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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

immortalistsIn 1969, the Gold siblings of Manhattan seek out a woman who is said to be able to tell you the day of your death. While it begins as innocent curiosity, the children are not ready for the weight of the knowledge. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin follows the four siblings over the next fifty years as they attempt to live with prophecies hanging over their heads. As they depart to live their own lives, each sibling handles the information differently and their lives are shaped by their interpretation.

Divided into four sections (each one following a sibling), the novel intertwines their stories. This book paints a portrait of the hardships of trying to live when you know when you will die and examines the fine line between destiny and personal choice.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books with a hint of magical realism and books with a strong family dynamic.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

allthelightSet in WWII, this book alternates between the life of a young German orphan (soon to be soldier) named Werner, who is a whiz with electronics, and Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl who is forced to leave her home in Paris when the Germans invade. Their lives intersect in a seaside town called San-Malo as the Allies are about to bomb the city and repeatedly flashes back in time showing how they came to this moment.

All the Light We Cannot See has very short chapters, so it has the feel of being fast paced, but the novel is also very detailed with tactile and audio descriptions of how Marie senses the world around her. Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel depicts the horrors of WWII from a unique point of view revealing both the evil within men and also the heroism, too.

If you enjoyed this novel, check out related book lists: Novels of WWII and WWII and the Women in the Resistance.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017)

manhattanbeachJennifer Egan’s epic novel Manhattan Beach is set in the Brooklyn Naval Yards during World War II. This coming-of-age novel features Anna Kerrigan as a fiercely independent young woman who longs to serve the war effort as a diver, an occupation reserved solely for men in 1940s America. Anna’s underwater training takes her deep into the murky waters of New York Harbor, while her quest to uncover the mystery that has torn her family apart leads her into the dark underworld of organized crime.

Manhattan Beach was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2017. I recommend giving this one a listen — the audiobook narration by Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire adds the perfect touch of noir to this historic novel.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015)

fishinatreeA fascinating and enlightening story, Fish in a Tree follows a sixth grade girl who always struggled in school, but never could understand why until a persistent, caring teacher finally helps diagnose her with dyslexia. The author herself experienced a similar childhood to Ally, which gives so much depth of perspective to the character's struggle with an inability to read and write. Once diagnosed, Ally begins to discover through perseverance that a learning disability does not define who she is or her intelligence.

I only knew the basic symptoms of dyslexia prior to reading Fish in a Tree; however, I now feel a whole new appreciation for those who struggle with this and similar learning disorders on a daily basis because of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s thoughtful and personal testimony incorporated into her novel.

Fish in a Tree is among the 2019 Bluestem Award nominees for the State of Illinois, designed for students in grades 3-5.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013)

In William Kent Krueger’s novel, narrator Frank remembers the summer of 1961 when his perspective on life changed forever. A smart aleck thirteen year old, Frank thought he knew it all. He and his younger brother Jake are faced with multiple killings in their small Minnesota town and figure out the awful truth behind the hardest death of all.

Part mystery, part poignant family drama, Ordinary Grace shows how bad things happen to good people and what you see is not always the whole story. It took the innocence of childhood to see beyond the surface. A tender epilogue set forty years later ties up loose ends and shows how the summer of 1961 truly shaped the lives of the Drum family.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (2016)

I haven’t read a Jodi Picoult book in a long time, but I’m so glad I decided to read this one. Small Great Things is one of the most thought provoking and inflammatory books I’ve read in some time. It focuses on issues of race and prejudice in a way that I, and probably many others, have not considered. The story is told from the perspectives of three characters: Ruth (an African-American labor and delivery nurse), Turk (a white supremacist father of a newborn baby in Ruth’s hospital), and Kennedy (Ruth’s defense attorney). Each viewpoint sheds a different light on the issue of racism. We learn that we all have much to learn about how we perceive each other and behave towards each other.

The characters were believable, although not always likable. Ruth was intelligent, sympathetic, and strong. You can’t help but get incensed by the injustices she has faced. It was difficult to read at times, especially the chapters told from Turk’s perspective. The following two quotes summarize the messages in this book:
Benjamin Franklin: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

The title refers to a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things that are great.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)

Harold Fry has lived a fairly ordinary life. He has managed to avoid conflict, but there are some unresolved terrible secrets in his past. One letter from an old coworker, one conversation with a perfect stranger, and Harold is about to do something extraordinary. Powerful, emotional, showing it’s never too late to change, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a journey the reader will not soon forget. Check out Rachel Joyce’s debut today.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter by Herta Muller (2016)

Herta Muller’s words form images assembled as a collage and story for the reader to follow. The Fox was Ever the Hunter is rich in images and symbols to lead one along the path of fear and frustration caused by the totalitarian regime the author grew up with in Romania. The secret service lurks ever present and for Adina, they threaten with notes and gradual dissection of her fox fur bought years ago with her mother. Clara finds that her special friend with whom she shares the evening rest is not just a lawyer but an agent of that dreaded service. All are suspicious of others and fearful of what may come, but hope for a brighter day.

