Monday, April 29, 2024

Mother’s Day and Spring Reading Ideas

It's almost May and many of you are yearning for books suitable for reading outdoors as daylight lingers and warm breezes make sitting under a tree irresistible. Others are searching for gifts for those who’ve guided your path. May these satisfy your hunger for good books that will keep you reading until dusk forces you inside.

My husband died in early February. I share that because I was unable to concentrate on reading in his last weeks and in the first month or so after his death. He had a wonderful life and was ready to go when his body could no longer tolerate the cancer treatments that had kept him pain-free and able to enjoy family and friends for more than three years, and for that I am grateful. I'm also grateful that I was gradually able to regain my focus and soon found comfort, escape, and stimulation as I returned to reading. The book that thawed my reading drought was appropriately titled The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon. It's the first of several titles I recommend for Mother’s Day gifts or for your own reading pleasure. The other titles listed are some of those I've read since The Frozen River. Note: I also recommend I Cheerfully Refuse, a novel I read and reviewed here earlier this month.

*The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

It’s November 1789 and Maine’s Kennebec River has just frozen. Martha Ballard is a respected midwife in her fifties who keeps a journal recording everything from the daily weather to births and local incidents. When called to examine the body of a man entombed in the river’s ice, she sees that he's been murdered, but a new, young physician declares the death accidental. Martha wants to get home to talk with her husband. “Some men think in a straight line, like an arrow off the string. They go to logic, to the easy conclusion, and avoid the waterways of the mind. But not Ephraim. His head is all rivers and streams, and with a mind like that a thought could run anywhere. He will have an answer. He always does.” The respect Martha and Ephraim show each other is exceptional and is rarely seen in novels and even less often in historical fiction. Based on a real midwife’s life, this novel expertly explores misogyny and courage and is an engrossing read with compelling characters. GPR/PP/SN, BC (2023)

*James: a Novel by Percival Everett

James should win the Pulitzer Prize; it's that good. This reimagining of Adventures of Huck Finn told from Jim’s point of view is like a firecracker exploding with humor, tragedy, love, and insight. Huck and Jim escape on a raft down the Mississippi River in an engrossing adventure. It's a masterpiece and a classic tale that's both fast-paced and packed with nuance and riveting dialogue. The conversation about “proleptic irony or dramatic irony” plays with the reader so beautifully; it makes me want to embroider it on a pillow. Everett has created a novel that’s completely accessible and at the same time ready to take its place in the canon of American literature. You’ll want to reread Huck Finn after reading James. GPR/G/PP, BC

*Float Up, Sing Down: Stories by Laird Hunt

Hunt returns to the area celebrated in his magnificent National Book Award finalist Zorrie with fourteen stories set in a single day in 1982 in the fictional town of Bright Creek, Indiana. Having grown up just down the road, reading these stories is a return to my childhood especially with the mention of “catfish over at Miller’s in Colfax,” a place everyone within fifty miles visited often. Hunt makes you see the people and their lives while showing “God’s country. Or God’s cousin’s country anyway. Maybe God’s nephew. No need to be grandiose. On a clear day and with sharp eyes you could see better than five miles in every direction,” Hunt makes you feel a part of the long-ago Indiana of my grandparents. He explores life, death, and community with razor-sharp dialogue that captures the region, and Zorrie herself returns. If you love the quiet beauty of Our Town and Willa Cather, you'll appreciate this treasure. G/PP, BC

*Go as a River by Shelley Read

In the 1960s, the town of Iola, Colorado was destroyed to create a reservoir. In 1948, Victoria, a 17-year-old Iola resident, meets and falls in love with a Native man who’s running away from a job contract in a coal mine. His death and her subsequent pregnancy force her to leave her family’s peach orchard to shelter in a hut in the nearby mountains. Her resilience in living her life as if it were a river always moving forward makes for a strong story with excellent depictions of the natural world. An unusual decision I won't divulge combined with superb language form a compelling debut, coming-of-age novel that traces Victoria’s life along with that of the river. GPR/PP, BC (2023)

*Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

Wandering Stars resounds with yearning. This stand-alone sequel to the masterpiece There, There lyrically illustrates the powerful yearning of one family, via descendant Orvil Red Feather, to be themselves after their historical removal from tribal lands and the forced abandonment of their native language and culture. It shows the generational trauma of collective loss coupled with the will to survive. Beginning with the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 and the subsequent Carlisle Indian Industrial School fiasco, Wandering Stars visits the descendants of one Native family seen at the powwow in There, There as they struggle with substance abuse and erasure while trying to preserve family ties and their culture. “Everyone only thinks we're from the past, but then we're here, but they don't know we’re still here.” While this is an emotionally difficult read, it’s an essential one. G/PP/SN, BC

+After Annie by Anna Quindlen

“Bill, get me some Advil, my head is killing me,” were the last words Annie said before falling on the kitchen floor and dying of an aneurysm in this cozy, quiet portrait of a mother and those she left behind. Annie was in her early thirties. She had four children ages six to thirteen. She and her plumber husband Bill lived a packed life that allowed for little reflection which was a good fit for Bill. Annie also left her best friend Annemarie, a woman who'd had substance abuse problems and relied on Annie for more than just their deep friendship. Bill is both bereft and clueless so when thirteen-year-old Ali makes sandwiches, wakes up her younger brothers before school, and keeps the household afloat, Bill barely notices. He adored Annie and without her as his rudder, he doesn't seem capable of seeing what's around him. Bill’s dreadful mother and her attacks on the kids and Annemarie signal the family’s unraveling. Quindlen is one of the queens of the quotidian and her recitation of the daily acts of survival makes this novel hope filled rather than melancholy. Ali and Annemarie keep calling Annie’s phone to hear her voice and we’re so connected to them that we almost think she'll answer. Yes, the ending is a touch of “happily ever after,” but it's what Annie would have wanted. If you’re looking for a book that isn't too challenging but still offers a poignant story, this is it. GPR, BC

+Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade by Janet Skeslien Charles

Charles, the author of the acclaimed The Paris Library, showcases American women volunteering in France during WWI. Jessie, a New York Public Library children’s librarian, assists residents living near the front in northeast France, holds story hours for children, and gives the children and their mothers books. In a parallel 1987 story, aspiring writer Wendy finds Jessie’s story in the NYPL archives and uncovers new information. The French and American women are intriguing, well-developed characters, and the books Jessie shares show how literacy can make a difference in this well-told tale. GPR/PP/SN This comes out tomorrow, Tuesday, April 30. 

+The Underground Library by Jennifer Ryan

The Underground Library follows several women living in London during the blitz years of WWII as they create a lending library to serve neighborhood residents who spend their nights in a tube station. It's both a romance and a chronicle of the power of community to overcome hardship, male chauvinism, and classism. It offers a glimpse of history with a happy ending. Readers who enjoyed her previous novels The Kitchen Front and The Wedding Dress Circle will find similar wartime themes in The Underground Library. GPR/PP/ SBP/SN, BC

+The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

This light, fluffy romance highlights the dilemma women faced in 1919 England when men returned from the war and resumed their jobs. Despite being a stellar manager in her village, Constance must find a man to marry or become a governess. Currently caring for a widow in a seaside hotel, she meets effervescent Poppy who operates a motorcycle delivery business. Poppy’s brother Harris, a Sopwith Camel pilot, has returned from combat minus a leg. His depressed state causes Poppy to act rashly hoping to help him. While this doesn't have the brilliant sarcasm of her Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the novel will appeal to historical fiction lovers who want a witty escape with a message. PP This will be out on May 7, 2024.

+The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear

The White Lady follows former spy Elinor White from age twelve in Belgium at the start of WWI through her posting in WWII and then to her current life in rural Kent, England in 1947. When a family moves in next door, Elinor is enamored with Susie, the daughter. When Susie’s father’s infamous London gangster family threatens them, Elinor seeks help from old friends and takes action. Reliving her past haunts Elinor, but her wartime experience, skills, and courage aid her in her quest to save the family. The novel highlights the always horrific and often necessary conflicts of war while showing that identifying who the enemy is isn't easy. This stand-alone historical mystery is a departure from Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs’ tales. (2023)

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