Category: favorite books

My thoughts on Hamnet

It’s funny how your first impression of a book you’ve not read yet can be so very different from your feelings after you’ve actually read it. When I first saw a promotional post about HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell, my initial reaction was to question the early acclaim of a story about the Bard’s young son largely because of the curious spelling of the name in the title. Hamnet, not Hamlet. I also wondered if I would enjoy the novel knowing it was a story of The Plague and therefore would surely be sad. And the time zone — the 16th century — is not my favorite historical lane in which to read. So for all those reasons I put off learning more about the book or even considering reading it. But the more I heard about it and the more I saw it pretty much everywhere, the more I realized I was probably denying myself a very good read for not very good reasons.

And so I got the book and took it with me on vacation, a short little jaunt to Sedona, Arizona, and there in the beauty of the southwestern desert I proceeded to devour it. I LOVED this book (note the all caps) so much, and for several reasons. The writing is beautiful and sensorial and clever and different. I loved its structure and how O’Farrell told a story about sole son of William Shakespeare without ever mentioning Shakespeare’s name. It was masterful, really, how she pulled that off. O’Farrell is the kind of writer that makes me crumple and sigh as I’m reading because the writing is so gorgeous and I keep whining to myself, “I wish I could write like this. I wish I could write like this.”

It isn’t a spoiler to tell you that the story is a fictional telling of Shakespeare’s family in the time of great pestilence and tremendous loss. It’s a story of his marriage and his family life and his upbringing,  while still all being about this young boy, Hamnet. And while I do not want you to skip to the end, you must promise me you will not, I so very much loved the conclusion. The last page is wonderful. I am not alone in my love for this book. The novel was named A New York Times Notable Book (2020) and a Best Book of 2020 by The Guardian, Financial Times, Literary Hub, and NPR.

Here in a nutshell is what the book is about:

England, 1580. A young Latin tutor–penniless, bullied by a violent father–falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman: a wild creature who walks her family’s estate with a falcon on her shoulder and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer. Agnes understands plants and potions better than she does people, but once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose gifts as a writer are just beginning to awaken when his beloved young son succumbs to bubonic plague.

It’s the perfect book club book. Highly recommend, friends…

Thoughts on Migrations…

I was swept away by the utterly beautiful writing within the pages of MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy. Even though at its heart this is a book about a tragic woman’s consuming sorrow and relentless regrets, it was nonetheless a gorgeous and compelling read that I couldn’t wait to get to at the end of the day. And remarkably enough, it has wholly satisfying ending.

The book is about a woman desperate to track the migration of the last known Arctic terns. She is in our world, but a dystopic version of it where all of the animal species are becoming extinct. Frannie enlists the crew of a fishing vessel to aid her on her quest, a crew that is already at odds with a society that does not want them yanking from the sea the last of the fish. But she needs this captain and its crew to take her from one pole of the earth to the other as she follows the migration of these resilient birds.

From the get-go it is easy to see that the book is really not about the migration of these birds but rather the migrations a person makes within his or her life as they travel through it, from one end to the other. It might take a little bit of a mental leap to believe that our collective mishandling of the earth has caused the animal species to become extinct, but for me the book was not first and foremost a treatise on environmentalism. It really was, again for me, a book about a singular woman whose heart aches to get back what she lost, get back what she tossed away, get back what was taken from her. A broken planet provided the backdrop for this story to be told. Readers can take away from the setting what they are willing to, as we always do. It was the writing that kept me spellbound, not the rhetoric. Here are just a few gems from within the pages.

“There are two worlds. One is made of water and earth, of rock and minerals. It has a core, a mantle and a crust, and oxygen for breathing. The other is made of fear.”

And

“I lie in the sea and feel more lost than ever, because I’m not meant to be homesick, I’m not meant to long for the things I have always been so desperate to leave. It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.”

The author is based out of Sydney, Australia, and this book is her US debut. Prior to MIGRATIONS, McConaghy wrote young adult science fiction. I read in an article in the LA Times about MIGRATIONS that McConaghy knew “the novel’s harsh reality needed to be tempered with luminous prose and a muscular grip on plot that keeps the frigid pages flying. And, perhaps most important, there is hope. Hope is the ultimate balm – and catalyst.”

I would heartily agree with this assessment, that it’s hope that keeps you turning pages, hope that satisfies you at the end of them.

It’s a five-star read for me. Highly recommend.

I remember Addie LaRue

The audio version is amazing…

It has been a good long while since I have fed the blog, and I do apologize for that, friends. My focus has been elsewhere if I’m being honest. But I think we are all moving through the strange world of the pandemic at the speed we are comfortable with, right? And with the doing of things we feel most motivated and equipped to do. I think you understand.

