Monday, January 19, 2015

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

When life hands you lemons one of the best cures is to read a book that’s both tart and sweet just like a glass of lemonade served on an old-fashioned southern porch. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is just such a novel.  Debut author Christopher Scotton opens the story with these assuredly simple, yet evocative words: “The Appalachian Mountains rise a darker blue on the washed horizon if you’re driving east from Indiana in the morning. The green hills of the piedmont brace the wooded peaks like sandbags against a rising tide. The first settlers were hunters, trappers, and then farmers when the game went west. In between the hills and mountains are long, narrow hollows where farmers and cattle scratch a living with equal frustration. And under them, from the Tug Fork to the Clinch Valley, a thick plate of the purest bituminous coal on the Eastern Seaboard.”
Fourteen-year-old Kevin Gilooly takes the reader back to the summer of 1985: “It had been two months since my brother, Joshua, was killed, and the invulnerability I had felt as a teenager was only a curl of memory. Mom had folded into herself on the way back from the hospital and had barely spoken since. My father emerged from silent disbelief and was diligently weaving his anger into a smothering blanket for everyone he touched, especially me. My life then was an inventory of eggshells and expectations unmet.”
So Kevin’s father drives Kevin and his mother to Medgar, Kentucky, the small coal town where his mother grew up. Everyone hopes that the town and Kevin’s grandfather, known as “Pops,” will heal them. Pops is a veterinarian, a man almost universally respected in Medgar. He’s a true hero, as courageous when standing up for what’s right as he is tireless in handling large animals and climbing up the face of vertical rock. Kevin also finds a friend in Buzzy Fink, a kid from the hollows with problems of his own. Pops says, “The Finks are poor, but they’re proud poor. Esmer runs the Hollow hard. Kids stay in school, they truck their garbage out once a week. These are solid people.” 
As Kevin heals while assisting Pops on veterinary calls and listening as Pops’ friends banter over sour mash on the porch, controversy brews.  Boyd, the evil owner of the local mine, a mine that employs a large number of the men in the area, is buying up land surrounding the town next to the National Forest. He’s already destroyed the “knobs” or tops of two mountains and poisoned drinking water nearby. Now Paul Pierce, a local businessman has information that can stop him so Boyd attempts to smear Pierce by announcing that he’s gay. To most of the town, this isn’t news but to some having it out in the open is trouble. When Pierce is brutally attacked, the question isn’t whether Boyd had anything to do with the crime, but who he used to do the deed. Soon new facts surface and Kevin and Buzzy worry.
Pops takes the boys on his annual “tramp” to climb, explore, fish, and camp the land that’s been in his family for generations. After an almost mythical climb and a dangerous creek crossing the boys feel safe, strong, and confident.

While Pops and Buzzy sleep, Kevin encounters the “The White Stag” – a legendary creature that even Pops has never seen. The imposing stag had “kind, sad eyes that seemed to carry with them the secret wisdom of the earth.”  It’s that wisdom that forms not only the book’s title but also the novel’s basic tenets – wisdom comes from being attuned to nature and from knowing ourselves and our capabilities. Soon Kevin and Buzzy will need their newly found confidence to escape a dangerous sniper hell bent on hurting one of them.
Summing it Up: If you enjoyed the mystical landscape of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the Southern gothic feel and characters in Ron Rash’s Serena, or watching a town and a boy fight evil in Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, then The Secret Wisdom of the Earth will have you holding your breath as you make it down the mountain alongside these authentic characters. It’s a debut novel and there are some credibility-defying actions so the book isn’t perfect but it’s quite simply an old-fashioned good read.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Book Club
Publication date: January 6, 2015
What Others are Saying:

Monday, January 12, 2015

My Mother Taught Me . . .

