Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best Books of 2013!

If I've written a complete review of any of the books listed, the link is embedded in the title. Short descriptions of all the titles listed below can be found here

2013 – Best Book of the Year
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

2013 – Best Book Sure to be a Classic (Published in 2011 but I read it in 2013)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

2013 – The Best Novel of the Year
The Benediction by Kent Haruf

Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012),  Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Fault in our Stars by John Green (2012), The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, Transatlantic by Colum McCann, Someone by Alice McDermott, and What Changes Everything by Masha Hamilton

2013 – The Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

2013 – The Best Memoir of the Year
Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagame

2013 – The Best Historical Fiction Novel of the Year
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, Transatlantic by Colum McCann, The Blue Fox by Sjón, Testing the Current (originally published in 1984, reissued in 2013) by William McPherson

2013 – The Best Debut Novel of the Year
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Runners Up: Two Great Novels published in 2012 that I read in 2013
Fobbit by David Abrams

2013 – Best Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Published in 2012 but I read it in 2013)
Dog Stars by Peter Heller

2013 - Best Books about War Told with Irony
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-timeWalk by Ben Fountain (Published in 2012)
Fobbit by David Abrams (Published in 2012)

2013 – The Best Book Club Book in Years (I led two discussions of it in 2013.)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

2013 – Best Book for Book Club Discussion in 2014
What ChangesEverything by Masha Hamilton

2013 – The Best “Tapas” Book(s) of the Year (short stories or novellas)
The Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Blue Fox by Sjón

2013 – Best Love Story
A Tie between Two Young Adult Novels – one from 2012 and one from 2013
The Fault in our Stars by John Green (2012)
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

2013 – Best “Escape” Novel
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

2013 – Best “Grits” Book – Evoking the American South
The Cove by Ron Rash
Flora by Gail Godwin

2013 – Best “Cure for a Bad Day” Book - Fiction
The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

2013 – Best “Cure for a Bad Day” Book - Nonfiction
The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

2013 – Best Thriller or Suspense Novel
31 Hours by Masha Hamilton (Published in 2009)

2013 – Best Mystery
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

2013 – Best Mystery/Historical Fiction (and I learned a lot reading it)
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye (Published in 2012)

2013 – Best Super Nutrition Novel (Informative as well as a Great Read)
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Transatlantic by Colum McCann
What ChangesEverything by Masha Hamilton

2013 – Best Super Nutrition Nonfiction Book of the Year (Informative as well as a Great Read)
Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie (Published in 2011)

2013 – Best Humorous Book of the Year
Dad is Fat by Dave Gaffigan

2013 – Best Book for the Soul
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

2013 – Best Children’s Picture Book
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

2013 – Best Children’s Book for Middle Readers
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (Ages 9 – 12)

2013 – Best Children’s Book for Kids Who Prefer Video Games to Books
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabensein (Ages 8 – 13)

2013 – Best Children’s Series I Discovered This Year
The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone (Ages 8 – 12)

2013 – Best Young Adult Novel Published in 2013
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

2013 – Best Young Adult Novel Published Before 2013 (but I read it in 2013)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

2013 – Best Cookbook (and self-serving promotion of the year)
Tastes and Tales Along the Tunnel of Trees  (Caveat: I co-edited this as a fundraiser for the RFC Fire and Rescue Squad.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs is so redolent of a Remains of the Day-type character in its treatment of Nora, a woman who exists on the edges of other peoples’ lives, that I rarely thought of Nora by name. Was she a third grade teacher living a quiet, orderly life? Or was she the mad woman in the attic alluded to in the title’s homage to Bertha in Jane Eyre? Nora, herself makes the comparison, “People don’t want to worry about the Woman Upstairs,” she reflects. “Not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.”  

So Nora lives an invisible life, yet we know she’s angry. She’s told us so on the very first page of the novel. “How angry am I?  You don’t want to know.  Nobody wants to know about that. I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend, and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand while she was dying and I speak to my father on the telephone – every day, mind you. . . It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead. . .”

Thus Nora begins her story by telling of the time five years previously when everything shifted after she fell in love with the hybrid Palestinian/Lebanese/Italian Shahid family when they arrived in Boston from Paris so father, Skandar, an academic star, could spend a year at Harvard. Nora met them through their adorable son Reza, her newest student, who was attacked by bullies.  Reza’s mother, the aptly named Sirena, a “real” artist, attracted Nora with her take-charge manner and the two soon shared studio space where Sirena created an immense, alternate world. Meanwhile, Nora was building tiny boxes, rooms, containing the lives of women artists. That she began with Emily Dickinson and spent hours on the craft of carefully varnishing Dickinson’s floor rather than on creating anything original spoke to her need to focus more on Sirena than on anything of her own. Soon she and Sirena were lingering over gourmet picnics and seemingly intimate conversations while a foreboding sense of what might be ahead permeated the rose water-filled air.  

Sirena described the family’s trip back to Paris for the holidays, “I have a history there, and friends, and colleagues; and home is where my boys are, of course.  But do you know this idea of the imaginary homeland? Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again.  What you’ve left behind exists only in your memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.”  As Nora sat listening, it was evident that she wasn’t yet ready to leave the shore, to embark on her own life and that her identity was evolving into a strangely imaginary concoction unmoored by reality.

