Category: favorite books

Revisiting an old friend

So there I was at my local bookstore, browsing the children’s section for a baby shower gift (there is no better shower gift for a baby than a board book — can I hear an amen?) and I happened upon a lovely paperback copy of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, with all of Garth William’s lovely illustrations all colored in so nicely. My heart and soul and eye were drawn to it, even though this book was a childhood favorite and I know the story as well as I know my own, and it definitely wasn’t a baby’s board book.

A few minutes later, though, as I stood in line to buy Dear Zoo (baby gift!) that copy of Charlotte’s Web was also in my hands. And now it’s on my nightstand and I’m reading a chapter a night before bed, and before I grab the other book I’m reading, and it’s just as wonderful and precious to me, all these years later.

Last night, Fern’s brother Avery tried to knock down Charlotte out of her web and he ended up falling onto Wilbur the pig’s trough and breaking that rotten goose egg that Templeton the rat had been saving. Remember that? Tonight I will read how Charlotte spins the words SOME PIG into her web, in her very clever and selfless scheme to save Wilbur’s life.

And all the while I’m reading, I’m hearing Rex Allen’s matchless voice narrating the story. I must have played the animated movie version on our old VHS player a hundred times when my kids were little. No one can be the voice of this story for me than Rex Allen, just like no one can be Anne of Green Gable’s Matthew Cuthbert for me except Richard Farnsworth. No one. Ever.

I’m thinking I may have to spend the next few months reading all the books I loved as a kid. Make that the next few years? Next on my list, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

How about you? What childhood favorite would you love to see right now at the very top of your TBR stack

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.

 

 

Where have I been?

the-nature-of-the-beastEver since I listened to Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE on a long road trip with my husband, I’ve been itching to devour more books on audio. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realize how a good book on audio can revolutionize the way I look at driving up to Los Angeles or going anywhere during rush hour here in San Diego — both of which I used to dread. With a good audio book in the car with me, I — dare I say it? — I almost look forward to bumper-to-bumper traffic because it means more time with the book.

I could bring the book inside in the house with me, of course, but I purposely don’t. I always have a pages book on my nightstand that I am in the midst of reading, so the audio book is for the car and only the car. It’s my own personal quirky rule. But it makes driving fun instead of a chore.

At the library a couple weeks ago I saw that Louise Penny’s newest, THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, was available to check out on audio, and having never read one of her novels before but having heard of her, I decided to give the Canadian mystery writer a go. I listened to my first Inspector Gamache tale and was instantly hooked, just like I was back in high school a million years ago with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. And since THE NATURE OF THE BEAST is the 11th in the Inspector Gamache novels, I know I have some serious catching up to do.

The audio version is wonderfully narrated by Robert Bathurst (whom you might remember on Downton Abbey as the man who abandoned poor Lady Edith at the altar). With a cast of characters as broad as this one with male and female, young and old, I was amazed at how adept Mr. Bathurst was at keeping the voices distinct and yet not overdone. The audio version contains a message from Ms. Penny about this being Mr. Bathurst’s debut as narrator for an Inspector Gamache mystery, after the untimely death of the originator, Ralph Cosham.

The story is set in the quaint village of Three Pines, just outside Quebec, here an ensemble of  secondary characters make you wish it was real and you could stay at the B & B and eat at the bistro and sit on the village green with Armand Gamache and Reine-Marie. There’s a murder, of course, to set things off — every mystery has one of those — but the story feels very much character-driven, even though most murder mysteries are steered by the plot.

I can’t wait to back up and start at the beginning with Inspector Gamache with STILL LIFE, hopefully on audio, so I can “meet” dear Ralph Cosham myself. But I will definitely look forward to future Gamaches from Robert Bathurst.

So have you read or listened to any of Louise Penny’s books? Tell me which one has been your favorite so far…

 

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?

My fave uniquely-structured novels

kateaI just finished a re-read of a book, which is something I don’t do very often as there is – cue the music – way too many books and far too little time. I dove for a second time into Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, however, because I am in the early stages of starting a new novel of my own, and I am always energized to begin a new writing project by reading a stellar book. I knew a re-read of this one would do that; it would make me itch to write and to infuse my new pages with the same kind of compelling story stuff that readers love.