Today would have been my mother’s 93rd birthday.  She died almost twenty years ago and I still miss her.  When I see an egregious grammatical error, I almost expect to hear the phone ring with her calling to laugh about it.  I miss her sitting on her porch steps awaiting our arrival as she didn’t want to give up a single moment of our visits.  I miss her saying “lovely” with dripping sarcasm and accompanying eye rolls when she saw something tasteless.  She was smart; she was fun; and she epitomized what my grandfather said was our family motto: “Often wrong but never in doubt.” 

I caught my love of reading from her.  She also modeled a disdain for what she called drivel.  When she was recovering from surgery, three of her friends brought her copies Bridges of Madison County to keep her occupied.  She looked at me with fear in her eyes and said, “Jesus Katie, do they think the cancer’s gone to my brain?”

Mom would have enjoyed reading Facebook if only for’s posts.  She’d be an evangelist for the disappearing Oxford comma and would be appalled at the increasing use of “I” instead of “me” when used as an object.  She had no respect for her church’s interim pastor because he used “irregardless” as if it were an actual word and I can almost hear her asking me to give her one good reason why anyone would ever say “Where is it at?”

She’d be happy that I still love to read and write and that I share my lists of books with others. She’d be glad that the copy of Little Women that she inscribed “because you love to read” as a gift for my eighth birthday is on a nearby shelf where I can see it. She’d remind me that she reared me well then bemoan the fact that no one remembers that one raises cattle and rears children.

*The photo above is of the Wells Memorial Library, where I went at least once a week with my mother when I was a child. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

I’m flat out, over-the-top, madly in love with my friends (sorry, but they aren’t characters) Theodore Finch and Violet Markey.  Finch and Violet are going to keep you up late at night, they‘re going to interrupt your work, and they’re going to make you wonder why the rest of the world is acting like nothing happened.

All the Bright Places opens with Finch standing at the edge of his school’s bell tower, six stories above the ground. He wonders if this will be the day – the day he lets the air carry him away “until there’s nothing.” The ledge he’s on is about four inches wide and he’s holding his arms out and shouting when he notices a girl, also on the ledge. He realizes that he knows who she is and says. “Come her often? Because this is kind of my spot and I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

Back on terra firma, and no, I’m not going to tell you how they got down, Finch and Violet are paired together on a geography project exploring the natural wonders of Indiana. They begin wandering and discover each other. They shouldn’t fall in love:  Violet is popular; Finch isn’t. Half the school calls him “Theodore Freak” and a good girl like Violet doesn’t belong with someone like him. Finch may be suicidal but he lives in the present and appreciates new experiences. Violet is living just to finish the school year, graduate, and get out of their small Indiana town.  She’s grieving her sister’s death and can’t embrace the present. As they wander, Violet opens up to new experiences and love and Finch’s world becomes “ultraviolet.”  

Wandering Indiana’s bizarre, out-of-the-way places leads to finding the out-of-the way places within. This reader was surprised that one of those places was the monastery and gardens just a few blocks from my home. It’s where I vote and sometimes where my walks lead me and it’s what some of us call “interesting.”  Niven’s description of it is quite simply perfect.  That she could so precisely capture this spot explained why all the other places she described, places I’d never been, seemed so real to me. I had visited them all – I saw them through Violet and Finch’s eyes.

Summing it Up: All the Bright Places is a universal love story yet it’s as fresh as biting into an orange on a cold winter’s day. As each section explodes in your mouth, you’re reminded of the beauty of simply living.  A novel dealing with mental illness, depression and suicide doesn’t usually surprise you and make you laugh but All the Bright Places will do that and more.  If you enjoy reading Gayle Forman, John Green, and Rainbow Rowell, you’ll want to read All the Bright Places. This book is simply “lovely” as Violet and Finch might say.  It makes me want to hug my kids, eat carryout from Happy Family Chinese, go on a picnic, and remember that it isn't what you take, it’s what you leave that matters. Read the first chapter and I can almost guarantee you’ll read the book.

Note: Yes, All the Bright Places will be a movie and Elle Fanning will play Violet. 