For more about the book and the author, check out The New York Times review.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann (2013)

transatlanticI appreciate good historical fiction, especially those stories that connect people and events across time. Colum McCann has done his research and given us some great historical framework before the reader figures out that Transatlantic is really about three generations of women who have left their mark on history, in particular that of Ireland. Great insights into women who carry many personal burdens, yet persevere. Great insights into human nature in general.

Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (2015)

deathmrpickwickSome reviewers were suffocated by Stephen Jarvis’ 800+ novel aiming to show it was the illustrator, Richard Seymour, not Dickens who had the original ideas for The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Although I had to renew the book, I enjoyed following Mr. Indelicate and Inscriptino (Scripty), the present day investigators, as they searched 19th century evidence for Mr. Pickwick’s origins.

Death and Mr. Pickwick provides many amusing stories and interesting facts about 19th century publishing. I was amazed at the reported great popularity of The Pickwick Papers as originally published in serial form and then as a novel. As I followed the investigation to the very end, I continued to hope Mr. Dickens and the publishers would show more kindness towards Seymour. After all, Mr. Dickens was no stranger to generosity as seen in his later works e.g. A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities.

Check out reviews in The New York Times and The Atlantic.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)

commonwealthThis is being labelled a "domestic drama," but I think it is probably a common story in this day and time. It concerns 4 adults and 6 children, marriages coming apart, and families being joined. The story spans over 50 years and shares the children's disillusionment with their parents and the affection that grows between the children. The way Commonwealth is written is almost like a puzzle being put together. Ann Patchett’s latest novel is great storytelling.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (2016)

versionsofusA young woman named Eva riding her bicycle one day at Cambridge crosses paths with Jim, a law student. That chance meeting will change their lives in many ways. What is unique about about Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us is that it explores the chances, decisions, and what makes us human in three variations of Eva and Jim's story. How might the course of your life been affected if a single detail was changed?

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

fatesfuriesIn Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, the story of marriage is told by multi-faceted characters Lotto and Mathilde. Lotto, who is destined to be a world famous playwright, unfolds his love for Mathilde in the Fates, while Mathilde's dramatically different perspective of their marriage is revealed in the Furies.

While unsure of where the story is going in the first section of the book called Fates, the reader is brought into a whirlwind of discoveries and uncovered truths in the Furies. The core of this marriage lies possibly in its secrets rather than in its truths and the unfolding of this complicated duo won't disappoint.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

godinruinsAfter reading – and very much enjoying – Life After Life, the idea of more Todd family adventures was appealing. Kate Atkinson calls A God in Ruins a companion novel to Life After Life, not a sequel. She takes one of the alternate realities of Ursula's adored younger brother Ted, and develops the storyline after his miraculous recovery from a plane crash as a bomber pilot in World War II. The novel alternates between Ted's wartime experiences and his civilian life as father and grandfather. Curious readers of Life After Life will also be treated to an excerpt from Aunt Izzie's The Adventures of Augustus, the character she modeled after Teddy. Atkinson continues to test the reader's concepts of time and fiction with this engaging novel.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001)

belcantoAnn Patchett gives us a story of hostage taking gone wrong when the principal target, the president of this backward South American country, is not at the party and the terrorists (or freedom fighters) are at a loss of what to do with the international collection of captured guests. Roxane Coss, an opera diva of great talent, is the only reason Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese industrialist, is there. After all, the party is to celebrate Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday but more importantly to encourage him to build electronic factories in this country. Among the captives are the country’s vice president (the host), an assortment of international diplomats, and Mr. Hosokawa’s interpreter who becomes of great value in negotiations with security and communications among the captives.

Ms. Coss’ singing becomes a primary focus of attention among the guests and terrorists alike. The foot soldiers among the captors are very young but some show great potential and interact in amazing ways with the captives. This lyrical interlude with these unusual characters is one worth visiting.

Join us for a discussion of Bel Canto on Wednesday, December 9 at 7pm in the library. If you haven’t read the book yet, there’s still time – pick up a copy at the front checkout.