At times I was impatient with Nora’s lack of clarity and her inability to get out of the quicksand of her life.  I wanted to skip past Messud’s brilliant turns of phrase and get to that black dog I knew was lurking around the next corner. Regardless, all my expectations left me emotionally unprepared for the awakening, the absolute tour de force of a climax that the last pages delivered. What, I wonder, as I contemplate this novel, exactly what, is unleashed when self-deception gives way to anger?  This brilliant novel of envy, desire, invisibility, betrayal, and emergence is one requiring patience as it evolves slowly yet assuredly until it suddenly bursts from its cocoon.

Summing it Up: Read Messud’s quiet portrait of an invisible woman who slowly emerges from her cocoon for its shimmering phrases and for the seamless manner in which it builds toward the shattering denouement. Stick with it; while the characters are difficult to like and there are times when it could have moved more quickly – the ending, oh, yes, the ending is worth it.

Rating:  4 stars

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date:  April 30, 2013

What Others are Saying:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Annual Book List - 2013 Edition


My annual list of the books I've read in the last year is in a pdf. file so that you can easily read and print it.  It also appears below and in a separate page on the right.  You may print it to take with you to your favorite book store or library to make selections for yourself or for holiday giving. If you wish to share it, please share the link to to this post.  I'll post what I consider the best books of the year in each category  throughout December.

The 2013 list has two new categories. DC - Diet Coke and Gummi Bears (books for teens and young adults) which I've separated from the Peanut Butter and Jelly (books for children) category should make it easier to find those titles.  PP - Pigeon Pie (historical fiction set at least 50 years ago) should help all those historical fiction fans find great reads as well. 

Happy Reading, 

Hungry for Good Books? Annual Book List, November, 2013
Find these and more at:

     ©Copyright November, 2013 by Trina Hayes
Letters after each selection designate the book as CC: Chinese Carryout (page-turners, great for plane rides), D: Desserts (delightful indulgences), DC: Diet Coke and Gummi Bears (books for teens and young adults), G: Gourmet (exquisite writing, requires concentration), GPR: Grandma’s Pot Roast (books that get your attention and stick with you), GS: Grits (evocative of the American south), PBJ: Peanut Butter and Jelly (children’s books adults will like), Pigeon Pie (historical fiction set at least 50 years ago),  S: Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet (satire, irony, black humor, acquired taste), SF: Soul Food (spirituality, theology, books for your soul), SN: Super Nutrition (lots of information, yet tasty as fresh blueberries), and T: Tapas (small bites including short stories, novellas,  essays, and poetry). The letters BC denote books that would be good for book clubs.  The fiction section is divided into four categories: general fiction, mysteries and thrillers, children’s, and teen and young adult books.  Asterisks depict outstanding titles in each designation. The number/hash sign (#) denotes books with full reviews on my blog.