What I love most about Life After Life is its crazy-wild structure, and I realize that might be the very thing that another reader might like the least about it. The story requires the audacious structure, though. The premise, that Ursula Todd keeps dying and returning to her life to have another go at it – and another and another – is also crazy-wild and so original. Since it’s the architecture of Life After Life that makes it such a favorite, I thought I’d share with you today my other favorite creatively-structured novels. Creative meaning these are not your garden-variety linear reads. These will keep you on your toes, deliciously so.

audreyThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I have also read this one twice. You may have seen the movie, and if you’ve not read the book, you may think you know the story because you’ve seen the film version. The movie was pretty good actually, but the book is better than pretty good and structurally speaking, is off-the-charts brilliant. I had never read a book like this one, one that hopscotches through time like an amusement park ride. I am also not a huge fan of speculative fiction. I like it, and I do have some classic spec fic favorites – like C.S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – but it’s not my go-to genre. But The Time Traveler’s Wife reads more like stellar literary fiction than spec. And its story line is completely unique.

kateThe Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

I love anything by Kate Morton and this one is probably my second favorite of hers, the first being The Secret Keeper. Her books always feature meandering time periods, meaning you need to pay attention to where you are. And when you are. Structurally speaking, the story offers annoyingly wonderful tension that has you turning pages with much anticipation. From the back cover: “A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory.” Don’t you just love that descriptive word, ”atmospheric”?

geraldinePeople of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This is probably my favorite of Ms. Brooks’ books, although I enjoyed Year of Wonders (read it twice) and Pulitzer-prize winning March so very much). There isn’t as much hopping about in time as the others I’ve mentioned, but the construction of the book makes it perfect for my hall of fame here. In this story, a woman who is a rare-book expert has been commissioned to repair and preserve the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, rescued from shelling during the Bosnian war. The historic and beautiful Haggadah is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna “discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she begins to unlock the book’s mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book’s journey from its salvation back to its creation.” And yes, I’ve read it twice.

maryThe Good Girl by Mary Kubica

I had the chance to meet Mary a few months back and we talked about how she constructed her modern-day thriller about a kidnapped woman named Mia. The chapters ease back and forth between Mia’s kidnapping and her life after the abduction (so we know she survives it) but it’s because her life afterward is so different than we would expect that we keep turning pages – despite knowing she is somehow rescued. I asked Mary how she was able to order her chapters so deliciously and she told me she wrote the two halves of the story – before the rescue and after it– and then sat down with those two halves and laid the chapters out on the floor, selecting them a few a time from both sides, so that they would feed each other’s tension. Brilliant. I haven’t read this once again but I bet someday I will.

So there you have it. DO you have a favorite uniquely-constructed book? I would love to hear all about it.

 

Books I am dying to read this spring

Okay, so I am not literally dying but I do sense a terrible longing to fling all responsibility aside today, buy these five books and and do nothing but sit outside with iced coffee and read them to my heart’s content. And let’s not even discuss the ToBeRead ladder to the moon that I’ve already got. I know how many books I have bought over the last few months (okay, years) that are waiting to be opened and read. Let’s just concentrate on the moment, shall we? And at the moment, I REALLY want to read all these new books:

Summer-Before-War-NovelThe Summer Before the War

I adore this cover, but putting eye candy aside, I’ve heard nothing but good things about this second book from Helen Simonson, who wrote Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. This one is set in 1914 – perfect for the time period I am researching right now – and centers around Beatrice Nash, who comes to a sleepy little coastal village in England to teach Latin. BookPage says its “full of wry humor and loveable characters.”  The Washington Post says it’s a novel to “cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . .”  Sign me up.

Smith_Dimestore_HC_jkt_FINAL_PRNT_REV.inddDimestore

I love a good memoir that reads like a story (see The Glass Castle if you want to know what I mean by that) and Dimestore by Lee Smith looks like it’s that kind of literary biography about the author’s childhood in an Appalachian community she was “raised to leave.” The back cover copy says: “Dimestore’s fifteen essays are crushingly honest, wise and perceptive, and superbly entertaining. Smith has created both a moving personal portrait and a testament to embracing one’s heritage. It’s also an inspiring story of the birth of a writer and a poignant look at a way of life that has all but vanished.” Want it yesterday.

Excellent Lombards The Excellent Lombards

Ever since I read A Map of the World back when my kids were tots, I’ve been a fan of Jane Hamilton’s storytelling.  I was so glad to hear she has a new book out and equally vexed (terribly vexed) that I don’t know when I will get to it. This one is set on a Wisconsin apple orchard, narrated by Frankie Lombard, a girl who wants nothing to change, ever. But you and I both know that’s not how life is. From the back cover:  “As Frankie is forced to shed her childhood fantasies and face the possibility of losing the idyllic future she had envisioned for her family, she must decide whether loving something means clinging tightly or letting go.” 

