Category: book clubs

A remarkable book for any age

sepetysWas there a time when Young Adult lit was truly only for young adults? I am beginning to think maybe there was but it only lasted five minutes. I’ve been wowed over the last few years by more YA titles than my chronological age should allow. Ruta Sepetys’ page-turner, SALT TO THE SEA, is apparently shelved in YA, though you need to know I read my mother’s copy (who is obviously at least two decades older than me!) and she loved this book just as much as I did.

It’s a hauntingly evocative, tender, moving, and remarkable story of four young people trying to survive the horrors of WW2. Told in four rotating viewpoints, Sepetys was nevertheless able to create the literary magic that makes the reader very okay with switching from one character’s head to another. You know those books with multiple points of view, where you really only care about two of the four and you race to get past the pages of the characters whose stories aren’t as compelling? This isn’t one of those books.

The story is all the more riveting because it’s based on a true-to-life disaster that, unless you’ve read the book, you’ve probably never heard of.

Here’s the premise from the back cover:

“Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.”

Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys‘ Goodreads author page tells us that she was born into a family of artists, readers, and music lovers, and that she is drawn to stories of strength through struggle. Her award-winning debut novel, “Between Shades of Gray” was inspired by her family’s history in Lithuania and is published in 45 countries. Her second novel, “Out of the Easy” is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950, and “Salt to the Sea, which is her third novel, exposes one of the greatest hidden disasters of World War II.

It also says she lives  in a tree house in the hills of Tennessee!

I may not be a young adult, but I am also drawn to stories of “strength through struggle.” Isn’t that aptly descriptive of life itself at any age? Some days are easy and a wonderful, some are hard and harrowing — but all of our days make up our lives and thus make us who we are, at the age we are right now.

Highly recommended.

 

 

A story of love, loss, and courage

childrenWhen I began writing SECRETS OF CHARMED LIFE a couple years ago, I had only the vaguest of notions of how much London suffered during World War II. Here was a city teeming with civilians – mothers, pensioners, children too young to be evacuated or just plain not evacuated – and yet it was bombed as if it were a military fortress filled with soldiers. When ordinary people are thrust into such extraordinarily difficult circumstances, their best virtues and worst flaws will emerge, twinned and twisted, and sometimes hard to distinguish between. War reveals to us what we love and fear most.

I love what the back cover copy says about Chris Cleave’s EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN, a novel I just finished reading, which is set during this time period:

“This dazzling novel dares us to understand that, against the great theater of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs that change us most.”

I keep telling myself, “Okay. No more WW2 novels! Broaden your horizon! Read about something else!” And yet I keep getting pulled back to books with this setting. Chris’s new book, which earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly, is a gem, and written with such achingly beautiful prose, sometimes you can forget this is a book about what war does to people.  Several times I re-read a sentence just for the pleasure of tasting it again. All that said, it IS still a book about wartime decisions and the characters who must make them. The plot centers on three Londoners, Mary, Thomas and Alistair, and how the war orchestrates the choices they make. It is loosely based on love letters between Chris’s grandparents. You can read more about the premise here.

The beauty in this book is not so much the story, but how the story is told, with delicious prose, cleverly placed humor, and a quiet urgency. It’s different than THE NIGHTINGALE and ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, recent WW2 favorites of mine (and surprisingly also with lovely blue covers); it’s a little more Dickensy, as one reviewer suggested, but the wordsmithing here is golden. It’s one of those books that makes you ponder not just “what does this story mean?” but also, “what does this story mean to me?”

I’d read it again. A great book for book clubs. 4.5 stars

 

 

Yay for page-turners

thehusbI’ve been hungry for that kind of novel that calls out to you from the nightstand all throughout the day, teasing you to drop off working a little early so that you can open it up and continue where you left off the night before. My work office is my home so my current read is never more than a flight of stairs and a hallway away. After a couple of less-than-compelling books, I was very glad to get caught up in Liane Moriarty’s THE HUSBAND’S SECRET this past week.

I didn’t know much about the novel beforehand, just that it had rave reviews, lots of book clubs were reading it, and my agent said it was fabulous. I purposely didn’t read the back cover copy — which I find sometimes gives too much away. I was immediately drawn in to these three women and their seemingly separate stories. I knew somehow Tess and Rachel and Cecelia would collide on the pages and it was deliciously compelling to wonder how.