Rating: 5 stars   

Ages 15 and Up

Category: Diet Coke and Gummi Bears, Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication date: January 6, 2014


What Others are Saying:

Monday, January 5, 2015

Best Mysteries and Thrillers - 2014

The bread pictured here is Tomato Ciabatta with Olives and Onions.  I made it this fall because Food & Wine Magazine's recipe stated that it "comes together very easily and requires no kneading."  I knew I had to try this recipe but wondered if it would really turn out well. Even after the dough doubled in size, it seemed quite dense. Still I shaped the loaves and placed them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and popped them in the oven. As the loaves baked, I resisted the urge to open the oven to see what they were doing and if they might really become bread with ingredients like tomato paste and quartered cherry tomatoes inside them. Twenty-five minutes later, I opened the oven to a delight -  a bread that was savory, chewy, colorful, and with surprises inside. I loved it. A similar experience greeted me when I read the best mysteries and thrillers this year.  They delivered tantalizing, colorful stories that I quickly devoured. The best mysteries and thrillers offer surprising twists along with good ingredients: colorful characters, plots that make you wonder if things will turn out well, and inevitably - surprises inside.  

2014 – Best Mystery
Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Dr. Tom Cage, revered as "Atticus Finch with a stethoscope,” is accused of murdering his former nurse so his son Penn, town mayor and former prosecutor (who’s appeared in three previous Iles novels), tries to help him and finds clues going back to1968 and a group more evil than the KKK.  Local reporter Henry Sexton uncovers ties to the atrocities and Dr. Cage disappears.  Is the doctor guilty and will Penn choose family loyalty over justice? 

Iles credits the investigative reporting of true crimes with inspiring the novel. Some might think the evil deeds in the book were exaggerated, but reading Iles’ research confirms their existence and why the book rings so true. As Iles himself says, he’s “telling you what it felt like to be black or white during that time." At 791 pages it’s just the right length and this reader hopes the next two volumes of the planned trilogy offer more of the same.

Note: It’s Ile’s first book in five years and comes after he almost died in an accident in 2011. Iles was working on Natchez Burning at the time of the car wreck and the emotional impact of his own survival is clear in the immediacy of his characters and their reactions to what happens around them.  

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
Mysteries don’t usually elicit tranquility but A Long Way Home filled me with melancholy then peace. This novel, unlike any other mystery I’ve ever read, showed how important it is for humans to feel useful, to be brave, and to be kind. Inspector Gamache doesn’t want to leave Three Pines especially to solve a mystery or, possibly, to find that something terrible had happened to neighbor Peter Morrow. Using art and creativity as a metaphor, Penny shows how nothing great can be created without heart or without feeling. It’s absolutely perfect.

2014 – Best Suspense Novel 
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
The Farm is a psychological thriller similar to Gone Girl or Tana French’s novels. When Daniel’s father calls from Sweden to say that Daniel’s mother is in hospital as she’s psychotic and delusional, Daniel hurries to Heathrow to fly to see her. Before he boards his mother calls that she’s on her way to London. She says his father is involved in a criminal conspiracy and wants here out of the way. Who can Daniel believe?  His mother, Tilde, carefully lays out a tale packed with facts that may or may not prove her allegations. Smith, known for his espionage thrillers set in Russia, takes a new tack with this riveting tale of trolls, elk, strangely carved wood, and the darkness of Sweden.  Read my full review.

2014 – Best Thriller and Best Debut Mystery/Thriller
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
This fast-paced espionage thriller is sure to please. Scott Murdoch, “the Pilgrim,” retired as one of America’s best secret agents but duty calls him back when an extremist, dubbed “The Saracen,” plots to destroy the U.S. as revenge against the Saudi’s for his father’s beheading. Captivating side stories packed with detail and great minor characters work well. It seemed about 100 pages too long but it’s still a great read.

One of Us by Tawni O’Dell
O’Dell’s suspenseful thriller asks if psychopaths are born or bred and forces the reader to ponder the difference between evil and mental illness.  Sheridan Doyle, a famed forensic psychologist returns to the coal-mining town where he’s simply Danny Doyle, grandson of Tommy and son of a mentally ill mother.  There he confronts buried truths and a cold-hearted heiress.  O’Dell is well known for her Back Roads, an Oprah selection.

