Category: Friday Reads

Six novels about children thrust into an adult world

The footage we’ve been seeing the last few days of the children in Afghanistan is breaking my mother-heart, and like so many of us here in the West, I am aching to do more for them than merely pray for their safety and rescue. I am a firm believer in prayer, but I also believe we are often able to participate in the answer to those prayers if we look for the avenues after we rise from our knees. More about that at the end of this post.

Those kids in Afghanistan, all of them born during this last stretch of freedom years when, among other things, all of them could attend school, are now living in an inverted world from the one they’ve always known. They’ve been thrust into a situation that is not of their making, one imposed on them and too many of them will have to find a way to be as brave and wise and resilient as people much older.

I am always moved and crushed and inspired by stories, real and imagined, about children who should be able to be what they are – children – but instead are compelled to navigate the complex and often scary world of adults. I was reminded today of the many novels I have read where this theme runs through the pages. I offer them here as a list for your own reading and would love to hear which books you would add to it.

THIS TENDER LAND by William Kent Krueger  is one of my favorite reads from the year 2020. Krueger’s style is impeccable and his novels never fail to impress. He is a true wordsmith and painter of stories. This novel is about four orphan vagabonds who “journey into the unknown, crossing paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds.” It’s been described as enthralling, bighearted epic “that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.” Highly recommend. And if you love this one, you will gobble up ORDINARY GRACE, an earlier title of his.

ORPHAN TRAIN was my first Christina Baker Kline novel and even all these years later, I still can remember how this story broke me and yet made me stronger. Here is a dual time line story of two women: one, a teenager about to age out of the foster care system, and the other, an elderly woman who’d been orphaned as a child and was put on a train to the Midwest with “hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.” It is not easy to read what happens to the young girl who will become the old woman who will change this troubled teen’s life but easy books usually don’t stay with me. I am typically not inspired or changed by them. Books that work their way into my soul leave their mark. This one did that.

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS by Lisa Wingate  is one of those books that made me want to reach back into the past and pull the children – real ones – caught up in the actual scheme that forms the premise of this novel out of that hell and into the present where I could protect them. Would I know exactly how to do that? Well, maybe not, but I wouldn’t rest until I’d exhausted every effort. This is a dual timeline tale, but it’s the part in the past that had my mother-heart writhing. From the publisher: “Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.” Lisa is a master at the craft of storytelling. Her prose is evocative and rich, even when it’s breaking your heart.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens  After having been on the NY Times bestseller list for two years there probably isn’t a soul reading this blog post who hasn’t read this book, so I probably don’t have to say too much about it! I will say I was moved by this novel and its young protagonist’s journey. The publisher describes the book this way: “Owens juxtaposes an exquisite ode to the natural world against a profound coming of age story and haunting mystery. Thought-provoking, wise, and deeply moving, Owens’s debut novel reminds us that we are forever shaped by the child within us, while also subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.” Looking forward to the screen adaptation of this one!

THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini was the first of his that I read and I became an immediate devotee of his writing style. And in these days of ours I am thinking I might re-read it, and his stellar A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS – both are set in Afghanistan. From the publisher: “The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies. A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years.” Again, not an easy read. For some readers, there may be triggers within the pages. But so impactful and memorable.

THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR  I end this list of six titles with one of my own. I had no idea until 2015 that during WW2, hundreds of interned German-American immigrants and their American-born children were repatriated to Germany in secret prisoner exchanges during the height of the Allied invasion. Reading about what it was like for these children to be thrust into the maelstrom of war was chilling. I imagined a story about a young teenage girl experiencing what dozens upon dozens of actual American children actually did experience. The Last Year of the War is the story of an Iowa-born teenager, imprisoned with her family at a Texas internment camp, and then sent to her German immigrant parents’ home country – a place she’s never been where a language she has never spoken is spoken and where Americans are the enemy – and at a time when Germany is being bombed every night by Allied forces. It’s a story about identity, loyalty, friendship, and resilience. And based on actual events.

I could add so many more to the list including ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, and THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, as well as nonfiction works like THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank and THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls. But all lists must come to an end! Plus I would love to hear what books about children thrust into situations that many adults would struggle to handle have impacted you the most.

