Tag: Historical Fiction

My 2019 Backlist Reading (First Half)

July 16, 2019 Mini Book Reviews 6

2019 backlist reading

 

Well, this is embarrassing…I wrote the majority of my 2019 Backlist Reading post in JANUARY and didn’t realize I’d never posted it until I went in to draft my review of The Age of Miracles, a backlist book I read recently. 

Though I briefly mentioned all these books on the blog back when I read them, I thought y’all might still want to see my more detailed thoughts. Get out your library cards because you can probably get these books without a super long hold list!

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).

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February 2019 Books to Read (and Skip)

February 14, 2019 Mini Book Reviews 17

February 2019 Books to Read

 

I was excited about my February reading since there were a number of books I was really looking forward to, but the brightest stars came from unexpected places (i.e. books that were late adds to my TBR list based on glowing recommendations from trusted sources).

I read one 5 star book and a second 4.5 star book…with only one unsuccessful book that I DNF’d quickly. 

I’ll take that for a reading month!

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Favorite Book of February 2019

Last Romantics by Tara ConklinThe Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: February 5, 2019)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (William Morrow)

Plot Summary: The story of the Skinner family – the four Skinner children, their father’s unexpectedly passing in his thirties, their mother’s years long depression (which the children call “the Pause”), and how their lives unfold into adulthood. 

My Thoughts: Finally….my first 5 star book of the year! I almost bypassed this one, but a few of my go-to recommendation sources rated it 5 stars (Mind Joggle, Happiest When Reading, Novel Visits) and it was compared to Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (my review) and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (my review). I thought it was more Commonwealth than The Interestings with shades of My Sunshine Away (my review) in the beginning sections, but for once a big-time comparison proved accurate! The Last Romantics can be called a dysfunctional family novel, but the dysfunction is normal enough to be relatable…the type of dysfunction you see in real life all the time. It’s a novel of sibling dynamics and how parenting decisions/style impacts children in later life. Joe, the lone son among three sisters and the “golden boy” as a child, slides by on looks, charm, athletic ability, and, later in life, his wealthy friends…each sister has her own relationship with Joe and it’s these relationships that drive much of the drama later in the book. My one complaint is that the ending was a bit too tidy…it read a bit like an Epilogue and I felt it was unnecessary. But, that didn’t kill the book for me…I loved every other second of it and it’s one of those character-driven novels I couldn’t put down! PS – I loved the fact that a blog plays a role in story!

The Pause could not go on forever. We knew this. There were dangers. We were children alone, the four of us, without protection or instruction, and while Renee played the part of quasi mother, she buckled under the weight. Unsustainable, I wrote later. Unsupportable, hazardous, perilous, unsafe.

But, Also Read These

American Pop by Snowden WrightAmerican Popby Snowden Wright
Fiction – Historical (Release Date: February 5, 2019)
400 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (William Morrow)

Plot Summary: The story of an American dynasty…the fictional Forster family who started Panola Cola, the world’s largest soda company.

My Thoughts: Though American Pop is fiction, I’m guessing you automatically think of the Coca-Cola family when you hear the premise of this book (especially since the author lives in Atlanta, GA). Wright mentioned in a Publisher’s Weekly interview that he was inspired by Coca-Cola “with a little bit of Dr. Pepper.” One of my complaints about the book was that there was no Author’s Note laying out what was true and what was fiction, which is my favorite parts of books based on real people and events, but Google can help you out with this a bit.

The story kicks off with a glitzy party scene at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and it’s immediately apparent that most Forster family members have skeletons in their closets…making American Pop most definitely a dysfunctional family novel. It was hit and miss for me, but overall more hit than miss. The writing is really fun and glittery, but sometimes veers into “what is he talking about?” territory. I loved that the book was juicy, pulling back the curtain on this prominent family, but he tried to pack a lot into it. There was lots of jumping around between time periods and characters, which made it hard to follow at times, and I wish he’d pared back the scope of the story a bit. But, I loved the spot-on social commentary on the South. It’s not a perfect book…it’s ambitious, but messy. But it’s overall an interesting twist on the dysfunctional family novel with flashes of brilliant writing and commentary.