I will say that I wrote during the holidays like a mad woman (more on that another time) and then at the first of the year I was preparing for the release of THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS and then all this month I’ve been zooming around the country, gratefully so, talking about it. But I’ve missed coming here to chat about all things books and I thought I would at last pop in on this lovely Friday and get you up-to-date on what I’ve been reading.

I’ve actually read more than usual these pandemic months, which I hear is maybe not the case for everyone, and the book I’m going to be talking about today I read in January, not just last week but it was a highly memorable read and one that absolutely invites discussion.

I picked up THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE based on a recommendation by one of the booksellers at Warwick’s, my hometown bookstore. She said it was her favorite read of 2020 and any book that is a favorite of a bookseller gets my attention. I must say from the get-go that this may not be the book for everyone. The premise is a bit troubling: A young woman living in 18th century France who is desperate to get out of an arranged marriage makes a terrible bargain with a dark deity. Addie LaRue is untried and naïve and does not realize the mistake she has made until after she’s made it, and then it’s too late. She is stuck with the terms of her bargain.

When the deal is sealed, Addie instantly becomes immortal and unrememberable. The immortality is to remind her every day of the deal she has made, and her being unrememberable is to remind her that she got what she wanted: to have to answer to no one, to not be owned by anyone, to not have to rely on anyone. The devil who answers her plea then visits to converse with her from time to time in her endless life as someone who can own nothing, not even a relationship with someone, because who could have a relationship when every person you meet forgets who you are the minute they look away from you? She can’t own property, she can’t have a job, so you can imagine the decisions Addie has to make to feed and clothe and shelter the immortal body that still responds to the agonies of hunger and cold, it just can’t die from it.

And then three centuries into her unending and hopeless existence, Addie meets Henry, a kind man who manages a bookstore, and who is somehow able to do what no one can. He remembers having met Addie LaRue. He remembers her…

V. E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab, the author, is a master of the craft of writing. Her prose is smart and evocative and achingly beautiful. She is also clever and insightful. The book has the hands-down the most satisfying ending that I have read it in a long time.  Honestly, I might have actually cheered aloud at the close.

I have to say that reading this book made me ever so grateful that my faith in a good and kind and almighty God precludes any dark power from having this kind of control. It was haunting to imagine what it would be like in this world if the reverse were true. This is the kind of book you will probably want to talk about with someone afterward. A good book club book, even if you have to talk about it on Zoom.

You might be wondering if the book is a thriller or a mystery or speculative fiction or some other designation. I love the review that my friend and fellow historical fiction author Greer MacAllister wrote about this novel, You can read the whole review here, but I like what she says here:

The back cover copy from the publisher describes the book as “genre-defying,” but what is there to defy? This book doesn’t blend genres, or even transcend genre. Schwab simply renders the idea of genre irrelevant—because, in the end, it is. What The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue does—what any truly great book does—is transport and transform us. And in the end, that’s the only thing that’s important to remember.

If you’d like to read an excerpt of the book, click right here. One last note. I “read” this book by listening to it on audio. The narrator, Julia Whalen, is superb. Brilliant, really. I highly recommend this version.

I am optimistic that we are going to turn a corner soon and this time of isolation and separation will be in the rearview. In the meantime, we have hope and we have books.
Would love to hear what you are reading these days…

Thoughts on This Tender Land

Last year when I read ORDINARY GRACE by William Kent Krueger, a book club pick by a good friend, I knew I had stumbled upon an author whose writing would perpetually resonate with me; just as Kate Morton does, and Geraldine Brooks and Diane Setterfield, and Khaled Hosseini. WKK’s storytelling skills are mad with talent, his prose delicious and evocative and his characters unforgettable. So when THIS TENDER LAND came out this year, I knew I would be snapping it up.

It’s funny, though that I waited to read it until just recently. I guess it’s because I knew I was going to relish and cherish it, so it was as if I was saving it, something I don’t usually do with a book I’ve been waiting for.

This newest by him does not disappoint. It’s surprising to me that I so easily fell into this book when it’s narrated by an adolescent boy; so very different from the adult female voiced novels that I usually read.

I suppose it’s because the story is about children who are having to make adult choices that they should not have to make. Stories of children in harm’s way always seem to grab at me; it’s why I think I loved ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline so much, and THE GOLDFINCH and SARAH’S KEY and DEAR EDWARD. In our hearts we know children should get to be children when they are children – if you know what I mean – and when they are put into situations that could so easily break their spirit we ache to see that somehow they will find a way to survive and thrive. We want to believe that despite the worst that a messed-up adult world can foist onto a child, he or she will find a way to rise above it.