General Fiction

*#Abrams, David, Fobbit, A 20-year Army veteran, Abrams used journals from his year on a Baghdad base to write a Catch-22-like tale. It’s a hilarious, yet searing picture of an upside-down world where winning “hearts and minds” while killing and fearing Iraqi terrorists (or are they insurgents) is a contradictory goal that eats at the guts of those sitting safely inside a fortress. Jon Stewart fans, this one’s for you. Everyone should read it to make sense of our increasingly strange world. G/S/SN, BC
Akhtar, Ayad, American Dervish is set in 1980s Milwaukee where Hayat Shah’s father ignores and disrespects his Muslim heritage. When Hayat’s mother’s best friend moves in with the family she helps Hayat study the Quran then falls in love with his father’s best friend, a Jew. Hayat’s jealousy leads him to betray the man and Hayat’s actions return to haunt him years later. Muslim-American fiction hits the mainstream in this cinematic glimpse of an immigrant family. GPR/SN, BC 
*#Atkinson, Kate, Life After Life is my pick for best novel of the year.  Read it for the splendid, imaginative writing and to enter a brilliant world that will take you through the first half of the 20th century and make you contemplate life if there were second chances. It’s like a necklace, circular, with each bead telling a different story. Rejoice as protagonist Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over again.  G/PP, BC
Aw, Tash, Five Star Billionaire is a Booker Prize nominee about Walter Chao, a billionaire, and the four characters whose lives intersect with his in Shanghai.  Filled with secrets, schemes and insight into China today, this hauntingly skeptical novel is packed with contradictions, comedy, and pathos. S/SN
*Barnes, Julian, The Sense of an Ending is a concise, complex, honest, and sophisticated novel that focuses on Tony’s reexamining his life. The 2011 Booker Prize winner is made for book clubs as there are so many topics like memory, aging, connectedness, truth, and adolescent miscues to discuss. G, BC
Benjamin, Melanie, The Aviator’s Wife portrays the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It’s suitable for readers who haven’t read A Gift from the Sea or Scott Berg’s biography, Lindbergh, as this introduction to the remarkable lives of the Lindberghs could whet their appetites for more about the pair. CC/PP/SN, BC
Berg, Elizabeth, Tapestry of Fortunes is a story about Cece, a motivational speaker, who quits her job,  moves in with a group of women and finds herself. It’s predictable and everything is tied up neatly. CC
*Brockmole, Jessica, Letters from Skye is an epistolary novel that begins in 1912 when poet Elspeth, who’s never left Scotland’s Isle of Skye, corresponds with American fan David, a pre-med student at the U. of Illinois who doesn’t want to be a doctor, and they fall in love but war intervenes. Later in 1940, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, falls for an RAF pilot and Elspeth disapproves. Then Elspeth disappears and a found letter offers clues to her whereabouts. “Guernsey” fans will enjoy this.  GPR/PP, BC
*Brooks, Geraldine, Caleb’s Crossing is set in Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, MA in the 1660s when Caleb, a native American, attends Harvard.  Misguided missionary conversions, women treated like chattel, and prejudice come together in a novel sure to please every type of reader. G/PP/SN, BC
Chamberlain, Diane, Necessary Lies is a light read on an important topic, a Jodi Picoult-ish exploration of forced sterilization practices in 1960s North Carolina.  CC/PP/SN, BC
Chiaverini, Jennifer, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her own freedom and became a successful businesswoman and founder of a relief organization to provide food, shelter, and support to the displaced black diaspora in the Civil War, was also Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidant. The novel uses Keckley’s autobiography to illuminate an engrossing era.  GPR/PP/SN, BC
Conklin, Tara, The House Girl, Lina, a New York lawyer, traces the story of Josephine, a house slave and possible artist, back to 1852. Josephine’s story is compelling but Lina’s is scattered and uneven as well as being insensitive and filled with tired clichés. It could have been so much more. CC/PP, BC
Corasanti, Michelle Cohen, The Almond Tree, Corasanti is a Jewish American who lived in Israel for seven years. That she tells this tale from the viewpoint of Ichmad, a Palestinian boy who tries to overcome hatred, and his family is remarkable and controversial.  From page one, you’ll be hooked. GPR/SN, BC
*Elliott, Scott, Temple Grove, Paul is a young Native American environmentalist trying to save a stand of ancient Douglas firs in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. The FBI is after him so his mother and a man connected to his past want to find him first. It’s a beautiful evocation of the land and culture combined with a spell-binding story of survival. The first chapter will make you hold your breath as you read it. G, BC
#Ford, Jamie, Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of William Eng, a Chinese-American orphan in 1934, who believes that his mother is movie actress Willow Frost whom he hasn’t seen in years. Ford provides intriguing details of the Seattle Chinese-American community and of early film history which may help cinema and historical fiction fans enjoy the novel despite the flat, soap-opera-like characters.  PP/SN
*#Fountain, Ben, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk, The eight survivors of Bravo Squad are heroes on a victory tour before returning to battle in Iraq. The book is set on Thanksgiving at Dallas Cowboy Stadium on the last day of their tour and Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old hero and good soldier, tries to make sense of the absurdity of life.  This is an important book that everyone should read and discuss. G/S, BC
*Godwin. Gail, Flora,  Helen, a novelist, is looking back at the 1945 summer when she was ten and her mother’s odd, 22-year-old cousin Flora came to “mind” her after her beloved grandmother’s death (her mother had died several years previously) while her alcoholic father is over the mountain in Oak Ridge working on a secret war project. A polio outbreak isolates Flora and Helen in the remote house. Helen, a precocious, wry child, and Flora transform each other and a foreshadowed tragedy strikes. Wonderful minor characters and a singularly unique voice make this novel read like a classic.  G/GS, BC
*#Hamilton, Masha, What Changes Everything is a spectacular rendering combining the kidnapping of Todd, an American aid worker in Kabul, with the true story of the president of Afghanistan who was held by the Taliban in 1996. It’s also the story of Todd’s wife back home in Brooklyn who meets Danil, a graffiti artist who’s lost his brother to the war. It’s a powerful missive on the way we’re interconnected and on how things half a world away “slip into your peaceful lungs, changing everything.”  G/SN, BC