Here’s as much as I want to tell you about it. This is from the back cover:

“My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died…

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .”

I won’t say more about the plot because if you decide to read it, it’s best – I think – to just go in ready to be told a story about flawed people trying to hang onto normal when everything around them is tilting.

Entertainment Weekly says THE HUSBAND’S SECRET is “emotionally astute, immensely smart, and cinematically plotted.” I agree. I can see this one being adapted for the big screen. My book club is reading it next, and I know it will lead to a great discussion. Characters making choices when there is a moral dilemma involved always makes for a lively book club chat.

I’m happy to already have Liane’s BIG LITTLE LIES ready to read. My mom – a voracious reader – says it’s terrific.

But first, my second book club (so, yeah, I’m in two) is reading Lisa Wingate’s THE SEAKEEPER’S DAUGHTERS and I’ll be starting that tonight.

Have you read Liane Moriarty? What did you think?

Know someone who speaks Norwegian?

Good Tigerforlagetcovermorning, dear reading community!

I’ll get right to the point. I’ve four copies of SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE translated into Norwegian that I would love to give away to four readers who speak that language.

Do you have a friend or family member who would love to read this book in their mother tongue? Or maybe you’re learning Norwegian and need to read novels to familiarize yourself with the finer details. Respond below with a comment that you want your name in the hat and I will have random.org draw four winners on Sunday, February 21. I can sign and send the book to anyone in the US or Canada. If your Norwegian-speaking loved one lives in Norway or elsewhere abroad, it will be up to you to get the book to him or her, but I am happy to send to Aunt Asbjørg if she lives in the US/CAN.

These are beautifully crafted, hardcover books and they would love to be read! Good luck and have a great weekend!

 

Amazed by A House in the Sky

houseintheskyAwhile back, when the book Unbroken first came out, I told my husband that I wanted to read it because I loved Seabiscuit and I knew what an amazing writer Laura Hillenbrand was. I didn’t know much about Louie Zamperini (sad to say) so I had not heard prior to this the depths of his suffering at the hands of cruel men. Bob read the book first, and then said something along the lines of, “So, Sue. This is no Seabiscuit.” The graphic details of Louie’s torture were all there on the pages of the book and he wanted me to know that. It is one thing to read a work of fiction and imagine the suffering of a certain character (like the mom in Room, for example). It’s quite another to read a piece of non-fiction and have to wrestle with the ponderous truth that everything you are reading is real. It happened.

What kept me reading A House in the Sky (other than it was my book club’s pick) was knowing that Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout survived the hell she was thrust into when she was kidnapped in Mogadishu and held for ransom for more than a year. I knew she survived because she co-wrote her story. Several times in the reading I found myself turning the book over to its backside to look at her beautiful author photo. You can’t write about an experience after the fact if you’re dead. When the telling got really hard to read, I’d remind myself, She lives, she lives, she lives.

I honestly don’t think I could have coped the way she she did. When I wasn’t stunned by the cruelty of her captors, I was stunned by her ability to hang on to hope. Hope is one of those invisible weights that we can only lift if we summon enough strength to do so. The harder the situation, the heavier it is to hold. Despair is easier. Despair is heavy, too. But it just overtakes you. You don’t have to do anything but lie there and let it fall.

So how did Amanda Lindhout keep hold of hope when despair was just waiting to devour her? She built a place in her mind to keep it. A place her brutal captors could not see and could not enter.

She built with her mind — the only thing she had left — a secret place for hope to hide. And it was this secret place that existed in her imagination that got her through the darkest days; days when I would have long given up.

She built a house in the sky.

This book is powerfully written and unforgettable.  But it is no easy read.  It is no Seabiscuit.

I still haven’t read Unbroken.

 

Not your average mystery

gone-girl-book-cover-medI love a good mystery. Mysteries and me go way back. All the way back to adolescence and Nancy Drew.  I like trying to figure out whodunit before I get to the end of the book and I am always as thrilled as I am disappointed when I’ve gotten it wrong.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is quite possibly the most cleverly constructed mystery I’ve ever read.  It’s more than a mystery actually. It’s a study in human character, a look into the mind of a flawed genius.

