Now that we have a bit more time on our hands, it is a great time to pick up a new author and read. I have read several good ones since my last book review post, and I’ll show you those, tell you two to avoid, and then pick up some older reviews of very long novels to fill our time. Amazon links are provided so you can see the synopsis of the books if you like, or buy a copy. I just noticed that my top two picks for this post on reading both have birdcages on the covers.
The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman – This is a wonderfully complex story that begins with the search for a painting and uncovers much more about the artist and his subjects. The writing is compelling in a way that makes you turn the pages and keep going even when there are other things to do. I did not want to put it down. The ending has a twist you will not see coming, and is the first book that I wished was 50 pages longer, just so I could find out more about what the characters did next.
Hope On The Inside by Marie Bostwick – It is nice to find a novel about real people and real problems, solving them by relying on each other. There aren’t many writers who have their long married couples stay together, meeting the challenges of their marriages individually and together. Marie Bostwick has a writing style that is easy to read, yet gives the reader something to think about. In this novel, the theme of re-inventing a life is repeated over and over, with each character going through a process of finding a new life when the old one is disrupted. There is a deeper theme of redemption to think about in the process of an inmate reclaiming her life after stupid decisions made as a teenager. I was interested to read about a quilting program in a prison in real life in the afterward of the book. Basing stories on real life situations is Bostwick’s strong suit, and I hope she continues writing for many years to come.
Next, the position of most hilarious book I have ever read has been occupied by Devil in the Junior League by Linda Francis Lee for many years. This week, it dropped to number 2, as The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion took over as the funniest book ever. The story follows the exploits of a socially inept (think Sheldon Cooper) professor of genetics, Don Tillman, who tries to use a scientific method to find a wife. He then gets completely sidetracked by a free spirit who upends his tidy, ordered life. The story is absolutely hysterical as Don reacts differently to situations in a manner totally logical to him but crazy to anyone else. I had to put the book down several times to get up and get a tissue to wipe the tears from laughter off my face. It is clever, easy reading, almost impossible to put down. There are three books in the series and I cannot wait to read the next one.
A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan – A non-fiction memoir of a Chinese woman born in the year of the Tiger, raised in Singapore but coming of age in America. After losing her job, she is interested in learning more about her heritage, and the cooking of her grandmother and aunts and in the process learn about her own family. She makes several trips back to Singapore getting to know her aunties, learning to cook the dishes of her childhood. It is a well written book, full of humor and discovery. Recipes in the back are given in case you want to try some of the dishes. It is an enjoyable read, not high art, but interesting enough.
The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson – This is one of those thoughtful fiction books, based in history but concentrating on people not in the center of the event. In this case, the book revolves around the women working on the wedding gown. I was struck by the depth of research the author did, and the eloquence of her treatment of a Holocaust survivor. It is a novel of survival, of rationing and hardship, overcoming trauma, the aftermath of WWII, looking forward and finding joy. The sewing and embroidery becomes central to the storyline, told in two timelines, as the granddaughter of one of the characters tries to uncover the secrets from the past. Highly recommend.
Here are two to avoid, not worth your time.
To Be Where You Are (Mitford #14) by Jan Karon – I wrote this same criticism about the 13th Mitford and it is still true for #14. It seems that Ms Karon has run out of steam for this series, dashing off a disjointed series of thoughts and calling it a novel. The novel is a series of half-page to page-and-a-half views of small scenes, with much of the chapters being confusing as to who you are reading about. These vignettes start off with ‘he’ or ‘she’ did this or that without identifying who it was. Sometimes ‘he’ was Dooley, sometimes Father Kavanaugh, sometimes Avis, sometimes someone else. It was too confusing, and slowed down the reading as you’d have to go start over once you realized that ‘he’ wasn’t who you thought it was. The copious use in this novel of an apostrophe instead of real words – th’ instead of the – to indicate someone’s speech pattern became really tedious when used on multiple words in a single sentence. It got old really fast, and made the entire novel more difficult to read. Cannot recommend this one either, and I’m now done with Mitford.
Belonging by Nancy Thayer – This story started out a little irritating with overwrought images in the narrative, some just reaching to ridiculous – “the tantalizing glitter of his arctic blue eyes. The iceberg planes of his cheekbones…the cutting white sail of his smile”. Oh, please, it’s a bit much for one paragraph. Then there is the powerful and strong woman, who gets pregnant and retreats from the world in Nantucket because she is afraid her lover will want her to get an abortion. If she was that strong, she could have told him no and meant it. The novel moves to the renovation of an old house which became somewhat interesting, then the reader is slapped in the face by not one, but multiple tragedies in a row. I was too far in by that point to wall-bang it, so finished it. Of course, as predicted, the storylines were all tied up with neat little bows, happy endings all around. Overall disappointing.