2014 – Best Mystery that Makes You Wonder if Time Stands Still
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
Kate Murphy is the pretty, privileged new cop on the Atlanta PD in 1974.  Excellent period references especially the playing of Carole King’s Tapestry album in the background set the stage. There’s a cop killer on the loose and another cop has died. The police are racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, woman-hating creeps. They treat the law like a smorgasbord, taking what they want regardless of who gets hurt. Readers will wonder how much has changed in forty years.  Read my full review.

2014 – Best Mystery that Really Gets PTSD  
One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming (published in 2011)
This is the best yet in this series. Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest, has just returned from a tour as a helicopter pilot in Iraq and she’s drinking too much and having nightmares. This seventh title is from the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” with the words: “one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;” It’s an apt title as the returning soldier/priest and her Police Chief boyfriend are facing a beast that threatens their well-being. Clare reluctantly joins a support group to get a young amputee to attend and there she meets other returning soldiers trying to fight the beast in differing ways.  When one of them commits suicide (or was it murder?) the group finds that the problems of Iraq have followed them all home.

2014 – Best Mystery that Takes Place in One Day
The Secret Place by Tana French
This girls’ boarding school mystery is typical of French’s strength in delivering conflicted, believable characters. The book shares the viewpoints of a close knit group of Irish teens and the “outsider” detectives called in to investigate a year-old case when a new clue appears. The girl reporting the clue is the daughter of Frank Mackey, a detective who appeared in French’s first Dublin Murder Squad tale. She goes to Stephen Moran, Mackey’s former protégé, with the clue found on the school bulletin board. During Detective Moran and partner Antoinette Conway’s single day at the school, flashbacks and self-absorbed teens help build tension toward the denouement while Mackey’s jabs keep things on edge.

2014 – Best Mystery with Irony Sharing the Stage  
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Diker  
Quebert is pronounced Kuh-bear thus rhyming with “affair.”  Also think Stephen Colbert for a hint to this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a famous young author’s novel coming to life in a tragic way.  It was a mega hit in Europe but the author’s childhood summers in Maine and the setting give it an American flair.  It’s a big, 643-page book you’ll probably read in one weekend because the twists and switchbacks will keep you flippin’ those pages and enjoying the wild ride

2014 – Best Mystery about Small Towns and Outsiders
Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
This cold, piercing debut in which small town newbie Nora Hamilton searches for answers to why Brendan, her policeman husband, would have killed himself is a winner. When the police and her mother-in-law freeze her out and homes are set afire she finds clues in a 25-year-old death, an autistic man’s rhymes, and a reporter’s research.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Best Books of 2014!

For me a Happy New Year means looking back at the best books of the year and thinking about all the great new books to come. Here are the books I consider the best of 2014 by category. If I've written a complete review or more than is on my annual list about any of the books listed, I’ve put a link in the title or in the section heading. Short descriptions of all the titles listed below are also here

2014 – The Best Novel

The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway, Let Him Go by Larry Watson, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, The Painter by Peter Heller, Redeployment by Phil Klay, The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

After the Wind by Lou Kasischke, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl (published in 2013), Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans (Originally titled: Evolving in Monkeytown in 2012, reissued  in 2014), Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe, and The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less by Jana Riess (published in 2013)

2014 – The Most Important Book I Read This Year
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer

Euphoria by Lily King, Let Him Go by Larry Watson (published in 2013), Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Lucky Us by Amy Bloom, The Powers by Valerie Sayers (published in 2013), The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (published in 2011)

Runners Up:
Byrd by Kim Church, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, and A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

2014 – Best Memoir
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson (Yes, it’s for ages 10 – 14 and it’s written in free verse but it’s just plain amazing and you’ll want to read it.)