Tana French, New York Times bestselling author of Into the Woods said of it: “Gone Girl is one of the best—and most frightening—portraits of psychopathy I’ve ever read. Nick and Amy manipulate each other—with savage, merciless and often darkly witty dexterity. This is a wonderful and terrifying book about how the happy surface normality and the underlying darkness can become too closely interwoven to separate.”

It’s hard to get wonderful and terrifying in the same sentence when you’re talking about a book.  But I would concur.  The writing is masterful, the plot is psychologically chilling.

The premise of Gone Girl is this:  “On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick Dunne isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but hearing from Amy through flashbacks in her diary reveal the perky perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister Margo at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was left in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?”

The trailer for the movie looks wonderfully terrifying, as it were. My book club and I are already planning to go see it and then come come home to our normal lives and thank God in heaven none of us are married to a genius psychopath. If you read the book, be prepared for pervasive language. If you’re easily offended, it’s not the book for you.  I leave with the trailer so you can see for yourself hints of what the story on film will look like. It releases the first part of October. I am most interested to see how the screenplay will let us get into the heads of these characters. It was their inner thoughts that were most amazingly shocking. If you’ve read it, I’d like to hear what you thought…

 

Friday book recommendation

Still Alice coverI, like perhaps many others, have a mental list of a few of the ways I don’t want to Go Out.

I don’t want to be eaten by a shark. I don’t want to be inside a burning house. I don’t want to be buried in alive. I don’t want to drown. And I don’t want to slowly disappear courtesy of Alzheimer’s.

I really am not afraid of death, it’s the dying part that scares me. And to have my mortal life taken from me as slowly as Alzheimer’s does it? That is something I hope is not in my future.   Even so, I do recommend Lisa Genova’s stunning novel, STILL ALICE, about a brilliant university professor who is diagnosed with this disease. The story reads like the woman’s memoir; as if you are right there inside a mind that is slowly erasing itself.

The book is also being made into a movie with Julianne Moore staring in the title role. Filming began just a few months ago so the release is a ways off yet, but I am looking forward to seeing it, even though it will surely have a Jaws-like effect on me. If you’ve seen the movie Jaws – and really, who hasn’t? – then you will know what I mean about seeing a movie and wanting that to never, ever to happen to you.

Interestingly enough, Lisa is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, not a writer. She self-pubbed STILL ALICE and  sold it out of the trunk of her car for almost a year before it was bought at auction by Simon & Schuster. It has gone on to win the 2008 Bronte Prize, was nominated for 2010 Indies Choice Debut Book of the Year, and spent over 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been translated into 25 languages. That it resonates with people is an understatement. None of us wants to feel ourselves being subtracted from life bit by agonizing bit.

Two of my favorite parts:

“You’re so beautiful,” said Alice. “I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
“I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.”
“What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then, I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”

***

“I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted. This disease will not be bargained with. I can’t offer it the names of the US presidents in exchange for the names of my children. I can’t give it the names of state capitals and keep the memories of my husband.
…My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today doesn’t matter.”

This book will make you fall to your knees in gratitude that you can remember the why of everything that matters to you.

Unforgettable

the-invention-of-wings-sue-monk-kiddSome years back, when I first read The Secret Life Of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I remember thinking I wanted to be able to do with words what this author had done, and that is construct a compelling story with the perfect mix of simplicity and complexity such that people who read what I wrote would not soon forget it.  It wasn’t  so much the plot that wowed me as much as it was the way in which it was delivered to me.

A few years after that, when The Mermaid Chair came out, also by Sue Monk Kidd, several people whose opinions matter greatly to me said it was a different kind of book, not one that they loved, and that I probably wouldn’t find the magic in it that I did with Bees. I actually chose NOT to read Mermaid  for that very reason: because I didn’t want to mess with the echoes of Bees still swirling in my head. So naturally, when The Invention of Wings released, I was eager, anxious, and hopeful. Would it take me away to literary wonderland as Bees did?

The answer to that is a resounding yes.