Harding, Paul, Enon, the author of 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, Tinkers, returns to the small New England locale to follow Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers' George Crosby, in the year after his teenage  daughter's death.  Hallucinogenic scenes provide an excruciating view of one man's grief. His lush writing isn’t enough to compensate for the tedium. G, BC
*#Haruf, Kent, Benediction, “Dad” Lewis finds out he’s dying on the first page of this wonder of a look into small-town life and what really matters. Set in Holt, Colorado, the setting of Haruf’s Plainsong, this novel is grace personified. It’s truly a “benediction” – a blessing for readers.  G/GPR/SF, BC
*Heller, Peter, Dog Stars is more than a post-apocalyptic saga; it visits the inner, psychological conflicts engendered nine years after disease kills off most of the humans in the world including Hig’s pregnant wife. Readers will love the bond between Hig and his dog and will cheer for the survivors’ desire to remake the world in love especially when Hig meets Cima and her father. This is a hope-filled tale. G, BC
Hosseini, Khaled, And the Mountains Echoed’s many tangential stories distracted me from Abdullah’s quest to find his sister in the main story of a father giving away his daughter to a wealthy Kabul man.  Hosseini made me care about his main characters but not those in the side stories that seemed too incidental to matter. People love this or they don’t so it’d be good for discussion. GPR/SN, BC
*Irwin, Ron, Flat Water Tuesday is reminiscent of Dead Poet’s Society in its treatment of boarding school life. Rob, a documentary filmmaker, revisits the tragedy that’s haunted him since he rowed in high school fifteen years previously. A beautiful elegy about class, competition, and family pressure. GPR, BC
*Kent, Hannah, Burial Rites reveals the story of Agnes, the last person executed in Iceland, in this 1828 character study that shows the starkness of the land and its people. Kent’s debut offers a riveting tale demonstrating Agnes’ effect on the family charged with housing her and on the young priest chosen as her counselor. G/PP/SN, BC
*Kibler, Julie, Calling Me Home, Isabelle, a white woman in her 80s, asks her friend Dorrie, an African-American beautician, if she’ll drive her from Texas to Cincinnati. Along the way Isabelle unwinds the tangled secret of her love of her family maid’s black brother in northern Kentucky 60 years previously. As Isabelle tells her story, Dorrie examines her own life. Kibler sensitively brings light to racial tensions by using information from her own family’s past to infuse the story with authenticity. GPR/PP, BC
Koslow, Sally, The Widow Waltz is a beach-book adaptation of the oft-told story of the husband who dies unexpectedly leaving secrets and unanswered questions.  CC
*Krueger, William Kent, Ordinary Grace is a book for fans of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River and Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. Forty years after his friend’s death, a suicide, and a murder in a small 1961 Minnesota town, Frank remembers his 13th summer when fear ruled but there was still “a grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it.” This elegiac tale evokes loss and mercy beautifully. GPR/PP/SF, BC
*Lahiri, Jhumpa, The Lowland, Two brothers’ lives, like the lowland between the two ponds near their Calcutta home, ebb and flow into one during monsoons and separate during the dry season. Cautious Subhash plays by the rules and moves to America. Udayan’s involvement with a radical group gets him killed so Subhash “rescues” Udayan’s wife Gauri. The result is a measured ode to grief, love, and what being a parent means. Lahiri transforms an unlikeable cast of characters into literary gold. G/SN, BC
*Lancaster, Craig, 600 Hours of Edward introduces a loveable character sure to charm. Edward is 39 and he has issues coping with Asperger's and OCD but in the 600 carefully tallied hours of this novel, he opens himself to new experiences and hope in this humor-filled heart warmer. GPR, BC
Loyd, Amy Grace, The Affairs of Others is seductive and erotic with a layer of melancholy, Celia, who’s in her thirties, can’t get over her husband’s death and she’s isolated herself in the apartment building she owns and manages where she’s involved with, yet at a distance from, her tenants, Hope enters both figuratively and literally in the person of Hope, a woman subletting the apartment above hers. The last chapter is pure loveliness but Celia seems too flat and gets lost in the overly descriptive passages. G
McAdam, Colin, A Beautiful Truth, a childless couple adopts a chimp as their son and he acts “human” until one fateful, foreshadowed day. Alternate sections depict an institute where chimps live in captivity, serve in experiments, and build complex relationships. McAdam’s use of language is stunning and the novel asks many questions about parenting, love, friendship, and dominance.  It’s a strangely unsettling meditation on human nature that’s undermined when McAdam forces his dazzling prose. GPR/SN, BC
*McBride, James, The Good Lord Bird  wryly reimagines abolitionist John Brown’s life from the perspective of Henry Shackleford, a slave in the Kansas Territory in 1856. Henry poses as a girl and Brown calls “her” Onion and considers her his good luck charm as they experience history. Winner of this year’s National Book Award, it’s clever and ambitious and seems almost like something Mark Twain would have written. G/PP/SN, BC
*McCann, Colum, Transatlantic, Three historic transatlantic crossings:  Frederick Douglas’s 1845 trip to Ireland, aviators Alcock and Brown’s 1919 flight, and George Mitchell’s 1998 attempt at peace in Northern Ireland, forge a connection through the imagined life of Lily, a maid who escapes to America, and her children and grandchildren. McCann is an alchemist who weaves their stories into a cohesive stew in which each ingredient magically flavors the whole. His evocation of the women is stunning. G/PP/SN, BC
*McDermott, Alice, Someone is the quiet, contemplative embodiment of an era in this meditation on one woman’s long life. Death is always just under the surface as Marie observes those living in her Brooklyn neighborhood. No one tops McDermott in painting word pictures of love, kindness and grief. G, BC
*McPherson, William, Testing the Current is an out-and-out charmer told by Tommy, an eight-year-old boy living in a small northern Michigan town in the late 1930s. Originally written in 1984 and reissued by New York Review Books, this is a gem reminiscent of William Maxwell. It’s an old-fashioned evocation of place and a character study that never attempts to be an action-packed romp.  G/GPR/PP, BC