The Forsters, like most Southern families, typically had one of two intentions when conversing among themselves: to make each other laugh or to make each other bleed.

Otherwise Engaged by Lindsey J. PalmerOtherwise Engagedby Lindsey J. Palmer
Fiction – Brain Candy (Release Date: February 26, 2019)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Skyhorse)

Plot Summary: When Gabe publishes a novel that’s very closely based on his steamy, volatile relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Talia…or the fictional “Dahlia”), his relationship with his new fiancee (Molly) hits some speed bumps.

My Thoughts: Y’all know I’m not normally big on the rom-com style brain candy books…they can easily venture into cheesy for me. But, there have been two over the past few months I’ve actually liked (How to Walk Away and One Day in December) and I can now add Otherwise Engaged to the list! The beginning is a touch cheesy, but then the story turns a corner. The premise is totally intriguing…Palmer’s juxtaposition of excerpts of Gabe’s book with Molly’s thoughts and commentary as she’s reading it brings all this intrigue to light. And, boy does this book(understandably) get in her head! Gabe’s book shatters the core of who Molly thinks Gabe is and has her constantly analyzing details from his previous relationship and details from her own relationship that appear in the book. Of course, Talia (Gabe’s ex-girlfriend) also re-appears on the scene to stir things up. Palmer takes all this upheaval in Gabe and Molly’s relationship to levels I’d never considered, but that were certainly interesting to ponder (i.e. in general, how do the family and friends of any author feel when details from their actual lives appear in their family member’s / friend’s book?). Great pick if you’re looking for something light, easy, and happy!

So, did Talia steal that little speech from the book? Or did Gabe take it from Talia to insert in his book, attributing it to Dahlia? Or did Gabe put into words something that Talia had felt, and then Talia borrowed Dahlia’s words to describe it back to me? The possibilities spin out like anagrams in my mind, making me dizzy. The more I deliberate, the less of a grip I feel I have on what’s real and true.

Age of LightThe Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Fiction – Historical (Release Date: February 5, 2019)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: Set in 1930’s Paris and inspired by the real-life love affair between former Vogue model and photographer Lee Miller and the artist Man Ray.

My Thoughts: I don’t normally love historical fiction or love stories (and The Age of Light is both), but I loved Scharer’s take on it! Mainly because it’s not just a love story or historical fiction…it could also be called a “badass lady book.” It’s the story of a woman who is defined by the man in her life trying to break out on her own…to be known for her own work. And, I do have an excellent track record with these kinds of historical fiction love stories (ex: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Loving Frank). Scharer immediately immerses you in 1930’s Paris and I was engrossed in the story right from the beginning. Man Ray and Miller have a complicated relationship…he’s her teacher, boss, mentor, lover, and creative partner, but she also teaches him. I appreciated the fight in Lee…her drive to be known for her own work and her gumption at the end of the book. My one complaint is that I always love the Author’s Note in these kinds of books because it usually tells you where the story is historically accurate and where he/she took liberties for the sake of the story…this Author’s Note just contained the usual thank you’s to her team, family, etc. I should also warn you that this one is steamy…if that bothers you. 

The prow of myself, she thinks. Lee doesn’t know – or really care – if she has fully understood what Claude was getting at, but she wants to be how the words made her feel: alone but not lonely, needing no one, living her life with intention.

Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa GrayThe Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: February 19, 2019)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Berkley Books)

Plot Summary: When Althea and her husband (Proctor) are arrested, Althea’s sisters become caretakers for Althea’s two teenage daughters (Kim and Baby Vi).

My Thoughts: This was a tough book…not emotionally tough to read, but tough because my expectations were so high. I peeked at the first 10 pages or so well before actually reading it and was immediately pulled in by the writing. From that glimpse, I was expecting a 5 star book. And, I did end up liking it, but more lukewarmly than a 5 star book. It’s been compared to The Mothers (my review) and An American Marriage (my review)…but, to me, it felt more like The Mothers in style and the An American Marriage comparison is coming from the fact that Proctor and Althea are in prison. It’s a sad portrait of what prison and betrayal does to a family. It’s a quiet book, which I’m okay with since I did really love the writing, but I was waiting the whole time for it to blow me away…and, it never did. Althea is a tough character. I kept thinking she would be more sympathetic, but it never happened. She’s hard to read and I was confused by her; however, there are other likable characters in this story. I did really like the ending, which was more hopeful than the rest of the book, and I loved hearing in the Author’s Note that Gray pulled some elements of the story from her own life (ex: eating disorders and gay marriage). Overall, this one suffered from my inflated expectations, but I still more or less liked it.