Salt to the seaSalt to the Sea

My mom, who is an avid reader but a discriminating one, loved this book. And if she says it’s wonderful, then it has to be so. This story is inspired by a nearly forgotten event in 1945 (my fave kind of book), the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, actually. 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.” You want to read it now, too, don’t you?

The Translation of LoveThe Translation of Love

This book by debut author Lynn Kutsukake, was inspired by the “avalanche of letters” sent to Gen. Dougas MacArthur by the people of Japan. BookPage says: “At the heart of the story is Aya, a 13-year-old Japanese-Canadian girl who has been repatriated to Japan with her father. When the sister of her friend, Fumi, goes missing, English-speaking Aya is rapped to seek help from the famous general.”  Kirkus Reviews said: “Kutsukake’s moving debut novel focuses on the intertwining stories of several protagonists in post-World War II Tokyo…The result is a memorable story of hope and loneliness with a cathartic ending.” And can we just all agree right here that the cover of this one is beautifully evocative?

So there you have it! If I didn’t have a new book to promote, a book to edit for next year, and a new book to write for the year after that, plus the other nitnoid and also lovely details of life, you would find me under a tree with these five books in my lap. How about you? Any new books out there your soul is itching to read?


 

A visit with Julie Cantrell

Today I am so happy to welcome to the blog New York Times bestselling author Julie Cantrell so that we can chat about her new book, The Feathered Bone. Julie is not only a gifted wordsmith, she is a genuinely kind soul and a lover of humanity. Do read to the end of our interview so that you can get in on the giveaway of a copy of this emotionally gripping novel.

TFBJulie has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. She has contributed to more than a dozen books in addition to her two children’s books and award-winning novels. Her debut novel,  Into the Free, which I LOVED received the Christy Award for Book of the Year (2013) as well as the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award. It also was selected as a Best Read of the year by LifeWay, USA TODAY, and many book clubs.

The Feathered Bone opens in the pre-Katrina glow of New Orleans. Amanda Salassi is anxious about chaperoning her daughter’s sixth grade field trip to the Big Easy during Halloween. And then her worst fears come true. Her daughter’s best friend, Sarah, disappears amid the magic and revelry—gone, without a trace. Set amidst the murky parishes of rural Louisiana and told through the eyes of two women who confront the darkest corners of humanity with quiet and unbreakable faith, this novel is Julie Cantrell’s master portrait of love in a fallen world. Here, then, is our conversation:

You address many issues in THE FEATHERED BONE that are not easy to talk about: human trafficking, teen suicide, and domestic violence. What have you learned personally by writing about such difficult topics?

I have learned the importance of talking openly about these issues. It’s true, they are difficult to examine. It’s not pretty stuff. But by ignoring the reality of what is happening around us, we are—in a sense—allowing it to happen.

It’s time we examine the impact our choices have on others, particularly how our choices affect the most vulnerable among us. We tend to convince ourselves that when we act as a group (a business, a political party, a government, a society, etc.) we are not personally responsible for those actions. We remove our own accountability. We convince ourselves we can’t change things because we use terms like They and Them instead of We and Us.

We need to take personal responsibility for the behaviors of our businesses, our churches, our communities, and our government. If not us, who?

How did you come up with this very interesting title and what does it mean?

While brainstorming the story, my publisher and I were discussing the various ways women can become enslaved in life.  Research led us to an article about featherbone corsets. It’s a fascinating story that is woven into the book.

To sum it up, corsets were once made of very rigid materials like steel rods, wooden reeds, and whale bones. But this restrained women’s movement too much, and they frequently broke. In 1883, a savvy Michigan businessman discovered a feather-duster factory in Chicago. He decided to use discarded feather bones to make corsets. These were less costly than the traditional steels, and they allowed women to bend without the bindings breaking.

In the book, the featherbone represents the resilient strength of something that can bend without breaking, and the corsets are used to examine the lengths women will reach in order to feel of worth to a man.

Throughout history, we have allowed ourselves to become “slaves” in a sense. We go as far as contorting our bodies and worse, our minds. We bind our feet and train our waists; we have face lifts and breast implants and develop eating disorders. We dye our hair and spend excessive amounts of money on clothing and jewelry and make-up. And worst of all, we absorb lies about our true purpose in life—all so men will consider us worthy of their attention and affection.

I realize this can affect both men and women, but culturally, women are usually the ones taking such extreme steps. As a woman, I want everyone, men and women both, to believe we are of worth exactly as God created us, without having to lose our true selves in order to gain human acceptance.

