Perestroika in Paris - Jane Smiley
It's been many years since author Jane Smiley, whose 1991 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award bestseller "A Thousand Acres," has been in my book radar. What a Big Treat it was to discover that not only has Jane Smiley published a new novel to share with her fan base, she's written a story with delightfully unique voices who have a timely message to share with the world. From page one and through the last page, I found myself utterly hooked, falling head over heels in love with each and every character who include a racehorse, a raven, two ducks, two rats, and an 8-year old Parisian boy. Smiley rejoices in the animal world and their commanding communication skills, showing her readers that all living things desire freedom, love, and understanding. I highly recommend this absolutely charming read and can't say it loud enough: "Perestroika in Paris" was my end of 2020 all-time favorite novel and still is!
A Crooked Tree - Una Mannion
Una, you got me with the first sentence: "The night we left Ellen on the road, we were driving north up 252 near where it meets 2020 and then crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike." I knew instantly this was going to be a page turner and would be about either a dog or a girl. Either way, I was ready. Oh, and it probably would be taking place in the mountains, and it would take place outdoors. Una Mannion, how can this be your debut novel? It's got so much depth to it, yet it's like an old familiar story. Suspenseful, yes. Empathetic, yes that too. Admiration for nature, totally. Spending time with this small community of young people who are witness to family dysfunctions based on fears and deep needs for privacy is like reading about any neighborhood, USA. The bonds and the bitterness, the grief and anger, the secrets . . . all these emotions are so tenderly expressed — in the voice of coming-of-age teenagers who could have been me or my brothers or my friends. Well done Una.
When the Stars Go Dark - Paula McClain
Page-turner alert! Paula McLain's part-historical tragic suspense novel captured my attention beginning on page one. With breathtaking descriptions of the coastline and woods of Northern California and harrowing images of a desperation for survival, the real-life tragedy of Polly Klass' abduction makes for a nail-biting first-rate novel. Part autobiographical, McLain allows us a glimpse at her own childhood as she uses that memory, along with her imagination, to build a sense of healing and to construct honest-to-goodness good storytelling.
The Paris Library - Janet Skeslien Charles
It's not hard to appreciate historical fiction when it is as well-researched and captivating as Janet Charles' The Paris Library. As an obsessive reader and lover of libraries — I grew up visiting Detroit's beautiful downtown Main Library, on Woodward Avenue, every Saturday and Sunday while a Detroit high school student — the story of Odile Souchet's pains and joys as a Parisian librarian before and during the Nazi occupation of Paris is vividly descriptive of her library patrons, her own personal struggles, and the bookshelves themselves. A heart wrenching story that switches from Odile's 1939 through 1944 France and the heartwarming relationship we watch develop with her teenage next door neighbor, Lily, and Lily's family, in rural Montana of 1983-1989.
The Music of Bees: A Novel - Eileen Garvin
It's hard to believe this is a debut novel for writer Eileen Garvin, who has been compared to author Eleanor Oliphant. A lovingly told story rich with characters I would enjoy having as my next-door neighbors or best friend's kids, the story takes place on a bee farm in rural Oregon. Having the utmost respect for bees and beekeepers, it was an extra special treat to be taken to that world. The protagonist's father's destructive revilement of his son is utterly horrific but that's what makes the story the story. It is heartbreaking, yet this tender novel redeems itself in a heartwarming way.
Hamnet - Maggie O'Farrell
Such a sad little story. Hamnet was the only son of William Shakespeare and the fraternal twin of Judith Shakespeare. Sweet to read of the deep love between Shakespeare and his naturalist wife Agnes, a woman disliked and misunderstood for her affinity to the natural world, and bittersweet to read this short tale of Hamnet's early death at the age of 11 during the plague of the 1500's. According to Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were entirely interchangeable at the time, though there is no definitive clue that they were one and the same. I found the beautiful writing to be a perfect tonic to the news of the day, an escape from the political reality one finds difficult to ignore. If you find yourself drawn to real life stories, fiction or not, about life's hardships, be sure to read Maggie O'Farrell's newest novel.
The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames - Justine Cowan
I am grateful to Justine Cowan for writing this incredibly difficult biography of her mother's life. It's hard to believe that human beings — children — can be so ill-treated and unloved, uncared for, disrespected, as was her mother's childhood experience. Cowan's brutal honesty might provide strength to all of us children who, like Justine, and like Dorothy, suffered from the cruelty described as she reveals her mother's regrettable story. "Without tenderness and security in early childhood, the ability to form meaningful and healthy attachments is irrevocably damaged" was my own mother's childhood reality. Cowan's discoveries lit a lightbulb in my mind that finding forgiveness is never too late.
Margreete's Harbor - Eleanor Morse
This novel is on par with every literary novel I've read over the past 40 years that has remained a part of me. Beautifully written with an obvious love and admiration for strong families, the story is a microscopic unzipping of a family at the end of the 1950's and the tumultuous 1960's on their entire family structure. The story takes place on the nature-battered coast of Maine, in the home of Margreete, the matriarchal grandmother who the story is built around and each member of the family's relationship to and with her. The children are young when they move into their grandmother's home. We witness their growth, their insecurities, and the changing family dynamics on this loving family that are impacted by the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War. Everything about the characters is believable and realistic and very touching.
