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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)

lifeafterlifeKate Atkinson delivers a beautifully written, wildly imaginative tale of 20th century England. In Life After Life, Ursula Todd lives her life, over and over again. From the pre-war bucolic setting to the Great War and 1918 Influenza, to the horrors of WWII in London and beyond, Atkinson guides the reader through the first half of the 20th century through Ursula’s eyes. A novel of historical fiction with a fantastical element, Life After Life is a thought-provoking read of what might change if you could relive your life.

The plot may seem farfetched, but the author structures the book in such a way that it is believable. If you enjoy reading historical or literary fiction, WWII novels, stories about families, alternative histories, or just want a good story, try this book – you won’t regret it!

And if you’re hooked, a companion novel, A God in Ruins, will be released in May (and focuses on Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy).

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (2014)

hundredyearhouseThis is the quirky and charming story of Laurelfield, a grand estate north of Chicago. Rebecca Makkai unfolds the history of the century old house in reverse order starting with Zee and Doug, a young couple struggling to find their place in the world of academia. At Laurefield, they encounter locked attics, Y2K fears, jealousy and plenty of ghosts. As the past is revealed in the subsequent chapters, you begin to understand that everything is connected in a mysterious way. I loved this unconventional story and you will want to read The Hundred-Year House again as soon as you finish.

Hey 20-30somethings -- GenLit will be discussing this novel on Wednesday, March 25 at 6:30pm at Phillies Pizza in Willowbrook. Join the conversation on Facebook.

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

allthelightThe horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe are told through the eyes of Marie-Louise and Werner. They are on opposing sides, yet they are both just innocent teenagers caught up in a no-win situation. In another time and place, they could have been soulmates. Their intelligent and gentle natures bleed through some of the travesty.

Marie-Louise escapes war-torn Paris as her father tries to hide her away in a family home in St. Malo, but the war catches up with them. Her father, as an employee of the National History Museum, is hiding a special stone with legendary stories attached to it. The stone and its legends add a touch of mysterious appeal to All the Light We Cannot See.

Werner is an electronic genius and an orphan who gets caught up into the Nazi plan at a much younger age than necessary. Superiors lie about his age to take advantage of his radio expertise on the front lines. Werner's sister is part of the underground German resistance movement and adds an interesting element to the story.

Anthony Doerr alternates between Werner and Marie-Louise's voices and magically creates a haunting story readers will not soon forget.

For more novels of WWII, check out our list.

Four Souls by Louise Erdrich (2004)

foursoulsLouise Erdrich’s Four Souls is a beautifully written, fascinating installment in the ongoing story of Fleur Pillager, a Native American Ojibwe. She travels to Minneapolis where she plans to avenge the loss of her family’s land to a deceptive, wealthy white man, but instead finds herself entangled with a complex relationship.

Check out Tracks (1988) to see where Erdrich first introduces Fleur.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

inventionofwingsI loved everything about this book…the superbly-drawn, complex characters; the inspirational, and often intense, storylines of each character; and the wonderful setting descriptions that made me feel like I was there with the characters! The fact that this novel was based on real-life people makes it more powerful and unforgettable.

Set in Charleston during the early 1800s, the plot follows the life of two girls into adulthood, alternating the narration between the two. Sarah Grimke is the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, and Hetty is the young slave who is given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. They share a common goal – freedom! For Hetty, it is freedom from the bondages of slavery, and for Sarah, from the oppressive societal constraints on women. Sarah is vehemently against slavery, treating Hetty with respect, even secretly teaching her how to read, which was against the law at that time. Sarah becomes a strong activist in the abolitionist movement and civil rights for women. Hetty’s life is heartbreaking, yet inspiring in so many ways.

After I finished The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and did some research on Sarah Grimke to learn more about her real life.

Highly recommend this book!

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

storiedlifeThis is a story for those who love books and book people. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry presents a sad but delightful series of stories through A. J’s life as he loses his wife and a valued possession, but then gains the responsibility of a 2-year-old child and a new life. Poignant, sad, and funny events keep the reader (or listener) engaged for the full journey. Gabrielle Zevin’s novel was a New York Times bestseller, a #1 Indie Next pick, and a #1 LibraryReads selection.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is written for those of us who love and work with books. The acrimonious bookseller, A.J. Fikry, is particular about the books he carries in his bookstore and has a long list of genres he will not carry. Gabrielle Zevin incorporates the right amount of humor to transform the snobby bookseller into a lovable character. Fikry has recently lost his wife and is not that concerned with the success of his small bookstore, Island Books. However, after a strange series of events, Firky is forced to change his ways. This is a magical story with plenty of literary references for the reader to enjoy.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011)

From flowers to foster care, from motherhood to mental illness, Vanessa Diffenbaugh takes them all on and creates a very special character by the name of Victoria. She creates the perfect setting for a book about the meaning of flowers - San Francisco! The reader cries for Victoria and roots for her to succeed. She is her own worst enemy. In The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh keeps us in suspense until the last minute as to what Victoria's fate will be.

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (2013)

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt is full of sharp insights about life in the modern South along with plenty of dysfunctional family drama, civil war rehashing, bourbon drinking, and the ongoing struggle to keep up appearances.

