While those of us who love reading and books know the saying “so many books, so little time” is true, I run my eye down the best-selling book lists occasionally and wince at some of the same-old, same-old that sell like hotcakes. But, luckily, there are real gems among the dross, too. We just have to search them out.
Some new reading recommendations for 2013 —
• “Peace Like a River” (2001) by Leif Enger is the richest book I’ve read in quite a while and an amazing first book for Enger. It’s not just filled with marvelous characters in a thrilling plot, but a story about family, faith and love. In 1962, 11-year-old Reuben Land, his 8-year-old sister Swede and 16-year-old brother Davy live with their father, Jeremiah, in a small Midwest town. Reuben, an asthmatic, reckons he was spared at birth to be a witness to the miracles his father performs. When Davy shoots and kills two intruders and then escapes from jail, he becomes an outlaw right out of one of Swede’s epic poems. The family’s trip west in search of him will bring great joy into their lives and grief, too.
• “The Ha-Ha” (2005) by Dave King is the story of a man and a boy and how they learn from each other, much like “Keeper and Kid” (a book I highly recommended a couple of years ago). Howard came back from Vietnam with a head injury. He can’t speak or read or write, but is “of normal intelligence” as the cards read that he carries to show to strangers. When his high school girlfriend needs to go to rehab and dumps her son, Ryan, on Howard and his house full of boarders, it will change all of their lives, but especially Howard’s. It’s funny, sad and heartwarming, but always completely honest and believable.
• “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” (2012) by Susan Elia MacNeal is a fun read. Maggie Hope, a young woman born in England, but brought up near Boston, finds herself stuck in London in 1940 and takes a job as one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries. Little does she know it will mean spies, IRA terrorists and shocking information about her past. I know quite a bit about the period, but there were sad and horrifying details I was unfamiliar with about how the English dealt with the bombing and imminent invasion. Ms. MacNeal really did her homework on the period and lists the books she used as research. Apparently, this is the first book in a series about Maggie.
• “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” (2009) by Sarah Rose reminded me a little of “The Orchid Thief,” but it went so much farther, fitting the theft of tea-growing secrets from China into a whole social, anthropological, political and industrial context that staggers the mind. In 1848, when the British East India Co. hired Robert Fortune, a botanist and plant hunter, to travel to China to steal tea seedlings and seeds, with the hope of growing tea in India, it set off a domino effect that ranged from monetary gain and scientific knowledge to improving the health of the British people and the speed of sailing ships. This is a fascinating look at a part of history that covers a short number of years, but changed the world.
• Hawthorne Books in Portland, Ore., finds good writers they think are being ignored. They publish American literary fiction and narrative non-fiction. One of their finds was “The Well and the Mine” (2007) by Gin Phillips. The Moore family lives in Carbon Hill, Ala., a coal mining town with a population of 3,000 in 1931. When 9-year-old Tess sees a woman throw a baby into their well, it sets off a lot of gossip and some introspective thinking. This look at a southern family and how they deal with the brutality of mining, good times and bad, and racial and monetary inequality also highlights a simpler time of iced tea while sitting on the porch, making preserves, listening to the radio and Sunday dinners after church. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking and a wonderfully textured look at a time and period and the people who populated it.
• “The Widow’s War” (2006) by Sally Gunning is another of her skillful novels about colonial-era America. As a genealogist, I know what a woman’s lot was in the 1700s; but, it was brought to horrifying life in the story of Lyddie Berry, whose whaler husband is killed in a fishing accident. She finds herself with a widow’s third (the right to a third of their home in a village on Cape Cod, whatever she brought to the marriage and not much else. Soon she finds herself at odds with her son-in-law, lawyer, minister and neighbors because she dares to think she can manage her own household instead of moving into her daughter’s. Sally Gunning lives on Cape Cod and the book also includes a map of the village, the story behind the novel and a tour of Brewster and where you can find locations mentioned in the book.
• “Death Comes to Pemberley” (2011) by P.D. James. After PBS and movie versions of Jane Austen’s books were so popular, multiple authors wrote sequels to “Pride and Prejudice,” which ranged from pretty good to so-so to “hysterical romances” as Bristol’s librarian in the 1970s referred to them. That’s why I was excited to hear P.D. James had penned one. She’s one of my favorite authors and her Adam Dalgliesh series some of the best English detective stories ever. She works her magic on the world of Pemberley at the turn of the century, as Lizzy and Darcy raise their children and care for the vast estate in Derbyshire. When Wickham is charged with murdering his best friend in the woodland at Pemberley, the Darcys are dragged into the ensuing trial and mystery. This is a fitting tribute to Jane Austen in that Ms. James truly captures the language and feel of the original, but it was a trifle listless. I would recommend James’ other books (read in chronological order).
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