2014 – Best Book for Bibliophiles

2014 – Best Post-Pandemic/Post-Apocalyptic Novel
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

2014 – Best Children’s or Young Adult Book for Everyone Ten or Older
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson

2014 - Best Books to Help You Think about War
Redeployment by Phil Klay, Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe and We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

2014 – Best Books to Discuss in a Book Club in 2015
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer, Being Mortal by Atun Gawande, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson, Byrd by Kim Church, Euphoria by Lily King, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, The Farm by Tom RobSmith, Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, Let Him Go by Larry Watson, Natchez Burning by Greg Iles, Redeployment by Phil Klay, The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach, The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (published in 2011), Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

2014 – The Best “Tapas” Books of the Year (short stories, novellas, poetry)
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson, Incarnadine by Mary Szybist, and Redeployment by Phil Klay

2014 – Best Love Story

The Rosie Project by Dan Simsion (published in 2013)

2014 – Best Suspense Novel

2014 – Best Espionage Thriller
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

2014 – Best Mystery
Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Runners- Up
Cop Town by Karen Slaughter, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny, One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming (published in 2011), The Secret Place by Tana French, and The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Diker

2014 – Best “Escape” or “Cure for a Bad Day” Books
Delicious! by Ruth Reichl, A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, and The Rosie Project by Dan Simsion (published in 2013)

2014 – Best Quirky Novel (Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet Category)
How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

2014 – Best “Soul Food” Books (spirituality, growth, and faith)
Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge (published in 2013), Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (published in 2012), Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans (reissued in 2014), The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper, Gabi Swiatkowska, illustrator (published in 2007), Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, and My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. (published in 2000)

2014 – Best Children’s and Young Adult Book (for everyone over the age of 10)
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson

2014 – Best Picture Book for Kids 9 and up
Aviary Wonders, Inc. by Kate Samworth

2014 – Best Book to Read Aloud
The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak

2014 – Best Picture Book That I Missed for Seven Years
The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper, Gabi Swiatkowska, illustrator (published in 2007)

2014 – Best Chapter Book

2014 – Best Debut Young Adult Novel

2014 – Best Young Adult Suspense Novel (Adults Love it too.)
The Liar’s Club by E. Lockhart

2014 – Best Young Adult Graphic Novel
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

2014 – Best Young Adult Hybrid Graphic Novel

2014 – Best Humorous Young Adult Novel
Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge (published in 2013)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Nonfiction of 2014

Some readers think of nonfiction as “what you should read” not what you enjoy. The best nonfiction books I read in the last year dispel that notion. Forget the old adage that you need to read a particular book just as you need to eat your vegetables. Vegetables are no longer grayish green, limp morsels with no taste. They’re tasty treats like roasted Brussels sprouts, grilled asparagus, and scrumptious kale chips.The best nonfiction titles offer delectable tales that combine information about history, war, survival, health, adventure, religion, and more with writing that places the reader in the story. These page-turning tales will inform, amuse, enlighten, frighten, and maybe even enrage you. Other fine nonfiction titles I read this year are on the annual listThe best of 2014 are:
·         In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
·         Being Mortal by Atun Gawande
·         Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe
·       Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl (published in 2013)  After the Wind by Lou Kasischke
·         Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans (Originally titled: Evolving in Monkeytown in 2012, reissued in 2014)
·    The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less by Jana Riess (published in 2013)     

The Best Nonfiction Book of 2014 - It's a tie:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides is a page-turning tale of the 1879 voyage of the SS. Jeannette in the Arctic waters north of the Bering Strait where the crew searched for a sea passage to the North Pole.  It puts you on the ship, in the frozen ice, and deep in the darkness of the Arctic winter during the years the voyagers were at sea. Sides shows the remarkable courage and thought that the exhibition commander and his crew demonstrated. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this adventure. Read the full review.