Human trafficking has been brought to the forefront of national attention in recent years. Why did you choose to write about this topic and did it bother you to delve into something so dark?

JulieCantrell2Well, you’re right. It is dark, and in fact, it has become such a buzzword I was hesitant to explore the topic. But no matter how much I fought against this story, it insisted on finding its way to the page.

What I’ve learned is that it could happen to any of us. To any of our children. People enter into prostitution in many different ways and for different reasons. And it is a very hard world to escape.

But I don’t like to feed the fear. Instead, I write so that we can conquer those fears. Ultimately, it’s a hope-filled story about forgiveness, resiliency, faith, and love.

What did your research for this novel reveal to you about human trafficking?

In talking to the women and children from the sex trade, I’ve learned that everyone just wants to feel loved and safe in the world. The large majority of these people have been victimized, and we have to take an honest look at who is victimizing them. It’s not just the pimps and the pushers. It’s also the Johns who pay for pleasure and the Joes and Janes who sit home in their living rooms watching porn, convincing themselves it is harmless.

Everyone who takes part in victimizing another person should be held accountable.  As well as all of us who walk past the situation pretending it isn’t happening.

In recent years, thanks to the hard work of law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and ministries, we are finally taking a more appropriate response and targeting the people who are profiting from this market. The last step is to quell the demand.

You weave your faith into your writing, but it’s done in a way that examines the spiritual journey from all angles without bias. How does your personal faith impact your worldview?

As a person of faith, I believe we are loved, each and every one of us. But as life hurts us, we begin to believe a very big lie—that we are not loved. This either hardens us or makes us desperately seek love from unhealthy sources, leading us to hurt ourselves and others.

If we have a solid belief that we are loved by God, we are free. We are only separated from this love by our own choices or our own reactions to the choices of others. Realizing this and opening ourselves once again to God’s love is the essence of what some people call a spiritual awakening, enlightenment, or (in Christian terms) being born again (or saved).

I have explored this a bit in all three of my novels. In THE FEATHERED BONE, Sarah, goes through horrific experiences when she is kidnapped and trafficked. But she is able to journal her way through the captivity by examining the lies the captor wants her to believe versus the truth she knows in her heart. She comes very close to separating herself from the truth, from God’s love for her, but in the end, she holds tightly to the core beliefs her parents instilled in her and that’s how she is able to fight her way back to freedom and to the light.

What’s the takeaway message you want readers to carry when they close THE FEATHERED BONE?

Whether someone is Christian or not, the answer to all of our problems is as simple as Jesus said it was: Love God. Love others. Love ourselves.

The first (Love God) is the part many in our modern culture have forgotten. We make false Gods of our money, status, ego, business, entertainment, sex, porn, drugs, alcohol, appearance, material obsessions, and even our religion or our family. We end up becoming separated from God, from love, because we try to fill that crucial need with other things that will never satisfy our spiritual requirements. These substitutes may numb the pain, but that “high” is not sustainable. Only genuine love (God) fills that hole in a way that brings true peace and contentment.

The second (Love Others) is the part that many men in particular tend to forget, especially in our culture where men are conditioned to be strong and unemotional, shutting down their ability to feel empathy and compassion for others. How many little boys are told not to cry? To be tough? To “man up”? Sadly, this tends to make them turn cold and destructive to the people who love them because the only acceptable emotion they were encouraged to express was anger. They end up believing the lie that behaving this way is the manly thing to do. It stunts their emotional and spiritual development, separates them from God and, thus, blocks their hearts from love.

And the third part (Love Ourselves) is the part many women in particular tend to forget. We are taught to love everyone but ourselves. But we’ve each been given only ONE soul to carry through this world—our own. And we are most responsible for moving THAT soul toward a peaceful eternity with God. Many women feel selfish or mean if we put ourselves on the list, but if we do not set healthy boundaries to protect our own souls, we are at risk of becoming spiritually wounded and therefore becoming separated from God. From love. From our true purpose in this life.

Again, these gender lines are fluid, so I speak only in generalities. Many a woman’s heart has become hardened, and many a man has lived a selfless and spiritual existence.  But culturally, these are the roles we have historically been conditioned to fill, and in this particular book, I examine these patterns.

In the end, it all comes down to one infinite and universal love.  I call that love, God.

THANK YOU, Julie, for being my guest today! If you want to stay connected to Julie, dear reader, here are places you can find her:

Website: www.juliecantrell.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/juliecantrellauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JulieCantrell

Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/juliecantrell

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/juliecantrell

And now for the giveaway of a copy of The Feathered Bone. In a comment below, just include one thought about why you’d like to get your hands on this book! The winner (US/CAN only) will be randomly chosen from all those who comment by 5 p.m. Pacific on Monday, March 21. Good luck and happy reading!

