Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Post 2013

The book count for this year was 60.  I started more than that, but have come to the realization that if a book doesn't grab me in the first 100 pages, it probably isn't going to and I've learned to let it go and move on to something else that I will enjoy.  These are the books I really loved in 2013.
  • Secret Santa by Anne Osborn Poelman.  I have a collection of Christmas books that I drag out every year and revisit.  Short little stories that inspire and exemplify the spirit of the season.  This is one of my favorites. It's 1933 and Tom von Sloten is 16 years old.  His family of 7, like many others, is struggling to survive through the Depression.  Tom works two jobs to help support the family and save a little bit for college.  He comes on the idea of being Santa this year and overcomes his parents' objections.  Will his savings be enough?  What presents will be worthy enough?  A tragedy strikes that throw his Christmas plans and possibly his future into disarray.  But the kindness of his fellow man save the day.  I love this story because it shows the true spirit of Christmas and that one perfect gift can be better than a whole pile of them.  It showcases a time when families had it hard but everyone had to pull together and look out for each other.  I should actually read this again before I start my Christmas shopping...
  • The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.  This book is hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking as well.  Tom Sherbourne has survived WWI and returns to his native Australia to work as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island half a day's journey from the coast.  On his rare shore leave he meets Isabel, a woman who gives him reason to hope for happiness again.  Years later, a boat is washed up on their remote island, carrying a dead man and a live baby.  Tom, honest to a fault and meticulous with his record keeping, wants to report it right away.  But Isabel, grieving over the recent stillbirth of their son as well as several previous miscarriages, has put the baby to her breast.  Against Tom's better judgement, they keep the baby and name her Lucy.  And on their next shore leave two years later, they discover who Lucy really is and the family that has always wondered what happened to her and grieved for her.  What will they do?  Can things ever be made right? The language is lyrical yet sparing.  In just a few words Stedman gives you the measure of Tom and Isabel and you get them immediately.  This is one of my favorite passages: "It occurs to him that there are different versions of himself to farewell -- the abandoned eight-year-old; the delusional soldier who hovered somewhere in hell; the lightkeeper who dared to leave his heart undefended.  Like Russian dolls, these lives sit within him." This is M. L. Stedman's debut novel and I'll definitely be looking for the next one.
  • The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.  I have loved this author since I read her first book, Girl With a Pearl Earring.  This latest book follows Honor Bright, a Quaker woman who emigrates to Ohio from her native England.  Quilts figure prominently in the book, both as a reflection of society & women's work at the time as well as an insight into Honor's interior life.  A family tragedy finds her in a very different place than she imagined when she left home, relying on strangers and struggling to find her way in a new and alien world.  While Quakers are philosophically opposed to slavery, she has never seen a Negro, much less talked to one.  Her new home seems to be full of contradictions.  A new friend seems to be a conductor on the Underground Railway (though for safety such things are never acknowledged) but her brother is a slave hunter.  Runaway slaves often lose their way near her husband's farm.  Will she follow her conscience or obey her new family's edict that she stop aiding the runaways?  
  • Illuminations a novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt.  I first heard the music composed by St. Hildegard von Bingen 25 years ago and it brought me to tears.  I wanted to know more about the woman who composed these songs of religious praise and light in the 12th century.  Who was she?  How did a woman in that time period not only compose music, write books about her heavenly visions and preach sermons and yet manage to escape condemnation as a heretic?  Hildegard was a cloistered Benedictine nun, later an Abbess of her own religious order.  She had visions since childhood which formed the basis of her first book Scivias (a second book was on medicinal plants and the healing arts of the time period).  The monk Guibert of Gembloux Abby was sent to write her biography, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, while she was in her 80's, presumably to get everything scribed correctly before she died.  While I have read a few biographies of Hildegard, this novel brought some new facts to life.  At the age of eight, Hildegard was given to the Abbey of Disibodenberg as an anchorite, a companion to Jutta of Sponheim, a noblewoman who wished to live the life of an ascetic.  Anchorites were literally living corpses, bricked into the church walls and allowed to view the mass through a screen and receiving food and other necessities through a hatch.  Jutta and Hildegard (and later two more anchorites) lived in  two extremely narrow rooms and a narrow courtyard that received only a few hours of sunlight a day for over 30 years until Jutta's death.  Imagining that life is painful and incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities.  And yet from that life, emerged some of the most beautiful religious text and art of all time.  Hildegard is a continuing inspiration and I continue to enjoy learning more about her life.