Moore, Edward Kelsey, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is an African-American “Fried Green Tomatoes” set in southern Indiana where three friends (known as “The Supremes”) hang out at a café near their church.  Moore uses his short story writer’s touch in telling their troubles and secrets with humor. He’s also a professional cellist who easily captures the musical rhythm of this small town. D, BC
Moyes, JoJo, The Last Letter from Your Lover is romance with a capital “R” in this tale set in 1960 and today as Ellie looks for clues to her own romance in a “last letter.” It’s wrapped up perfectly. GPR/D
*Moyes, JoJo, Me Before You is the British “Sleepless in Seattle” of books. It’s a love story that will make you laugh and cry.  Acerbic Louisa meets her match in Will, a wheelchair-bound wheeler-dealer, she’s hired to assist. No spoilers but book clubs could talk for hours about the ending.  GPR/BC
Napolitano, Ann, A Good Hard Look features Flannery O'Connor in a novel set in her hometown, Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1960 after she returned due to illness. Melvin Whiteson has also moved there to marry the prettiest and most popular girl in town. Their friendship and the intertwined lives of Melvin's wife and others in town ask the reader to ponder how to really live life. GPR/GS/PP, BC
O’Donnell, Lisa, The Death of Bees, Marnie and Nelly bury their parents in the garden behind their Glasgow home and pretend that the parents are on holiday so they can remain together.  They’re better off without their parents and get unexpected help from neighbor Lennie in this delightful tome. GPR, BC
#Pye, Virginia, River of Dust, Rev. J. W. Watson and his wife Grace watch as bandits kidnap their toddler son in China’s Mongolian desert in 1910. While Watson searches for his son, his pregnant wife Grace falls under the influence of a servant. Pye used her missionary grandfather’s diaries to tell the story from a unique perspective and to suffuse it with accurate details that portray the era.  PP/SN, BC
*Rash, Ron, The Cove, Laurel, a woman people think is cursed because of her purple birthmark, and her brother Hank, who’s back from World War I missing a hand, live isolated lives when Walter, a fluting-play mute appears.  This is a magnificent morality play that fits its Appalachian setting. G/GS BC
*Rhodes, David, Jewelweed returns to Words, Wisconsin, where Driftless was set and the town including Pastor Winnie’s family try to help Blake adjust to life outside prison. Blake’s wonderful father, Nate, made me want to move to Words. Meanwhile Danielle and her son move in with a wealthy family in this Old Testament-like saga of a town where heavy burdens settle and everyone is a “touch-me-not.” G/S, BC
*Saunders, George, Tenth of December, Think you don’t like short stories, think again; these will knock your socks off. Not since Flannery O’Connor have such edgy tales appeared in one tantalizing package.  Saunders is a little bit Vonnegut with a touch of Twain. His tense dialogue placed me in each story beginning with “Victory Lap” that had me shaking as I awaited the fate of the two characters. G/S/T, BC
*Schanbacher, Gary, Crossing Purgatory captures Indiana farmer, Thompson Gray’s struggle to rebuild his life after tragedy strikes. He heads to Colorado where the Purgatory is both a river and a metaphor for his living in limbo. It’s 1858 and he meets slave traders and abolitionists along with people in need.  Schanbacher’s prose evokes the land and the power of redemption in a heartfelt saga.  GPR/PP/SN, BC
*Sjón, The Blue Fox is a fable set in 1883 Iceland with a hunter chasing a mystical fox, a naturalist trying to protect a woman with Down syndrome he’d rescued years before, and evil and fantasy melding in a dark, poetic, and comical tale. Poet, playwright, and lyricist for Björk - Sjón is utterly unique.  G/PP/T, BC
*#Sloan, Robin, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Quirky, fairy-tale characters in the land of Google are on an ancient quest in this Don Quixote-like fantasy in a bookstore with no real customers. Clay uses his computer skills to figure out what’s really happening with the enigmatic Mr. Penumbra. GPR/D/S, BC
*Stedman, M. L., The Light Between Oceans, After two miscarriages and a stillbirth, Tom and Isabel, alone on an island off Australia’s coast, take in a foundling and call her their own. When Lucy is two, they return to the mainland and learn that Lucy has a family, and they face a dilemma. When Isabel’s mother ponders life on page 120, I wanted to frame her words. Almost everyone loves this book.  GPR, BC
*Strout, Elizabeth, The Burgess Boys, Brothers Jim and Bob and sister Susan still aren’t over the loss of their father in an accident when they were young. Jim’s a big-shot New York attorney and Bob’s a caring legal-aid lawyer while Susan remains mired in their Maine hometown unable to move beyond her divorce. When Susan’s outcast son is charged with a hate crime when an ill-conceived prank aimed at Somali immigrants becomes a cause celébrè, the brothers race to the rescue but who actually needs rescuing in this carefully embroidered tale in which each stitch reveals more of the characters’ needs. G/GPR, BC
*#Vickers, Salley, The Cleaner of Chartres, Agnès Morel is an anomaly in the cathedral town of Chartres where she carefully cleans the labyrinth.  She arrived mysteriously twenty years previously and everyone in town relies on her. When her past threatens to derail her life, she confronts her trauma and the reader sees why she’s indispensable. It’s similar to Chocolat - filled with kindness, healing, and love.  GPR/D, BC
*Ward, Jesmyn, Salvage the Bones is Faulkner for today’s south which means it’s universal in scope and will last long after the effects of Hurricane Katrina have become a footnote in our troubled history.  Set in the days before and during Katrina, 15-year-old Esch, her brothers, and alcoholic father prepare for and try to escape the storm in their poor rural African-American community near Mississippi’s gulf coast. Mythology, metaphors, and the meaning of motherhood make this a classic for every reader. One of my book clubs is packed with varied tastes and this is the ONLY book we’ve all agreed is magnificent.  Yes, it features a dog fight, teen pregnancy, and bleak poverty but it’s also filled with hope. Read it!  G/GS, BC
Wolitzer, Meg, The Interestings tells the tale of a group of privileged teens who meet at a camp in 1974 and embrace Jules, a less privileged girl, who reinvents herself as she grows up among them. It continues the arc of their lives after tragedies twist their destinies. Fine writing lifts the self-absorbed characters from what could have been a clichéd coming-of-age story. S, BC

Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers
*Ballantyne, Lisa, The Guilty One weaves two stories: that of Daniel as a troubled foster child taken in by kind Minnie and of grownup Daniel, now a London lawyer, defending 11-year-old Sebastien who’s accused of brutally killing a 9-year-old girl.  Has Daniel escaped his own past?  Lots to ponder! CC, BC
Chapman, Emma, How to be a Good Wife is a haunting tale set in a small Nordic village where Marta is slipping away from reality or is she remembering things her husband wants concealed. The suspense is coupled with her need to follow her mother-in-law’s rules and be a “good wife.” GPR, BC
*Faye, Lyndsay, The Gods of Gotham, the 2012 Edgar winner, is set in 1845 New York City when Irish immigrants are flooding the city and anti-Catholic sentiments run high. Timothy Wilde is a fledgling Cop (from his copper star) in the newly formed police department when a 12-year-old murder victim and a girl named Bird lead him to an underground world with its own language. It’s extraordinary. PP/SN, BC                                                            
*French, Tana, Broken Harbor, Two small children and their father are murdered in their home in Broken Harbor, an abandoned, half-built “luxury” development. Jenny, the mother, clings to life as Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy tries to find clues in all the baby monitors, holes in the walls, and an unexplained break in. But something bad happened to Scorcher’s family in Broken Harbor years before and it might derail the investigation. French really knows how to write Irish psychological thrillers. CC/GPR
George, Elizabeth, Believing the Lie takes 608 pages to do nothing except leave Inspector Lynley’s personal problems behind while he and others try to find out if a crime has occurred. Disappointing! CC
George, Elizabeth, Just One Evil Act will appeal to fans of Detective Sgt. Barbara Havers but 736 pages was simply too much of a good thing and some of the characters’ actions didn’t fit them.
*Hamilton, Masha, 31 Hours, 21-year-old Jonas’s mother wakes up knowing that her son is in danger. Neither she nor his girlfriend have heard from him and they can’t reach him. Should she call the police? Could a good kid become a fanatic? Only someone with Hamilton’s Middle East knowledge could write a story like this and make it so real and chilling. I held my breath for the last fifty pages.  CC/SN, BC
James, P. D., Death Comes to Pemberley, When a great writer pens a dud at age 91, I blame her publisher for allowing it to hit the printed page. Jane Austen’s work has suffered zombies but this is worse.  Fans of neither author will find satisfaction in this nor would Mr. and Mrs. Darcy approve of it.  PP
*Krueger, William Kent, Ordinary Grace - description under general fiction GPR/PP/SF, BC
*Locke, Attica, The Cutting Season takes place on an old plantation, now a living history museum and event space along the Mississippi near Baton Rouge, LA, where Caren Gray tries to figure out who killed a migrant worker and if it relates to her ancestor’s time as a slave there. It’s the first book Dennis LeHane chose for his imprint at Harper Collins. CC/GS/SN, BC
MacBride, Stuart, Birthdays for the Dead is a gritty, violent mystery set in Scotland. Ash Henderson is a cop with a secret who thinks he can save the latest victim of a serial killer. The ending is shocking. CC
*Penny, Louise, How the Light Gets In, When the last surviving Ouellet quintuplet is found murdered, Inspector Gamache tries to find out why as his boss, Francour destroys his department and a dangerous plot has to be stopped. The town of Three Pines and its quirky residents steal the show. CC/GPR
Pessl, Marisha, Night Film is an imaginative, (too, too long), “Mr. Toad's Wild Ride” of a novel filled with so many clever tricks that the plot gets lost. While ostensibly about the probable suicide of a larger-than-life cult filmmaker's daughter and a discredited journalist, it felt more like a parody to me.  Others love it.  S
*#Robertson, Peter, Mission is a traditional mystery with a unique setting and a compelling protagonist. After Tom, a Scottish expat, helps pull the body of a homeless man from the surging waters of Boulder Creek he attempts to find out why the man died and learns more about his own past. It’s a nuanced look at those we rarely see. GPR/SN, BC
*Wolf, Dick, The Intercept, by the creator of TV’s Law and Order, features two NYPD Intelligence officers who try to find a passenger who’s disappeared from a flight after a terrorist incident. The suspense is tangible and reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal. CC