How does time heal the want of time, such crucial time, with someone you miss? You learn to get by with a loss like that, but something is always off.

The DNF’s

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCrackenBowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken (February 5, 2019)
DNF at 8%
I just couldn’t get past the language…it felt really old-timey and required more concentration than I felt like devoting.

 

 

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Podcast Episode 1: Georgia Hunter (Mostly Historical Fiction Recommendations)

January 2, 2019 Podcast 4

Georgia Hunter

 

Welcome to the very first episode of the Sarah’s Book Shelves Live podcast!

In this episode, bestselling author of We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia Hunter, joins me to share her (mostly) historical fiction book recommendations, talk about the impact her novel had on her life and her family, and go behind-the-scenes of her recent book tour!

Highlights

  • Georgia’s discovery at age 15 that she was ¼ Jewish and that her grandparents’ were Holocaust survivors…and then, recently discovering that she’s actually ⅓ Jewish.
  • Georgia’s grandparents’ decision to put the past behind them and not talk about their experience in the war.
  • Georgia’s family’s reaction to having huge gaps in their personal histories filled through her research. 
  • Georgia is beginning work on a sophomore novel!
  • What it’s like to blurb another author’s book (and her approach to writing blurbs).
  • An All the Light We Cannot See read-alike.
  • Georgia’s book she didn’t love is one I recommended!
  • Two of Georgia’s historical fiction recommendations are books she blurbed!

Georgia Hunter’s (Mostly) Historical Fiction Recommendations

Two OLD Books She Loves

Two NEW Books She Loves

One Book She Didn’t Love

One Upcoming Release She’s Excited About

Other Books Mentioned

Other Links

About Georgia Hunter

Georgia Hunter, We Were the Lucky OnesAuthor Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to write. I penned my first “novel” when I was four years old, and titled it Charlie Walks the Beast after my father’s recently published sci-fi novel, Softly Walks the Beast. When I was eleven, I pitched an article—an Opinion piece on how I’d spend my last day if the world were about to come to an end—to the local newspaper. Since that debut in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, my personal essays and photos have been featured in places like the New York Times “Why We Travel,” in travelgirl magazine, and on Equitrekking.com. I’ve also taken on the role of freelance copywriter in the world of adventure travel, crafting marketing materials for outfitters such as Austin Adventures and The Explorer’s Passage.

In 2000, a family reunion opened my eyes to the astounding war stories of my grandfather and his family. Eight years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones.

Next Week’s Episode

Special Episode
Winter 2019 New Release Preview with Catherine of Gilmore Guide to Books (airing January 9)

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October 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

October 12, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 18

October 2018 Books to Read

 

My October reading has been stellar! I’ve got a couple successful books to share with you today and stay tuned for my review of one more, A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, on Thursday, October 18.

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Read These

A Well-Behaved WomanA Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
Historical Fiction (Release Date: October 16, 2018)
400 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: To save her family from financial ruin, Alva Smith finagles a marriage to the extremely wealthy, but socially shunned William K. Vanderbilt, but it doesn’t turn out to be everything she’d hoped.

My Thoughts: I absolutely adored Fowler’s 2013 novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (my review)…so, A Well-Behaved Woman had big shoes to fill. While I liked A Well-Behaved Woman, it was a lukewarm like and it didn’t come close to filling Z‘s shoes. Alva is interesting, but not nearly as dynamic a character as Zelda. I liked that Alva was a modern woman in some ways (i.e. her desire to have a hobby beyond social obligations, her belief that husbands shouldn’t be allowed to treat their wives badly, etc) and had a sassy side. I liked the fact that it made me think about class, the working rich vs. the inherited money rich, and women’s roles in society and the household. But, I got tired of all the rules of society and machinations people went through to rise to the top. I just didn’t care all that much and couldn’t understand why they did. Overall, it’s a decent read, but it just didn’t knock my socks off like I expected. 