And if you are wondering like I am about what more I can do for the young ones in Afghanistan, a fellow author, Nadia Hashimi, has curated a list of aid organizations already in place to and support the Afghan refugee crisis. The Google doc is accessible via a link on her Instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/nadiahashimibooks/. If you are not on Instagram, one of the places on her list is Doctors Without Borders. Here is the direct link to what they are doing in Afghanistan. https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/countries/afghanistan

 

 

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 The Vanishing Half

Often when I begin to read the book that everyone is talking about I find myself dealing with expectations that are just too high.  The annoying result of having expectations that are too lofty is failing to enjoy the book as much as I probably would have if I had heard nothing about it. It’s happened more than once, sadly. Maybe this has happened to you, too?

That is not the case with THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett. I finished it last night when the house was asleep (anyone else dealing with pandemic insomnia?!) and hated to see it end. The characters are that richly drawn and the writing is that good.

The premise alone is at once intriguing. Just now as I tried to think of words to describe it, the right words failed me, so I am cheating here and giving you the publisher’s excellent description.

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

I was spellbound by Ms. Bennett’s quiet and yet compelling storytelling. Hers is the kind of writing I want every novel I read to sound like. Every novel I write to sound like. It’s beautiful without being pretentious or melodramatic or stilted. And her pacing and timing is perfect.

One bookseller said this about it: “A page-turner—yes. Lyrical—yes. A sharp depiction of the brutal effects of racism and colorism on families and communities, an exploration of what it means to choose—or refuse—an identity, and a delicate, nuanced, fierce prose that probes at the bond between twins and the cascade of events that pour through their separate lives after one twin vanishes from the other—yes, yes, and yes. Bennett’s writing is clear and swift, and I could live in it forever.”

I couldn’t have said it better. If you’re on Facebook and want to hear Brit Bennett in conversation with some very good author friends of mine, hop on to the Friends and Fiction group page and get connected there so that you watch the Nov 4 Wednesday night show with Ms. Bennett as the special guest. And as an aside, Friends and Fiction is a great place to hang out every Wednesday night, actually. I’ve enjoyed all the interviews. (If you want to hear one of my favorites, check out the one with Elizabeth Berg!)

I would love to hear your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it! Have a lovely weekend, friends…

Three books for you!

Today as a special treat I have a three-book giveaway! (Read all the way to the end to see how to get in on the draw). Two of these books I had the pleasure to read in early form to provide cover quotes – always a delightful perk of being an author – and one is a brand new release from a friend of mine who sent me a copy specifically for this sweet purpose, to give away on my blog.

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND BRAVE

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Hazel Gaynor in person after being friends from a far (she lives in Ireland) at the 2019 Historical Novel Society’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. last summer. How wonderful it was to finally see each other IRL, as they say! Hazel is a stunning writer, and the The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home. This new novel is set in China during WWII, and inspired by true events surrounding the Japanese Army’s internment of teachers and children from a British-run missionary school. I loved it.  Here’s a bit more about the book:

Hazel Gaynor

When Japan declares war on Britain and America, Japanese forces take control of the school and its young students who are separated from their parents. Faced with the relentless challenges of oppression, the school community must rely on their courage, faith and friendships as they pray for liberation – but then they are sent to a distant internment camp where even greater uncertainty and danger awaits.

Inspired by true events, When We Were Young and Brave is an unforgettable novel about impossible choices and unimaginable hardship, and the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher in a remote corner of a terrible war.

Here’s what I said in my endorsement:

“A compelling story of innocents caught up in the machine of global conflict, so wonderfully written and soul-stirring. Gaynor beautifully explores the heart’s brave struggle to make sense of the upside-down world that is war.  Well done!”

Lisa Wingate said it’s “A story of courage and strength that will make you believe in the heroic spirit in each of us.”

You’re gonna love this one. (side note: Hazel also writes with my Tall Poppy pal, Heather Webb. Their newest collab is Meet me in Monaco…)

MILLICENT GLENN’S LAST WISH

Tori Whitaker’s debut just hit bookstore shelves on Tuesday! I had the lovely treat of reading an early copy for endorsement, and also meeting Tori in person during a book tour (oh, remember travel??) when I was in the Atlanta area.