Time is a slippery thing…

I’ve a fondness for stories about ordinary people facing the extraordinary crucible that was World War II. Some of the novels that have left the biggest impression on me have been set in this time period; which is perhaps why my next novel, out in February has as its primary setting London in 1940.  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr may well be my new favorite.

Malo

St. Malo on the Brittany coast today…

Marie Laure, blind since she was six, lives with her father in Paris, where he is keeper of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Her father builds her a model of their neighborhood so that can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her cane. But when the Germans occupy Paris, Marie and father flee to the home of a great-uncle on the Brittany coast and her father builds a new model village of their temporary home in St. Malo. Meanwhile in Germany, an orphan named Werner becomes adept at building and fixing radios, earning him a place at a military academy to train young Nazi soldiers, and eventually a skilled hunter of Resistance fighters.

The composition of this novel in short, alternating chapters that were sometimes interspersed with obvious interludes from the coming finale, was masterful. I couldn’t wait for the day to end so that I could crawl into bed with it and read before turning in.

When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking on it. It’s that kind of book. Hauntingly sad and yet beautiful. I’ve read a number of World War II books that still resonate with me long after I’ve read them – books like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, Stones From the River by Ursula Hegy, and Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is definitely in the company of these other books. Not every novel about war can leave you feeling completely satisfied – it’s war – but I can say that this book left me breathless with its stellar and intoxicating prose.

Here are a few quotes to leave you with:

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

“We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”

“A line comes back to Marie-Laure from Jules Verne: Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

“To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.”

A satisfying song…

WillowFrostEver since finishing The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford a few years back, I had been one of those standing anxiously in line for his next one. (If you’ve not read Hotel, you really need to examine your To Be Read priorities!)  So of course I was very happy to hear that Songs Of Willow Frost  was coming our way in 2013 and not only that, but also that Jamie Ford would be at Warwick’s Books in San Diego’s beautiful gem La Jolla, to speak about it.

I love talking about the books I’ve loved but I hate to give too much away in the telling. Reviews matter to me, not just the writing of them but reading them and sharing them and I am always grateful when a reviewer manages to tell me why she or he loved (or didn’t love) a book without spoiling anything for me.  I can tell you that just as Hotel  yanked on my heartstrings, so did Willow.  I can tell you that the prose is wonderfully unpretentious and yet deep and luminous, and that there are great lines that you just have to read twice or three times they are so meaningful. I can tell you there are surprises along the way to keep you turning pages and needing to know what is to become of the Chinese-American boy whose mother relinquished him to an orphanage years before and who suddenly sees her on a movie screen in a Seattle theater with a different name.

I can’t say I loved it more than Hotel, or even as much, though I did love it. Perhaps it was Hotel‘s premise that resonated within me to a deeper degree. I admit I have a hard time summoning empathy for women who allow and then stay with men who abuse them. My deepest apologies if I offend anyone by saying that. I am not saying I can’t summon the empathy, I am saying it is difficult for me.  But this story, which moves back and forth between William’s story and his mother’s, is moving and compelling, even in those moments when I, had I been Willow, would have done something very different.

Here are some of my favorite lines:

“She heard the flickering of the shutter, the hum of the lights, and the silence punctuated by the sound of Colin’s footsteps, fading.”

 

“The shadow woman inhaled, which caused no small relief to William as he stepped closer. She was clothed in a pale blouse and skirt. The tub was dry. It was as though she were bathing in memory alone. Her fur stole covered her chest like a blanket. Her hat sat in the bottom of the tub, near the drain. William could hear a baby crying in another apartment; somewhere down the hall, though the haunting, desperate sound was gone so fast he might have imagined it.”

 

“It was the words of parents that kept most of the orphans here – the silken bondage of a mother’s promise, “I’ll be back by Christmas, if you’re a good boy.” Those mythic words, laced with happy-ever-afters, became millstones come January, when ice deckled the windows and the new boys stopped counting the days and began crying themselves to sleep, once again. After five winters at Sacred Heart, he’d learned not to hope for Christmas miracles – at least for nothing greater than a pair of hand-me-down shoes, a book of catechism, and a stocking filled with peanuts and a ripe tangerine.”

 

Songs of Willow Frost  will tug and tear and tenderize. It’s the kind of story that reminds you why stories exist.

Jamiep.s. This line at left in my copy of the book is one that I love, too.

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!