Being Mortal by Atun Gawande is a book everyone needs to read yet the stories Gawande tells make it engaging and filled with hope. This book will make you think honestly about medical choices and help you ask good questions about independence and what’s truly important to you or someone you love. Start by watching Gawande’s interview on The John Stewart Show or listen to his NPR interview with Diane Rehm.  Listening to his story about his daughter’s piano teacher’s choices made me stop the car to grab a tissue then immediately rush to the nearest bookstore to buy the book. The research that people tend to live longer with palliative care than with many interventions will make you think and ask good questions. Promise yourself that you'll read this even if you have to make it a New Year's resolution. 

The Runners-Up:

The Best Book that Explains War, Poverty, and Human Capital:
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe tells the compelling stories of three Indiana women joining the National Guard before 9/11 then of their unexpected service in Iraq. The upheaval in their lives and their adjustment after will cause you to ponder. This is a fine piece of reporting that reads like a great novel. Poverty and the increasing cost of higher education means that our military is changing. Seeing that through these three women’s lives brings it home to those of us who don’t think about what we ask of our troops.
One slight quibble: I’m from Indiana so the inconsistent editing of Indiana details bothered me. Louisville, KY is NOT south of Evansville, IN, nor is the college in Bloomington called the University of Indiana (She gets it right twice, wrong once). I’m hoping future editions correct these minor errors that detract from this phenomenal book.

The Best Nature Memoir that Will Make You Appreciate Work and Words:
Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl is a straight-talking, poetic, humorous look at the work of a seasonal “traildog,” a person who clears and maintains trails in remote areas of National Parks.  Byl tells of digging holes, dropping trees, building stairs, moving boulders,  hauling chainsaws on her shoulders, wearing out countless pairs of boots, drinking lots of Pabst Blue Ribbon, consuming 1000s of calories, and crossing streams by slithering along logs on her butt.  Byl, traildog extraordinaire, honors her idols – Willa Cather, Jim Harrison and Thoreau - as she weaves this authentic, gritty, gripping tale. This woman can flat out write. (published in 2013)

The Best Book about What Happened on Mount Everest in 1996:
After the Wind by Lou Kasischke tells the story of what really happened on May 10, 1995 on Mount Everest. Learn why Kasischke survived when many others didn’t.  I edited this book so I’m biased but even Kirkus Reviews named it one of the best of the year. Read the full review

The Best Book about Surviving Religion and Keeping the Faith:
Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans (Originally titled: Evolving in Monkeytown in 2012, reissued in 2014) I love, love, love the preface in which Evans lists several things about herself. “People tell me I exaggerate. I’ve been hurt by Christians. As a Christian, I’ve been hurtful. I’m judgmental of people I think are judgmental. At twenty-seven, I almost always root for the underdog, and sometimes I get the feeling that God does too.” With that I fell down the rabbit hole and adored every minute of her journey.  Read this book!

The Most Reverent, Irreverent Book that Will Make You Want to Read the Bible:
The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less by Jana Riess When a kid said “The Emperor has no clothes,” everyone’s eyes opened.  When Riess reverently applies irreverence to her shortened chapters of the Bible she illuminates them in a way that’s difficult to ignore. Only someone with her knowledge could hone in so clearly on what each chapter says in so few words. Deuteronomy 18: “Don’t fry up your kids, cast spells, visit astrologers, or talk to the dead.  You’re special, Israel, so straighten up and fly right.”  Pithy summations make the reader ponder and then perhaps even consult the big book itself. (published in 2013)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Best Historical Fiction of 2014

Historical fiction is often just a guilty pleasure.  Sadly, many writers unable to imagine their own great story hide behind history and contrive a story to match their research.  But when historical fiction is well written it isn’t a bit contrived; it’s entertaining and enlightening. Reading fine historical fiction is like taking your grandmother’s timeless recipes and creating your own stock from the bones left from your holiday prime ribs of beef and tasting cornbread made in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. These novels are as satisfying as anything made with fresh ingredients in your grandmother’s ageless skillet. (My definition of historical fiction is fiction set at least fifty years ago.)
The best of 2014 are:
·         All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer
·         Euphoria by Lily King
·         Let Him Go by Larry Watson (published in 2013)
·         Lila by Marilynne Robinson
·         Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
·         The Powers by Valerie Sayers (published in 2013)
·         The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (published in 2011)

Yes, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is missing from my list and yes, it’s on many other “best of” lists but while I found the abolitionists in 1922 South Carolina and the story of Handful, the slave, to be compelling, I was less intrigued by Sarah Grimké’s tale. I liked each of the novels I’ve listed better. 