I love what she says about this first book and the way we look at our family histories: “My dream of writing a book first took root in my twenties, and some forty years later, I’ve seen that dream come true. Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish (part historical fiction and part contemporary family drama) is my debut novel. I love stories that shift between the past and present. Maybe that is because my family had five living generations upon my birth, and when my own grandchildren came along, my family had five living generations again. This experience has also given me a sense of what we observe in those who’ve come before us … and what we pass down from one generation to the next.”

Here’s what the book is about in a nutshell:

Millicent Glenn is self-sufficient and contentedly alone in the Cincinnati suburbs. As she nears her ninety-first birthday, her daughter Jane, with whom she’s weathered a shaky relationship, suddenly moves back home. Then Millie’s granddaughter shares the thrilling surprise that she’s pregnant. But for Millie, the news stirs heartbreaking memories of a past she’s kept hidden. Millie’s last wish? For Jane to forgive her.

Sixty years earlier Millie had a husband she adored, a job, a precious baby girl, and another child on the way. She had the perfect family and the perfect life. All it took was one shattering moment to reshape Millie’s life and the lives of generations to come.

Tori Whitaker

As Millie’s old wounds are exposed, so are the secrets she’s kept for so long. Finally revealing them to her daughter might be the greatest risk a mother could take in the name of love.

And here’s what I said about it:

“Tori Whitaker explores the depths of mother-love with insight, care, and heart-wrenching honesty in this post-WW2 story brimming with exceptional historical detail. A moving and emotionally-charged debut by a writer to watch.”

Jenna Blum calls Millicent Glenn “a heroine to cheer for.”

I bet we are going to be seeing more from Tori!

THE GOOD LUCK STONE

Heather Bell Adams and I have only been able to be online friends but I’ve no doubt someday our paths will cross. Her new book, The Good Luck Stone, I didn’t read in early form but when it was released not too long ago I wanted to celebrate with her by giving away a copy on my blog and also give it some spotlight time.

Heather’s newest is a story about friendships and secrets kept and secrets revealed. Here’s a bit more about it:

At ninety, Audrey Thorpe still lives in a historic mansion on palm-tree-lined Victory Drive, determined to retain her independence. But when her health begins to decline, the family hires a part-time caretaker. The two women seem to bond—until Audrey disappears. The caretaker doesn’t know that Audrey has harbored a secret for seven decades, since her time as a nurse in the South Pacific during World War II.

As the story moves between the verdant jungles of the war-torn Philippines and the glitter of modern-day Savannah, friendships new and old are tested. Along the way, Audrey grapples with one of life’s heart-wrenching truths: You can only outrun your secrets for so long.

My dear friend Julie Cantrell says Heather’s new book is “a plot-perfect page turner…Adams has hit the sweet spot, mastering a literary tone with commercial pacing…a screen-worthy winner and a book club bullseye.”

Heather Bell Adams

And isn’t that cover beautiful!?

Heather Bell Adams’ first novel, Maranatha Road, won the gold medal for the Southeast region in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was selected for Deep South Magazine’s Fall/Winter Reading List. The Good Luck Stone appeared on Summer Reading Lists for Deep South Magazine, Writer’s Bone, The Big Other and Buzz Feed. Originally from Hendersonville, NC, Heather lives in Raleigh with her husband and son, Davis, where she’s also a lawyer.

Congrats on the new book, Heather!

So there you have it friends! Just comment below with any kind of hello and your name is in the hat for the giveaway. If you comment here and on the Facebook post, you get your name in twice! I will have random.org draw a winner on Weds, Oct 7 at noon Pacific. One winner will receive all three books!

Good luck and happy reading!

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.

Loving The Book of Lost Friends

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a difficult time reading for pleasure lately. I’m okay to read for research for the book I’m writing and I’m happy to read stories to my grandchildren, but at the end of the day when I curl up in bed to read for me, I’ve been struggling to lose myself in the pages of a novel. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. I don’t recognize it and I don’t like it. There is some comfort in knowing other people feel this way too. These are very strange times we’re living in, and we’re being affected by this virus-that-shall-not-be-named in ways we would not have expected. I saw a meme on Facebook today that defines our current situation as the Coronacoaster: “One day you’re loving your bubble, doing workouts, baking banana bread, and going for long walks and the next you’re crying, drinking gin for breakfast, and missing people you don’t even like.” Kinda funny and kinda not, right?

Thankfully though, I’ve come upon some books during these last few months that have been able to transport me into the world the storyteller has created, and out of ours! Yay! Lisa Wingate’s newest, THE BOOK OF LOST FRIENDS, is that kind of book.

