one because Evanovich has had her last seventeen Plums debut at #1 on the NY Times Best Sellers list and eleven of them have hit #1 on USA Today Best-Selling Books list. She has over two hundred million books in print worldwide and is translated into over 40 languages.
Since 1994, I have been enjoying Stephanie Plum and her fugitive apprehension agent adventures. As she explains, “I occasionally ignore the obvious signs of danger and stumble into something ugly with the potential for disaster.” In each book, I know that her car will blow up, be set on fire or be lost in another humorous way. I agree with her that her “bad car karma is the tip of the iceberg.”
Her gun will never have bullets if she even remembers to carry it and Lula, her side-kick, will be wearing an outrageous day-glo colored outfit that barely covers her body parts and her hair will be a surprise.
Mostly I look forward to her charming moments with the incredibly hot and uber-talented Ranger, who calls her “Babe,” brings her a new car and smells divine. He is former special forces, former bounty hunter and runs a high tech security firm called Rangeman. I also like her on-again, off-again romance with her police officer boyfriend, Joe Morelli. You can start with One for the Money and work your way through to the latest, Fortune and Glory (Tantalizing Twenty-Seven) or just read the newest one which I absolutely loved!
I am hoping Stephanie Plum and her “Superhero Derangement Syndrome” make it to the big screen someday. I enjoy her misadventures and rooting for her to make it to lasagna family dinner with her parents and Grandma Mazur. Stephanie and Grandma are searching for treasure with the keys from her recently late husband and trying not to get kidnapped again.
Like Stephanie Plum, I want to “channel [my] inner Indy!”
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult
Books are one of my most favorite things in the world. I read all the time. I am never without a book but until this book, The Book of Two Ways, I have never finished a book and started it again. I could not bear for this book to end and the only thing I could think of was to read it a second time. I loved it just as much or even more as I read it again.
I wrote about Which Path Will You Pick for Thrive Global and wanted to include it on this Fall List as well! During the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like we are mid-flight facing an emergency landing. The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for all of us to examine our lives just as Dawn McDowell Edelstein, the main character does in Picoult’s book. While Dawn wonders if these are her last moments before dying, she is aware that her first thoughts are not of her husband, her daughter, or her dead mother but of Wyatt Armstrong, a man who hasn’t been part of her life for 15 years. Wyatt represents the life that she left behind in Egypt along with her dissertation about the first known map of the afterlife.
I want my own: Wyatt from this book, Ranger from Fortune and Glory, Matthew the Vampire from A Discovery of Witches and Maegwyn from The Lost Queen! I know–keep reading and hoping.
And my friend, Danielle Wood’s new book!
The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke
Last year my friend, Danielle Wood, published her book, Star Crossed, as Minnie Darke and I wrote about it in my article for Ms. Magazine, Feminist Fiction Books to Curl Up With for the Holidays.
This year, she published The Lost Love Song. In this book, the unbelievable happens in Arie Johnson’s twenty-six year old life when Diana Clare, piano prodigy, asks to have lunch with him. He explains that “if this wasn’t a prank, there was only one other explanation: he was experiencing a real, live, actual miracle.”
After great happiness comes terrible loss and the unimaginable when you must wonder, “If she knew the plane that held her aloft was going to fall out of the sky, would she turn to the person next to her and say something profound?“
Across the seas and styles of music, a song is lost and then found which brings a series of people to bump into each other’s lives. I knew that an ending was being artfully woven and enjoyed as the strings pulled together into a beautiful composition.
As one point Evie wonders: “What was it that made some people fit for a love like that, and left other people wanting? Was love like a radio signal, and you just had to be lucky enough to be born with your heart’s dials tuned to the right frequency? Or was it something that could only happen to you when you were young and fearless? And, if so, had [she] already grown too old and too scared? Had she already missed her chance? Or was there still time?“
I hope that there is still time for all of us to find love, leadership and a way out of this pandemic to happiness and full hearts. Happy Reading!