When a book hits my sweet spot, it’s usually hard to describe in concrete details how. That kind of book somehow beautifully assaults my senses, viciously yanks on the virtues I hold most dear – like justice and fidelity and sacrificial love – and plants me as firmly in its setting and culture as if I had time-travelled there.  It haunts me when I am not reading it and woos me when I am. The characters’ voices linger in my mind and their  sorrows and joys feel like my own.  A book that hits my sweet spot doesn’t spoon-feed the ending; it suggests the denouement in a way that lets me feel like there are more pages in the book; I just don’t have access to them. The story is not over, and I am not expected to feel like it is.

The story is told in two points of view, that of a Southern slave owner’s daughter and the other, the slave she grows up with. The time of the tale is well before the Civil War.  The daughter grows up with a distaste for slave ownership and the will to do what she can to see it end. Here are some of my favorite lines:

“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”

 

“We ‘re all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren’t we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we’ll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all.”

 

“The sorry truth is you can walk your feet to blisters, walk till kingdom-come, and you never will outpace your grief.”

 

“Sarah was up in her room with her heart broke so bad, Binah said you could hear it jangle when she walked.”

Your heart will bleed reading this book, but it will heal in a way that allows you to remember why you loved it. You’ll be reminded why slavery is one of the ugliest ideas ever, and you’ll be glad there were brave souls who stood up in protest.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

I wanted to but I couldn’t

BellmanI remember reading once that Harper Lee didn’t write another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird because she knew readers would expect too much with a second book and that kind of pressure was wholly unattractive. Perhaps Margaret Mitchell felt the same way after Gone With the Wind. We readers can be heartless in our desire to be wooed and won at a more breath-taking level than the book before.

Some years ago I read, nay, devoured Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I told every one I knew who loved fiction to read it, it was such a well-written, captivating tale. I read the book a second time for book club, and then a third time to just study the craft of having a young, idealistic protagonist cross paths with a much older realist; a pairing I wanted for The Shape of Mercy which I wrote in 2007.

I waited and waited for Ms. Setterfield to write a second book, and while I read many other novels in the interim, The Thirteenth Tale remained in my perennial  top five. When people would ask me to recommend a book in those in-between years, I would invariably ask, “Have you read The Thirteenth Tale?” and if they hadn’t, I would tell them that was the book they needed to read next.

So when I learned that, after eight years,  a new Setterfield book was on the horizon, I gleefully pre-ordered it – months before it was to hit bookstore shelves- and counted the days. Bellman & Black arrived on my doorstep in all its hardback beauty two days after its release. I had to finish another book I was reading and I itched to be done so that I could crack open the Setterfieldian pages and consume them.

I finished the book last night.  I can only say that I wanted so very much to be transported to another place with the story, just as I had been before. My expectations were high, perhaps illogically so. Perhaps with The Thirteenth Tale it was the writer’s story, not the story’s writer that so captivated me before. Perhaps it was something unique about me that made The Thirteenth Tale resonate within me, rather than something unique about its author.  The prose in Bellman & Black was lovely, Setterfield is still a master, but I never left the room while reading her second book. And I wanted to. Too much so. I wanted to be transported. I was not.

Perhaps I need to book-club this one to appreciate it properly. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve discussed a book with people that I realize what I missed. Some reader reviewers have said Bellman & Black is too dark; but so was The Thirteenth Tale, so I don’t think for me, that it was because there wasn’t enough light. As a novelist myself I know that in every great story, the main character has to be on a quest, a pursuit to have something he doesn’t have, and he has to overcome recognizable and somewhat relatable obstacles to get it. Doesn’t matter if you are reading Green Eggs and Ham or The Silence of the the Lambs. The protagonist, flawed but likeable, must want something and must overcome opposition to get it. What the character wants must be something we readers understand and WANT them to want. Their opposition must also be understood and recognizable. This is how we become emotionally invested. This is what keeps us turning pages. This is what transports us. The clash of the quest and the character and the conflict must captivate us.

Otherwise you just have words on a page. They can be great words, skillfully placed. But unless they transport, they remain words.

Not a ticket.

Will I read Setterfield again? Absolutely. This one just wasn’t the trip for me.