Lisa is a not only a good friend and one of the kindest people I know, she is a masterful weaver of stories. This new book of hers has her signature style all over it. It is a dual time-periods tale about a formerly enslaved young woman named Hannie ten years after the end of the Civil War and a young schoolteacher named Benedetta needing to discover her own self-worth and purpose, and who happens be living in a cottage on the same expanse of land that had been the Louisiana plantation Hannie had been taken to after being ripped from her mother’s arms when just a child. In alternating chapters, Lisa takes us from the dangerous post-war journey Hannie is on in 1875 to Bennie’s complex world in 1987.  The two women, separated by a century, never meet physically but their paths cross in other ways.

The story is inspired by actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, when newly emancipated men and women began to search for loved ones they’d long been parted from. The excerpts from the actual newspapers are the most haunting and emotionally-gripping detail of the book.  It’s gut-wrenching to imagine mothers and fathers being separated from their young children and each other, and those children then being separated from their siblings.

I hadn’t heard of the Lost Friends project prior to reading Lisa’s book, and I was glad she offered some resources in the end pages for future study. One of those is https://www.hnoc.org/database/lost-friends/index.html, which is a searchable database of more than 2,500 Lost Friends advertisements that appeared in the Southern Christian Advocate between November 1879 and December 1900.

Lisa writes about difficult subjects but she always finds a way to leave you feeling hopeful at the end of her books. I appreciate that about her novels as it’s something I strive to do in mine.

I highly recommend this one friends. And I would love to hear what you’ve been reading and loving, despite the pan-well, you know what I mean….

This ‘n’ That book news…

I don’t know about you but Covid-19 and its stay-at-home orders, the monotony of every day feeling like we’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the specter of empty parking lots, the police tape around playground equipment, the spider webs lacing the hubcabs on my car, has me a little brain-fogged. I know I owe you a blog post but I’ve noticed it’s hard to concentrate on things that aren’t a big part of this NEW ROUTINE, this blog being one of them. But I am here today – confetti toss to me – and I am dropping in with some fun stuff that I’ve been collecting, albeit quite by accident. Here, in no particular order is a bunch of fun stuff.

My good friend and fellow Berkley sister, Chanel Cleeton, has a new book coming out next month – pandemic or no pandemic – and to help pave the way for the release of THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST, Berkley is having a super fun giveaway sweepstakes that includes two additional (and wonderful) books by Chanel, plus a pretty special edition tote bag. As you can see from the photo above, I loved her newest, but they are all great books! Truly. This giveaway is open to U.S. entries only (sorry about that!). You can enter for a chance to win here: https://sweeps.penguinrandomhouse.com/enter/last-train-and-tote-bag-sweeps.

Have you noticed that World War II books just keep coming our way and no one seems to be tiring of them? I’ve only come across a couple people who say they’re ready to move on to another historical fiction backdrop; the rest of us just can’t seem to get enough of them. I know I am not tired of WW2 books. Not tired reading them and not tired writing them. There are still untold, undiscovered stories of WW2 and the time to tell them and find them is now, while we still have some of its living witnesses here with us. To align two of my older titles with THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, which is my most recent WW2 novel, my publisher has redesigned the covers of SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN – both of which are WW2 tales – so that they will easily be recognizable as from that era. And there’s better symmetry between the covers.

This may last just for now or for a long while. I still love the original covers (remember those beautiful dresses and the women wearing them with just part of their face showing?) We will see what people are drawn to? What do you think? I am happy to gain new readers who might not have picked up the two books before, but now will. Fingers crossed anyway!

These will show up mainly on ebook readers but also at some retailers. Let me know if you spot either one in physical form. Extra love from me if you nab a photo!

In more WW2 book news, I just finished Ariel Lawhon’s  CODE NAME HELENE, which I loved, and which I will share about next Friday. So do come back for that!

And now for some fun stuff just because. I loved this video, shot by a UK sports commentator who is obviously not commenting on any sports, because COVID. So he’s been finding little things in pandemic life to comment on in sports-commentator-like fashion. This is one is the absolute best to date:

And last for now, this just floors me. I am amazed by the amazing music coming out of the quarantined world, by yes, talented people, but recorded in their homes via their smart phone and laptops, all while in separate places!! Not in sound studios. This one just makes you want to dance a little:

So there you go! Happy Friday, friends. Hopefully I won’t let you down next Friday and I will be here with more FUN STUFF!