The Book of Two Ways: A Novel - Jodi Picoult
I've never given an ounce of thought to ancient Egyptian history. After devouring this complicated love story built around an archeological dig site, I'm totally in! Incredibly fascinating behind-the-scenes who/what/where/how data surrounding Ancient Egypt and digs are detailed thanks to Jodi Picoult's thorough research on everything Ancient Egypt: death and dying, mummies, grammar and prose and hieroglyphics, Egyptian society, the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, plus physics and so much more. First and foremost "The Book of Two Ways" is an entangled love story complete with intrigue around the fully-developed cast of characters. The captivating Egypt I lesson is an added treat. I tend to avoid mushy-gushy love stories, but this is one I can say "read on and enjoy the ride!"
Let Them Be Left: Isle Royale Poems - Keith Taylor
Ann Arbor writer Keith Taylor spent several weeks, at two different times in his life, on Isle Royale in northern Michigan as a part of the National Park Service's Artist-in-Residence program, in 1991 and again in 2019. This sweet chapbook, published by Alice Greene & Co., is Taylor's prose and poetry ruminations written during his wilderness immersion and his reemergence into "Twenty-first Century Wild." From the gorgeous front and back cover painting by Kathleen M. Heideman to the lovely and visually alert words on each page, this little gem of a book is a must-have companion to take along on hikes and camping out in the Michigan woods.
Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America's Poets Respond to the Pandemic
Alice Quinn, former executive director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor at The New Yorker contacted poets around the country to see what they were writing while under the covid-19 quarantine. What she gathered is this collection around grief, strength, anger, worries, politics, wisdom, and humanity as poets expressed their experiences while sheltering in place. This is an important collaboration of American writers sharing their voices during this year of surreal reality.
Dearly: New Poems - Margaret Atwood
A different take on story-telling, it is a pleasure to be treated to fiction writers works of poetry. Margaret Atwood's new collection begins with a glance back at her life, losses, and the things we collect throughout a lifetime. Moving on from human life she addresses nature with both humor and tenderness as in "Cicadas," her recognition of the orchestra we are treated to in the heat of the summer. The 8-part "Songs for Murdered Sisters," a song cycle written for baritone Joshua Hopkins in honor of his murdered sister, is in-your-face real and tragic. What I appreciate in this collection is how Ms. Atwood moves from aging and life's endings, to her gratefulness to life's treasures.
Whale Day: And Other Poems - Billy Collins
I've said it before, I'll say it again: I am a huge Billy Collins fan. I find his writing to be comforting and . . . "natural." He writes about everyday things, like watching an ant walk across a kitchen table, or the annoyance of the neighbor's barking dog. Collins has a delightful sense of humor, though his work is in no way "comedic." This is his 13th book of poetry and every bit as good and delightful as the last one — which is always my most treasured — until the next collection comes out. I can't say that any one of them is my all-time favorite, although currently this new collection just knocks me out. I do adore them all equally. Read "Anniversary" on page 99 to get a sense of the serious and sentimental side of Billy Collins. Then, go to page 42 for a good chuckle over "Listening to Hank Mobley Around 11 O'Clock After a Long Fun Boozy Dinner, the Four of Us, at Captain Pig's, Our Favorite Restaurant in Town." There you go. Enjoy.
How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons): Poetry - Barbara Kingsolver
This is Barbara Kingsolver's second collection of poetry. I carried with me and read in parks, in trees, on benches, in bed, on a little boat her first collection, published in 1992, "Another America: Otra America." I read it out loud for only myself to hear. At that point Ms. Kingsolver had published four books: two novels, "Animal Dreams" and "Bean Trees," a collection of short stories, and a book about the women of the 1983 Arizona Mine Strike. I fell in love with her writing. Now, dozens of years and bestsellers later, she has written her second poetry collection, in which she reflects on the practical, the spiritual, and the wild. The collection opens with how-to poems that touch on everyday life such as marriage and divorce, shearing a sheep, doing absolutely nothing, and flying! In the middle are poems about making peace. She finishes the collection with poems honoring the natural world. As she has done throughout her accomplished writing career, Barbara Kingsolver has presented the reader with questions and answers that are ultimately about evolution and hope.
The Oak Papers - James Canton
A love letter to an 800-year old oak tree in North Essex, England and a meditation on nature's beauty, curiosities, and healing powers. The prose in this lovely book is poetic in its tender descriptions and history lesson on this great tree. Journal entries detail changes in the air, the birds, and the insects who inhabit, feed on, and nurture the tree. I could write on and on about the majesty of the tree and the joy of reading Canton's discoveries and what he's learned about this colossal tree that would have been a sapling when the Magna Carta was signed. A perfect companion to take on walks in the woods, bird watching or simply embracing the beauty and mysteries of old trees