My favorite reads of 2013

speakingWhenever a year ends and I look back at its days to see which books were my favorite of all those I read, I always get a teensy bit melancholy. Part of me finds it a bid sad that the books that were my favorite have been read. I can’t read them again for the first time. And sadder still? I probably won’t be able to read them again — ever — because of the other thing that makes me a bit blue on the look-back, and that is that the number of books is always less than what I had hoped for.  The mantra that there are too many books and too little time has never been more true than this stage of my life. The To-Be-Read pile at my bedside (which could double nicely as a ladder to the stars) is now becoming eclipsed by the invisible tower inside my Kindle.  I find it funny and pathetic that earlier this year I bought Orphan Train (yes, one of my other faves for 2013) read it, and then found the dang thing buried on my Kindle – from an earlier purchase in 2013. Sheesh. All that aside, 2013 was a great year for books. Here are my five favorites, in no order at all. It wasn’t easy to pick just five, by the way. I had to look at their covers — in color — and gauge how just the mere visual nudge made me feel inside. Here are the five that made me feel the pull of a magnet at just another glance at their covers…

cuttingCUTTING FOR STONE

Here was a book that had been sleeping on the TBR shelf all 2012. I finally pulled it out when it became my local book club’s pick. I remember thinking that I didn’t have time to read a nearly-700-page novel, especially in a squished time frame, and I nearly took that month off from my beloved book club. But Abraham Verghese’s masterpiece had me from the very first page. I simply had to know what would become of the likeable and utterly compelling narrator, Marion Stone. The prose was delicious and there were many lines that cut me to the core. Like this one: “Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted.” And this one: “The key to your happiness is to…own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. [Otherwise] you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

 

bookthiefTHE BOOK THIEF

Here was another that had been on the AYEGTRI pile (Aren’t You Ever Going To Read It!?) I finally did just that after months and months and months of hearing how wonderful a book it was. What finally got me going was I began doing research for a World War II book I was writing.  This is quite likely one of the most cleverly constructed novels I’ve read in a long time (as was “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”) and I was completely taken by the devastating charm of the narrator. That’s all I will say. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? And please, do yourself a favor and read the book before you go see the movie.

 

 

life after lifeLIFE AFTER LIFE

Speaking of research for World War II, this gem by Kate Atkinson had me spellbound from the first line. And interestingly enough, this was the only book in 2013 that I had read to me, in that I listened to this book on CD on a long car trip to the Sierras. Perhaps having a plethora of British voices speaking the story to me was what fully captivated me, but I am thinking even if I’d read the print version, I’d still be talking this book’s praises. The premise alone is brilliant, and the execution of that premise is stellar. Can you imagine what it would be like to keep living your life over and over and over again, and being only barely aware that you are doing so? What would you change? What would you run from or run to or run over? This was Time magazine’s number one choice for Book of the Year, and GoodReads Best of 2013 historical fiction award-winner. I would have to concur.

 

secretkeeperblog2THE SECRET KEEPER

Kate Morton is one of my tippy-top favorite novelists ever. I love her style, her voice, her care with words, her attention to detail, the skill of her story weave, and her appreciation for her readers. If you’ve read nothing by her before, can I just gently say, where the Dickens have you been? I loved this book, as I have loved everything she has written. It is also a World War II book, but it’s much more than that. If you like stories with overlapping time periods and special attention given to each of the main characters, you are in for a treat. After you read this one, get your hands on The Forgotten Garden, The House at Riverton and The Distant Hours.

 

 

AndtheAND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED

I’ve been a fan of Khaled Hosseini’s story-telling since he whisked me away with The Kite Runner. What I liked best about And The Mountains Echoed might be the very thing that others who’ve read him before didn’t like. And that was the lack of a singular main protagonist on an obvious chronological pursuit of happiness.  This story is different, it is more episodic, far less linear than his other two books, and because it was so masterfully done, I loved this aspect of this book. And quotable quotes? They abound in the pages. Like this one: “It’s a funny thing… but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really, what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.” And this one: “For courage, there must be something at stake.”  And this one: “They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.”

So there you have it. My top 5! Were any of these in your top reads for 2013? What were your top 5? I’d love to know!