 

How to bring more joy to your life!

Hello, reading friends. I hope you are able to find a place of tranquility on this Friday afternoon but if you’re feeling stretched in too many directions while at the same time feeling isolated and kerfuffled, I have an interview here for you – and a book – that might help. My dear friend Anne Bogel, who you might also know as the amazing Modern Mrs. Darcy, has a brand new book out – and yes, it released into a weary world in the middle of this pandemic – and it is so timely. DON’T OVERTHINK IT is Anne’s third book and in its pages, she wants to help you not only overcome negative thought patterns that rob you of joy and peace but replace them with positive ones. More than a book about good decision-making, the back cover says, DON’T OVERTHINK IT “offers you a framework for making choices you’ll be comfortable with, allowing you to use an appropriate amount of energy and freeing you to focus on all the other stuff that matters in life.”

Anne, aka MODERN MRS. DARCY, is the author of READING PEOPLE and I’D RATHER BE READING and creator of the excellent podcast WHAT SHOULD I READ NEXT? She makes her home with her family in Louisville, Kentucky and is a pure joy to know. Read on to see how to get in on a drawing for a copy of her book and to check out her terrific Stay-at-Home-Book-Tour videos for both her book (all your many questions are answered!) and one for mine, THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, which released in paperback into this strange, new world on Tuesday.  But first, let’s chat with Anne:

SUSAN: Tell us about your new book. Did you ever dream you were writing a book that people might need in the midst of a pandemic?

ANNE: I certainly didn’t! The new book is about making easier decisions, stopping second-guessing, and bringing more joy to your life. Studies show nearly all of us engage in overthinking—that means repetitive, unhealthy, unhelpful thoughts. Overthinking is exhausting, and it makes us miserable. But with new strategies and some practice, we can learn to stop thinking our way out of happiness and think our way into it instead.

For many people, overthinking is a deeply entrenched habit, so overcoming it requires new strategies and plenty of practice. I imagine that’s why people are finding the book so helpful right now: we’re all dealing with circumstances we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Our routines have been disrupted, and we’re having to make lots of decisions we never anticipated. Not only that, the news is a major overthinking trigger. People need resources; they need help.

SUSAN: So true. Was there anything in the writing and research for this book that surprised you?

ANNE: Before I began this project, I was oblivious to the connection between overthinking and perfectionism. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and those tendencies still trip me up sometimes. Once I understood how much of my own overthinking was driven by perfectionism it became much easier to overcome those particular negative thought patterns.

SUSAN: That is so interesting. I think I might be a wannabe perfectionist! That’s either not quite as bad or far worse! What are some tips from the book that all of us can use in these uncertain times?

ANNE: First, when you take care of your body, you take care of your brain, so focusing on the basics is crucial to set yourself up for success in this area: don’t forget to eat breakfast, get some exercise, drink your water, get enough sleep.

We all have moments where we catch ourselves stuck on the overthinking treadmill, and when that happens it’s good to have some strategies handy so we can pull ourselves out of that thought spiral. Try scheduling time to overthink each day: this may sound counterintuitive, but if you tell yourself you’ll indulge that overthinking at the designated hour, it’s easier to put those thoughts aside for the rest of the day. Try distracting yourself: this works because the brain can only focus on so many things at once. Give your mind something else to occupy it: read a book, pay a bill, play a game of Tetris, follow a new recipe. Finally, when your brain is stuck, move your body: take a walk, go for a run, do a set of plans or some jumping jacks. When you move your body, you move your mind.

Susan here again. Such good words. Anne spoke more about this book and answered questions from a packed Zoom room where a virtual book stop took place. A great listen if you want to hear more from Anne. Mine is also available to watch on this same replay page.

You can get a copy of Anne’s book and at the same time support local independent bookstores by shopping for it right here.

If you’d like to get in on a drawing for a copy of Anne’s book, just drop a comment below and tell us one way you are coping with the difficult circumstances we are all presently bound up in. It can be a fun way, serious way, easy or complex. We want to hear them all. A winner (and it can be an international winner if bookdepository is still shipping to your country) will be randomly drawn at noon Pacific on Monday. Happy Easter weekend all!