Peanut Butter and Jelly: Books for Children

*Becker, Aaron, Journey,  If you love Harold and the Purple Crayon and who doesn’t, you’ll enjoy this tale of a lonely girl using her red crayon to draw her own magical journey. The different modes of transportation featured and the gorgeous illustrations will capture everyone. PBJ, Ages 3 – 8
*Black, Michael Ian, I’m Bored, A bored girl meets a bored potato and giggles ensue. PBJ, Ages 3 - 8
*Daywalt, Drew and Jeffers, Oliver, illustrator, The Day the Crayons Quit  shows how crayons feel about how they’re used so they go on strike until Duncan finds a way to make them happy. PBJ, Ages 4 - 8
*DiCamillo, Kate and Campbell, K.G., illustrator, Flora & Ulysses, When an encounter with a vacuum cleaner transforms Ulysses into a super squirrel who can type poetry and fly, Flora hopes he’ll transform her life. This sweet, old-fashioned story with an engaging vocabulary is a charmer.  PBJ, Ages 9 - 12
*Ellis, Deborah, The Breadwinner, After the Taliban arrests 11-year-old Parvana’s father, she masquerades as a boy to support her family. Royalties go to Women for Women.  PBJ/SN, Ages 10 - 12
*Foley, Lizzie K., Remarkable Poor Jane lives in Remarkable where everyone is remarkable but her.  Being ordinary when everyone else is extraordinarily talented and gifted is tough.  But when the town is in danger, her gumption may save the day.  PBJ, Ages 8 and up
Gerstein, Mordicai, The First Drawing is an introduction to the ancient cave paintings of France and will help children see art in a new way, Who made the world’s first drawing?  PBJ/SN, Ages 4 - 7
*Grabensein, Chris, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's LibraryKyle is an underachiever who, like many boys  maker hero, has designed a new town library with an overnight opening for twelve select 12-year-olds, even Kyle wants to go. Those looking for books for reluctant male readers will love this. PBJ, Ages 8 - 13
*Heiligman, Deborah, The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos is a brilliant and beautiful introduction to math concepts and it’s fun too (especially the notes at the end that should appeal to older kids that love math). PBJ/SN, Ages 4 – 8.
*Kalman, Maira, Looking at Lincoln makes Lincoln accessible and explains tough concepts like war and slavery with gorgeous gouache illustrations and appealing language. PBJ/SN, Ages 5 - 8
*Kidd, Chip, Go, A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design Kids will love the ideas in this book and so will adults looking to spice up their own designs.  I’d give this to budding artists and watch them make class assignments come alive as well as invitations, web sites, and more, PBJ/SN, Ages 10 and up
*Maclachlan, Patricia, The Truth of Me is kind, loving and fun. Robbie spends the summer with his eccentric grandmother who teaches him that small truths make us all brave and magical. PBJ, Ages 7 -10        
*Maclachlan, Patricia and Kellogg, Steven, illustrator, Snowflakes Fall is a delightful tribute to the healing power of nature and the fact that it’s dedicated to the children of Newtown, CT, where Kellogg lived for 35 years makes this a must buy this season. It’s simply lovely. PBJ, Ages 3 – 7
*Malone, Marianne, The Sixty-Eight Rooms tells of two kids who find a magic key that lets them shrink and enter the Thorne Rooms at Chicago’s Art Institute. It’s the first in a series. PBJ/SN, Ages 8 - 12
Rylant, Cynthia, God Got a Dog contains 15 wry poems portraying God in many different ways in a book about what it means to be human. PBJ, Ages 10 and up
*Savage, Stephen, Where’s Walrus is a wordless wonder about Walrus’s escape from the zoo. The shapes and clear graphic design make it easy for parents to enjoy as much as children will. Ages 3 - 6
*Stead, Philip C., Hello, My Name is Ruby, Ruby is a very small bird who wants to make friends. Wonderful, whimsical illustrations make it a read-aloud winner. PBJ, Ages 3 - 6
*Stead, Philip C., A Home for Bird, Vernon, a toad, tries to help his quiet, new friend, Bird, find a home in a sweet story with wonderful illustrations. An ode to friendship, home, and kindness. PBJ, Ages 3 - 7
*Stinson, Kathy and Petricic, Dusan, illustrator, The Man with the Violin is based on the story of Joshua Bell’s subway concert and of Dylan making his mother stop to listen. It’s beautiful. PBJ, Ages 5 - 8
*Vanderpool, Clare, Navigating Early is a tailor-made treat for boys who aren’t like everyone else. After Jack’s mother dies as World War II is ending, Jack’s dad sends him to a Maine boarding school near the base where he’s serving. There Jack meets Early Auden, a brilliant math student living in the custodian’s closet at the school, and the two are off on an epic adventure featuring bears, pirates and the Appalachian trial. This is a kid book with a capital K. PP/PBJ, Ages 10 - 13
*Yerkes, Jennifer, A Funny Little BirdAn invisible bird wants to be noticed in this artistic fable with sophisticated vocabulary and color that both kids and parent will love. The use of white for invisibility will challenge young artists to try drawing invisibility themselves. PBJ, Ages 4 - 8,

Diet Coke and Gummi Bears: Books for Teens and Young Adults

*Green, John, The Fault in Our Stars is magnificent. Hazel is 16 and she’s lived three years with terminal cancer. She meets Augustus, who’s lost his leg to a malignant bone tumor, at a cancer support group and they fall in love. Hazel has an “impossible” dream that Gus makes happen and the two ponder what gives life meaning and celebrate simple acts of joy. This is one of my favorite books EVER.** Hazel’s very wry sense of humor especially at the book’s beginning will take hold of you. DC/GPR/S, BC, 9th grade and up
*Lewis, Catherine, Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice, Using literary tricks to retell the classic nursery rhyme will make teens and adults better readers and writers.  I can’t believe how much I learned from this – all while laughing hysterically.  DC/S/SN, Ages 12 and up
*Lowry, Lois, Son is the fourth book in The Giver series. It tells what happened to Gabe, the baby saved from “release” in The Giver. When Claire doesn’t receive pills to keep from feeling emotions after giving birth, she won’t give up in her quest to find her child. DC, BC, Ages 12 and up
*Rowell, Rainbow, Eleanor & Park is a spectacular book for teens and adults. Eleanor is the new kid and she’s bullied because she’s overweight, has wild red hair, and dresses strangely. Park is half-Korean and feels like an outsider. He meets Eleanor on the bus and they slowly fall in love but Eleanor’s home situation threatens everything. One of the best books EVER.** DC/GPR/S, BC 9th grade and up
*Rowelll, Rainbow, Fangirl explores leaving childhood behind without letting go of what matters.  It depicts the craft of writing and is a sensitive treatment of college alcohol abuse, abandonment, and love. Older Harry Potter fans will rejoice that it “gets” them. Perfect for older teens, DC, BC, 9th grade and up
*Yang, Gene Luen, American Born Chinese is a graphic novel with three intersecting plot lines: 1) a Monkey King folk hero who wants to be a god, 2) Jin Wang who tries to fit in at his new school, and 3) All-American Danny who’s ashamed of his cousin Chin-Kee. The three stories meld in a morality tale about identity, race, and self-acceptance. It’s a great introduction to the genre. DC/SN, BC, Ages 13 and up
** Yup, two of my favorites EVER, and I read them the same year. They’re the best since The Book Thief.