The Best Historical Fiction Novel of 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer is a book about the past that is certain to be read far into the future. This National Book Award Finalist blends the lives of two teenagers during World War II in a way that absolutely soars. Marie-Laure, a blind girl, lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum. He builds her an intricate model of their neighborhood that she memorizes at home then confidently navigates Paris with her cane. They escape the German occupation in San-Malo, a walled French village, where her eccentric uncle won’t leave their house by the sea. At the same time brilliant German orphan Werner’s expertise with radio transmitters lands him in the Wehrmacht tracking illegal radio transmissions and he ends up in Russia and then in Sant-Malo. A sub plot involving a missing diamond brings in more intriguing characters. There’s old-fashioned magic in this book with its intricate puzzle boxes, thoughts of survival with dignity, and the power of the human spirit to endure.

The Runners-Up

Euphoria by Lily King, Anthropologists Nell Stone (inspired by Margaret Mead), Stone’s husband Fen, and Englishman Bankston canoe up New Guinea’s Sepik River to record tribal culture.  A 1930s love triangle sets this distinctive trio on their way to find euphoria. Reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Patchett’s State of Wonder, this novel is entirely unique and will leave the reader unsettled, captivated, and in awe of King’s immense talent.

Let Him Go by Larry Watson, George, a retired sheriff, and his wife, Martha, head off to reclaim their grandson from their daughter-in-law who’s remarried after their son’s death in this novel set in the early 1950s in North Dakota and Montana. The new in-laws, a violent, evil crew, set the stage for a frightening climax while George and Martha’s relationship stars. If you loved Watson’s Montana, 1948 or are a fan of Kent Haruf and Leif Enger, you’ll adore this. (2013)

Lila by Marilynne Robinson, If you loved Gilead, read this prequel. It’s more essay and theology than it is narrative yet Lila and her early life and the world of 1920s and 1930s poverty as seen through the lives of Midwestern migrant workers are beautifully rendered and the love that builds between Lila and Rev. Ames is almost mystical. A National Book Award finalist, it’s on many “Best Book” lists. 

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom is a quirky, witty, beautiful novel that opens with “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”  Then 11-year-old Eva’s mother abandons her on her Dad’s doorstep where she meets her half-sister Iris.  The girls go to California where Iris is in movies until a scandal forces their move to NYC in a Thelma and Louise-style road trip. Capturing the prejudices and pulse of the 1939–1948 period, it shows that family is more than genetics. Read my full review.

The Powers by Valerie Sayers is set in New York in 1941 as war looms and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak seizes everyone.  It captures 17-year-old Agnes O’Leary and her grandmother, the indomitable Babe, who has cared for Agnes’ family since her mother’s suicide. Babe, a diehard Yankee fan, knows that her prayers and powers fuel DiMaggio and the Yanks. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles aptly calls Babe a “baseball loving Olive Kitteridge.” The narrative grips; Babe and DiMaggio reign, and the photographs that are imaginatively interspersed throughout the text make the reader feel the era. (2013)

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, Baby Jozef survives after his mother tosses him into a Colorado river in 1899 in the bold opening of this story of war, forgiveness, and dreams. Jozef’s father takes him back to his Slovakian homeland where they live as shepherds. Cousin Zlee becomes Jozef’s adopted brother and their sharpshooting and English language skills move them to the front in World War I’s stark battles. It’s a spare, Cormac McCarthy-like rendering of war, survival, love, and forgiveness that was a National Book Award finalist.  It’s sad how few people know about this great novel. (2011)