  • The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony.  I love lace and have collected a bit and have even tried to make it.  This story of France's obsession with Flemish lace in the 1600s, made me look at it differently.  Because Flemish lace was forbidden in France at the time (in an effort to beef up their own lace industry), demand naturally went up.  This book tells the story of lace from many perspectives: the smuggler, the lacemaker who must hide her failing eyesight or be thrown out on the street to face prostitution or death, and the noblewoman who cannot repay a debt.  I really enjoyed this book and because of it I have looked at lace differently.  Though I still want it :-D
  • Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn.  If you know me, you know I am a royal watcher.  So I always enjoy books about QEII or books about her imagined life.  In this one, HM is feeling a little blue and so goes on an adventure by herself to visit HMS Britannia, now decommissioned and in drydock in Edinburgh.  The resulting panic as the courtiers try to find her before anyone knows she's missing and the hilarious cases of mistaken identity (the cleaner come to do the washing up - Britannia is now rented out for posh parties or a homeless woman needing a ride) made for a great fun read.
  • A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy.  Binchy is one of a handful of writers that I will immediately and unreservedly read their latest novel.  In this one, Chicky Starr returns from her prosperous (or so her family believes) life in America to her hometown of Stoneybridge and turns a decaying mansion into a restful B&B.  Needless to say, everyone thinks she is nuts.  Why would anyone want to vacation here?  She is helped along by a ragtag band that starts out with not a lot in common and ends up as family.  One of the reasons I love Binchy's books is that her voice is so authentically Irish, and if you have been there, you will immediately know what I mean.  Her characters are so fully fleshed out, you feel you know them well and have had tea with them (and often wish you could!).  She weaves seemingly unrelated stories and disparate people into a lovely whole.
  • An Irish Country Wedding by Patrick Taylor. Taylor is another Irish writer whose voice is singularly Irish, though quite different from Binchy's (Taylor is from Northern Ireland and his novels are set around Belfast).  This book continues the saga of apprentice doctor Barry Laverty and his gruff boss Dr. Fingal O'Reilly.  In this installment, Fingal is marrying his long-lost love Kitty O'Halleran and the eccentric residents of Ballybucklebo turn out in full force to wish them well.  Great fun!
  • The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani.  Trigiani has said this book is a homage to her immigrant grandparents and it reads so true that it must be based on their lives or those very like theirs.  Enza and Ciro live in neighboring villages in the Italian Alps, but only meet briefly before Ciro is forced to emigrate to America.  Enza's family faces their own tragedy and she too emigrates.  They meet again by accident but World War I intervenes.  While Ciro is at war, Enza begins a career as a seamstress for the Metropolitan Opera House.  Will they be reunited or will other loves take precedence?  I cried my way through this book and believe me, that is high praise.  
  • The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper.  A friend lent us this series thinking my son would enjoy it.  Guess who got sucked in and guess who never turned a page?  Will Stanton discovers that he is immortal on his 11th birthday.  He is the last of the Old Ones and must go on a quest to collect six signs of The Light in order to help the other immortals push back the Dark, which is once again making a bid to take over the world and turn mankind to its will.  In the other books he is helped in his quest by the three Drew children, their great-uncle Lyon Merriman (himself an Old One), and a Welsh boy named Bran.  This series weaves together Arthurian legends, myths and other stories we all know in a fresh way.  Personally, I couldn't help but also find some parallels to Highlander and Harry Potter.  I really enjoyed this series of 5 books and I think a lot of kids would like it too.  I'm still hoping to convince my son to read them.
  • Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella.  Sophie Kinsella is an author who can always be counted on for a fun, lively read.  In this one, heroine Lottie is tired of waiting for her boyfriend to propose.  When old flame Ben reappears and reminds her of their pact to marry each other if they find themselves still single at age 30, she goes for it.  They'll have a quick wedding and then honeymoon on the Greek island where they met.  But friends and family don't love the idea and try to intervene.  Will the wedding happen or not?  
  • The Guardians Series by William Joyce.  Last year's movie "Rise of the Guardians" caused us to seek out this book series that gives the backstories of childhood  icons the Man in the Moon, the Sandman, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Mother Goose, Jack Frost and the Bogeyman.  I have true admiration for authors who can take well-known stories and figures and turn them on their heads and somehow make them seem new again.  Joyce's whimsical artwork is a beautiful complement to the stories as well.
  • A Little House Christmas Treasury by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Coming full circle back to Christmas, this collection of Christmas vignettes from multiple "Little House" books takes me right back to childhood. The Little House books were the first series I ever read (the B is for Betsy books were the second).  Wilder had such a gift for portraying childhood in that time and place and making it real to her readers.  You feel Laura & Mary's excitement  over a tin cup and a cake made with white sugar and it makes you long for a simpler time and a family-centered holiday.