*Adams, Mark, Turn Right at Machu Pichu is a charmingly witty, historical account of Hiram Bingham III's exploration of the Andes Mountain region of Peru in 1911 and of Adams retracing of the trek. SN, BC
Aikman, Becky, Saturday Night Widows simplistically depicts a group of newly widowed women who gather to support each other.  Aikman seems to distance herself which makes the book feel sterile however later sections particularly one set in the desert in Morocco offer more authenticity. SF
Albright, Madeleine, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 personalizes the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia through the eyes of a young girl who later became the U.S. Secretary of State. Even if you know the facts, she makes you feel them.  SN, BC
*Brinton, Henry G., The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality challenges churches and Christians to welcome others by loving them where and as they are. It shows that welcoming cannot be about numbers but must center on meaning. SF, BC
Christensen, Kate, Blue Plate Special is a memoir of Christensen’s lonely life which she filled with food, sex, a dysfunctional family, and the books and writing that sated her. She chronicles cultural changes through her own life arc. GPR
*Fey, Tina, Bossypants, Audio is the ONLY way to “read” this book.  You must listen to Fey describe her life from her childhood to starring on Saturday Night Live and trying to do it all.  S
*Gaffigan, Jim, Dad is Fat is hilarious and heartwarming.  Yes, comedian Gaffigan is very funny but his book shows how much he loves his five kids and being a Dad.  A good read for everyone.  S/SF
*Hanagarne, Josh, The World’s Strongest Librarian is a wry ode to Tourette’s, weight-lifting, books, libraries, family and true strength. It’s a love letter to life packed into the memoir of a gentle giant of a man. From his Mormon beginnings through his geeky childhood and adult life, this book soars. GPR/SN, BC
Iverson, Kristen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats shows the cavalier attitude of the operators and overseers of the Colorado plant and how it poisoned everything downwind of it while depicting those living there and emphasizing Iverson's childhood with her alcoholic father. SN
*Kidd, Chip, Go, A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design – description in Children’s Books but this is for every age and anyone interested in design. PBJ/SN
*#Link, Mardi Jo, Bootstrapper: from Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm, Link begins her book as a funny, somewhat bitter woman hell-bent on keeping her boys and their rural life style after divorce leaves her almost penniless. Her humor and unyielding grit will make you laugh out loud and shed a few tears while sharing her family’s journey. Her honesty and authenticity will have you cheering for her as she pulls herself out of misery and insolvency. Note: I consider Ms. Link a friend so I’m thrilled that her intelligence, kindness, humor, and incredible writing skills are showcased in this magnificent memoir. It won the Great Lakes Booksellers’ Choice Award for 2013 and Garrison Keillor loved it too!   S/SF, BC
*Luxenberg, Steve, Annie’s Ghosts 
tells the story of the author’s mother who he always believed was an only child. When he learned that her sister Annie had lived in a mental institution from age 21, he used his investigative reporting skills to find out about his mother’s past, her relatives, the Detroit institution where Annie lived, the Holocaust in Ukraine, war-time Philippines, and imperial Russia. GPR/SN, BC
*#Massie, Robert K., Catherine the Great is an incredibly detailed, yet compelling, biography of one of the most brilliant women in history.  SN, BC
*#Moss, Michael, Salt, Sugar, Fat is a book everyone should read to understand how the food industry manipulates salt, sugar, and fat in what we eat.  It will help you make life-saving decisions and it’s an addictive treat of a read.  SN, BC
*Paterniti, Michael, The Telling Room is like a package of Pop Rocks that explodes in excitement the minute it hits your tongue. It tells the tale of a great Spanish cheese, the bombastic man who created it, and the Spanish village where it began and how they all stole Paterniti’s heart. Peter Mayle meets Man of La Mancha in a travelogue, memoir, foodie romp of a droll adventure. D, BC (with wine and cheese)
*RFC Fire and Rescue, Tasteand Tales along the Tunnel of Trees is equal parts cookbook, history book, and photographic essay evoking one of my favorite place on earth, the area hugging the Lake Michigan shore along Michigan Hwy. M-119.  Since I co-edited the book, I’ll turn this over to a favorite reviewer who said: “Capturing the essence of what it means to know your neighbors, honor your ancestors and bring families together over the table, Tastes and Tales is an essential addition to every Northern Michigan home . . .with signature illustrations by Jane Cardinal and the photography of Virgil Haynes.”  Even if you’ve never been to Northern Michigan, it’s a delight. Proceeds benefit the all-volunteer fire and rescue squad that protects the area.  D/SN
Reyes-Chow, Bruce, “But I Don’t See You as Asian:” Curating Conversations about Race contains many useful discussion starters.  Read it to think and talk about race.  It’s short yet somewhat wordy. SF/SN, BC
Rice, Ron, editor, My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Brows, Read, and Shop is a delectable dessert for booklovers.  The descriptions of my favorite stores were perfect portraits.  D
Ruta, Domenica, With or Without You is searing, tough, and honest.  It will remind you of books like The Glass Castle and Liars’ Club yet it’s unique in its view of a child turning to alcohol as she watches her mother drink and ingest everything imaginable while destroying their lives. GPR
*Sullivan, Robert and Wolff, Glenn, illustrator, A Child’s Christmas in New England is a book for the entire family to enjoy.  I’ve long loved Glenn Wolff’s illustrations in books and in the New York Times.  They add just the right touch to this lovely reminiscence about Christmas for those who grew up in the1950s and 60s. Reading this aloud would spark some great conversations.  It made me want real tinsel again. GPR
*Ward, Jesmyn, Men We Reaped should be required reading for 21st Century adults. With dazzlingly poetic prose, Ward shows “what it means to be Black and poor in the South” In four years five young men she loved died.  She connected the dots and found that their seemingly unrelated deaths occurred because of who they were and where they were from. She says “We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies.”  Her brilliant writing makes this sing. G/SN, BC