In a nutshell THIS TENDER LAND is about three young people on a journey to safety and the odds are against them. It’s during the Great Depression, they don’t have the security of a normal home to shelter them and they face hurdles that would stymie the strongest of adults. But William Kent Krueger escorts the reader on a beautiful ride nonetheless. Every chapter is golden. The ending is exquisite.

The construction, which you can miss if you’re not looking for it, is reminiscent of Ulysses on his epic Odyssey – so clever and so masterfully done.

The Denver Post says this book is “rich with graceful writing and endearing characters…a book for the ages.” I would agree.

I’ve started to shed books from my house that I’ve already read, to trim the bulging shelves, live a simpler life, and give books I loved but won’t read again (because THERE ARE SO MANY BOOKS) another shot at pleasing another reader. But some I am keeping. Some I will read again.

This is one of them.

Thoughts on The Dutch House

Since reading Bel Canto years ago, I have said I will read anything Ann Patchett writes. I missed a few of hers pre-Bel Canto and while I haven’t yet gotten to them, it comforts me to know that they’re waiting for me for when life slows down (I’ve heard that happens; one day you wake up and you’re older and retired and you can read all the time). When I heard The Dutch House was coming out and saw its distinctive cover (Who IS that girl? I wondered) I put it on my TBDWIR (To Be Devoured When It Releases) list pronto.

And then it released and people were talking about it, and it was popping up on bestsellers lists all over the place and audio book lovers were swooning over this tale being read to them by the venerable Tom Hanks. I hurried through the other required reading I was working on, and made space in my life to enjoy The Dutch House. I had already bought it, it was just there on my cluttered nightstand awaiting me.

I hadn’t read much about the novel, which is my usual thing. I don’t read the back copy of books I know I am going to want to read. Sometimes there are mini spoilers there. So I didn’t know what The Dutch House was or who lived in it or what it meant to them. I didn’t know what the evocative painting on the front meant and I certainly couldn’t know how I would be affected when Patchett revealed the significance of that painting, and this at a time in the story when I had already fallen in love with these perfectly drawn characters. It was the kind of book that I couldn’t wait to get back to, not because I just had to know what happened next, but because I just had to know what happened to these characters next.  Here is just one of the beautifully composed thoughts penned in its pages.

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

I was going to use the back cover copy to tell you what the book is about but I’m not going to. I will just say it’s a book about a brother and sister, and their childhood home, and everything that the word “home” might and should conjure up in your mind when you hear that word spoken.  I loved it so much I am going to use one of my Audible credits and have Tom Hanks read it to me. I hardly ever read books twice because, you know, so many books, so little time. So you know it’s a good one when I tell you I’ll be “reading” this one again. Soon.

Highly recommend.

 

Once Upon A River…

In March, a new book of mine was released into the wild and I set off to introduce it to book lovers by traveling a bit, and then I returned home to the new book I’m writing and the unruly task of having to unwrite about 25,000 words of it (which I had discovered through the insightful eyes of my agent and editor had to go). So while I’ve been neglecting the blog, and while there have been no posts on Friday where I share what I have been reading, I have in fact been reading in between book travels and travails. And I’ve been looking forward to creating some margin in my week where I can at last get back to the conversation here. I apologize for the long hiatus, and I think I remember how to do this…

I finished Diane Setterfield’s latest, an amazing book entitled ONCE UPON A RIVER, while on book tour and have been looking at its spine on my To-Be-Talked-About pile for weeks now. It was such a good book; everything that I loved about Diane’s seminal work for me, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, I found in this book. What a delight it was to rediscover why I love her writing so.

ONCE UPON A RIVER is a story of love between parent and child, and the agony of loss and the absolute delight of hope and how we navigate our journeys through both. It is set in England and the river in the title refers to the Thames; that long winding rope of water that is more than just a frame for London postcard pictures of Parliament and Westminster Abby. Setterfield’s voice comes through rich and true in the prose; it is absolutely delicious. I fell in love with that voice with THE THIRTEENTH TALE, so much so that I read that book two more times, which I never do (because so many books, so little time). I continue to mention it as among my favorite reads all these years later. For whatever reason, I did not bond with Setterfield‘s novel that followed TTT – Bellman and Black – and I had been so looking forward to it too (probably too much) – but I know that not all books are going to impact us the same way, and not all writers will either, each time we read them. I love what M. L. Stedman, the author of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS said about Setterfield’s newest: “Setterfield‘s masterful storytelling draws you in to a beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing. It lowers you into its steps and carries you along in its vividly evoked world.“

Here’s the inside scoop from the publisher: “A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can it be explained by science? Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.”

Reading a Diane Setterfield book makes me want to be a better writer, makes me want to spend more time on every page I write. Highly recommend, folks, and I promise I’ll be back more often…

 

 

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?