I do enjoy science fiction and fantasy novels, although for some reason I haven’t read a lot of them lately. At the last book sale for the library, I ran across the three novels of the Harper Hall Trilogy in the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Written for young readers in the preteen age group, these are still wonderful escape reads for adults. I have a lot of this series in hardback, but haven’t seen these three in years. So, I had to get them and reread them. My Anne McCaffrey shelf is pretty full, and I keep my little dragon on that shelf too.
If you are looking for a long novel to capture your interest for these long days at home, here are a few of my reviews of some epic length books. These are all over 600 pages, with some over 900. All of the following books were read some time ago, but most I still have on my keeper shelf.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – At the heart, this is a character study of a young boy, torn apart by the death of his mother. The descent into a profound depression is described in a true-to-life manner. So many young people, adrift without direction, turn to drugs and alcohol. Theo does just that. The fixation on minutiae is a symptom of depression, and is well described with elegance. The story moves slowly, which does drive some people to quit the book, but again, it isn’t an action novel. The story is Theo, his battles, his demons, his slow maturity, eventually coming to grips with what is right and wrong. He is fixated on the painting of The Goldfinch, noting the terrible chain forcing the tiny bird to live a lonely existence. Such is Theo’s life, chained to the memories he cannot reconcile, obsessed with a painting he shouldn’t possess, tormented by the specter of having it taken from him, yet needing it as a touchstone to his mother. I found it a fascinating novel, not a difficult read, just a long one. I recommend it.
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton – This is a wonderfully complex book with richly drawn characters, as a little girl arrives in Australia, abandoned. When she is grown, she is told the truth of how she came to be there, and begins a journey to find out her heritage. In another timeline, her granddaughter is trying to piece together the story as well. The story starts a little slowly, then builds to where it is impossible to put down. I gave it the highest rating of five stars. I bought this originally in paperback and gave it to a friend, buying a hardback for myself to keep.
Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows, A Dance with Dragons (Song of Ice and Fire Series) by George RR Martin – Each one of these books is over 900 pages. I’ve read them all, and the HBO series was better as it moved a bit faster. But if you enjoy rich imagery, and don’t mind that the story advances slowly, this one is for you. Be prepared for long scenes with little advancement of the story as the author loves character development.
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher – A story of one woman looking back on her life, with the discovery that her father’s painting is now worth a fortune. The conflict that arises with her children over the painting and what to do illustrates a family in turmoil. This author has a unique ability to draw you into a family crisis and to make you care about the outcome. I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read of hers, but this one is probably the best so far.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – Read back in 2013, I do remember liking this book that was a book club read for a group I was a part of then. It is a retelling of the Dracula story, based in the history of Vlad the Impaler. It is either loved or hated by all who make it through the 600+ pages. I liked it enough to put it on my keeper shelf and may have to read it again at some point.
The Eight by Katherine Neville – One of my all time favorite books, this one has a storyline that is different from any other. It is told in two time periods, one at the time of the French Revolution and the other in modern times. The historic timeline tells the story of a supernaturally powerful chess set, and efforts to hide the pieces to prevent its use. In modern times, a woman is drawn into the hunt to put the set back together for a terrible cause. A fascinating story with intrigue and deception, intricate and complex. The sequel, The Fire, picks up the story 30 years later in both time lines, and is just as complex and interesting as the first.
Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, books #1 and 2 of the Kingsbridge series by Ken Follett. The series has three books, all over 900 pages each, and I haven’t read the last one yet, but I would imagine it is as beautifully detailed in imagery and history as the first two. The story is set in the middle ages in Europe, centering around the building of a Gothic cathedral. In the context of a builder, stories revolve around the builders and the royals, drawing each character in flawed detail. The story is rich with intrigue and treachery, complex and absorbing.
Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
This is a truly heartwarming story, with the time of year as a metaphor for the lives of the people involved. The Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, mirrors the tragedy of the primary characters, and as the days slowly progress to Christmas, a time of joy and renewal, the characters find a new way forward. It is a rare book these days that gets five stars from me, and there are a couple of quibbles with this one – like the description of a 62 year old as elderly, certainly not!! Some of the plot developments are a bit predictable, but there are a few twists where things do not go as they might have which makes the story a bit more realistic.
You can see more book reviews by using the Books and Reading category on my sidebar. Do you have any recommendations? What is the best book you’ve read lately?