We follow a different member of the Johnston family each chapter as they interact with each other during doomed holiday dinners and on their own, usually unfortunate, tangents. Matriarch Jerene manages to hold the family together by wielding a formidable array of threats and lies, all while impeccable groomed, until events progress beyond even her extreme damage control skills.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch is a remarkably fast read, despite its size. The title refers to the tiny painting of a pet bird in captivity by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius from 1654. The Goldfinch becomes central in Theo’s life after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother one rainy day. Tragedy strikes at the museum and Theo is left practically an orphan. Over the next ten years, Theo struggles with the loss of his mother and the post-traumatic stress of incident. This is a beautifully written story that captures the essence of New York, the pain of loss, and power of objects.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012)

Robin Sloan’s book has all of the elements of wonderful and unforgettable story. There are a quirky set of characters led by the clerk of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Clay Jannon. With help from his roommates, childhood friend, and new girlfriend, Clay attempts to figure out what is really going on at the unusual bookstore.  He unknowingly stumbles on a 500 year mystery and embarks on an epic journey. Humorous and well written with a great narrator, this is wonderful novel to listen to.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Round House is narrated by a young person, 13-year-old Joe, of the Ojibwe tribe, whose mother has been brutally attacked and whose father, a tribal Judge, tries to find justice. As the story unfolds, Joe, with the help of his three friends, sees it as his responsibility to bring protection and vindication to his family.

The story is interwoven with colorful characters engaging Joe and his friends along their way. There is the ex-Marine priest who refuses to include target practice on gophers as part of Joe’s confirmation, the centenarian grandfather who tells stories of the tribe in his sleep and still enjoys worldly pleasures when he can get Sonia the ex-stripper to visit, and uncle Whitey, Sonia’s significant other who becomes jealous when she directs too much motherly attention to Joe. All of these play poignant and sometimes humorous scenes in the story.
The Round House is more than just a hunt for the attacker; it is the extended Native American family showing concern and helping one another, the tension and humor of dealing with the Anglo community, and young boys struggling to grow up. The story ends with hard happenings, but like Mockingbird, brings closure to the injustice.

Louise Erdrich's novel also won the  2012 National Book Award.

Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham (2012)

I recommend the audio form of Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham to hear the Texas drawl and the expression of feeling in the readers voices. The story runs from preteen to late 30s of three orphans, two guys and the girl they both love, as they find their plans upset by some very bad acts and choices made in adolescence. The guys become star high school football players with offers of scholarships to a major university, while the girl, Cathy, abandons her dreams of medical school to stay in the home town and have the child she believes to be from her choice of the two guys, Tray.

Tray walks away and the other guy John, inexplicably to the community, abandons his football scholarship and enters Loyola in New Orleans in hope of becoming a Catholic priest. Twenty some years later Cathy is the owner of a successful restaurant, her son Will a graduate engineer with a good job and John a priest working closely with an older couple running an orphanage in the home county.

Tray, after a successful career in the NFL, finds he is dying and returns home to confess his wrongful teenage acts to the couple who have suffered greatly from those acts. Cathy and John are disturbed and unsure how to respond to Tray’s homecoming.

Reviews for this book have varied from 1 star (banal soap opera) to 5 stars (classic literature) depending on how the reader (listener) reacts particularly to the unexpected ending. These varied reactions may well show merit in this work

 
 

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2012)

The author revisits Homer’s Iliad, and allows Patroclus to tell of his close friendship with Achilles before and during the Trojan War. Yes, she finds a love story in this ancient tale of heroes. Trouble comes from Achilles’ mother Thetis, who detests Patroclus and expends much effort in keeping Achilles from him and out of the war. She sends Achilles to Scyros disguised as a lady in waiting to the local princess; fate intervenes and Achilles becomes married to the princess and a father (of Pyrrhus) before he is joyfully found by Patroclus and unmasked by Greek generals looking for recruits.

At Troy, Achilles proves to be the best of the Greek warriors until he is killed by Paris and later joined in his grave by Patroclus’ ashes. Readers unfamiliar with Greek legends will be pleased to find a character glossary at the end of the novel. Some may be disappointed at so little told of the Trojan horse and the dipping of the baby Achilles in the river Styx.

Read more at the New York Times.
Check out a copy of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller today.

 
 

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008)

The White Tiger is a dark and funny novel which plunges the reader deep into the underbelly of modern India, a place where people are still very much prisoners to their own caste. The story unfolds as a series of letters to a Chinese official, and it is this device which brings the main character to life, revealing his wit, his flaws, and his deepest inner thoughts. We follow Balram through his daily life which is so oppressively frightening on the one hand but presented in such absurd scenarios that I actually laughed out loud.

Well written, and exploding with symbolism, the story is really about Balram’s struggle for freedom—freedom from “the Darkness” where most people live in subhuman conditions. It is a quick read, and after the first chapter, you won’t be able to put it down.

And since it’s such a quick read, those of you in your 20s and 30s should read it this weekend and join our GenLit Book Discussion Group on Monday, July 16 at 6:30 at Taste of India in Willowbrook. Get your copy of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga today.