These men must believe themselves completely beyond reproach! And, well, why wouldn’t they? Wives permit all of it. Because of course if we’re to believe what we read in the Lady’s Book, the True Woman is completely fulfilled by her domestic duties – her home, her children, her charity functions. The True Woman understands that men have needs of a different kind. 

But I don’t believe a word of it. We accept their behavior because of what would happen if we didn’t.

Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French
Fiction – Mystery (Release Date: October 9, 2018)
464 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Viking)

Plot Summary: After lucky golden boy Toby gets beaten in his apartment during a burglary, he goes to Ivy House (his ancestral home) to recover and care for his dying uncle Hugo…but, a skull is found in the trunk of a massive elm tree in the garden.

My Thoughts: The Witch Elm is only my second Tana French (I read The Secret Place years ago) and expectations played a big role in my reading experience this time around. I consider Tana French a “mystery” author, but The Witch Elm doesn’t start out with a “mystery” feel. It’s more of a family drama / mystery hybrid, which I knew was absolutely up my alley once I aligned my expectations. It’s a mystery with a level of complexity and character development generally uncharacteristic of the genre…and that’s a good thing! It’s a slow build but, especially by the quarter mark, I was engrossed in the story. I wanted to find out what happened, but I also wanted to enmesh myself with this flawed family. It’s a story filled with shades of gray…the characters aren’t entirely likable or dislikable, the revelations about the mystery aren’t entirely blame-worthy or understandable, and there is no obvious honorable path to take. I loved these elements and think they’d make for great book club discussion if your club is cool with 500 page books. But, on that note, I do think editors could’ve cut out about a hundred pages or so (specifically, there was a great ending point to this story, but then a couple extra plot points were tacked on…almost like putting a tacky topper on a delicious wedding cake).

I think my luck was built into me, the keystone that cohered my bones, the golden thread that stitched together the secret tapestries of my DNA; I think it was the gem glittering at the fount of me, coloring everything I did and every word I said. And if somehow that has been excised from me, and if in fact I am still here without it, then what am I?

Skip This One

November RoadNovember Road by Lou Berney
Fiction – Historical (Release Date: October 9, 2018)
336 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (William Morrow)

Plot Summary: Frank Guidry, a lieutenant of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello is on the run because he knows too much about JFK’s assassination, and Charlotte, a mother of two girls on the run from her husband and previous life, meet up for a road trip West.

My Thoughts: November Road was my September Book of the Month choice and it appealed to me because I’m pretty much in for anything JFK assassination conspiracy theory-related. However, for a book that was supposed to have a thriller-style plot, it was kind of boring. Once Guidry’s connection to the assassination became clear, I got really intrigued, but the story veered from there to a run-of-the-mill chase across the country. Guidry really could’ve been on the run from pretty much anything and the story would’ve played out the same…the JFK assassination ceased to really drive the story. The pace did pick up at the end, but I didn’t buy some of Guidry’s feelings or decisions. The writing style was gruff…I could hear a bunch of old men more or less grunting at each other through a haze of smoke, using two or three words instead of full sentences. This style fit the story’s plot, but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. Overall, I just didn’t see the point of the book and didn’t particularly care about these characters. If you’re looking for fast-paced fiction about JFK assassination conspiracy theories, try The Bone Tree by Greg Isles (my review) instead.

It was a big, big world. How hard could it be to disappear off the face of it? Oh, so hard if Carlos Marcello was the man searching for you.

The DNF’s

Bitter OrangeBitter Orange by Claire Fuller (October 9, 2018)
DNF at 24%
Sigh…I loved Fuller’s previous two novels, Our Endless Numbered Days (my review) and Swimming Lessons (my review), but this one was sloooow. The writing was too descriptive and focused too much on architecture. I also couldn’t get a good sense of Frances (the main character)…she felt vague and the whole story felt hazy. There was supposed to be simmering tension similar to Tangerine (my review), but I felt absolutely zero tension.

 

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander by Leif Enger (October 2, 2018)
DNF at 18%
When I started reading this story about a small, down-on-its-luck Midwestern town and its residents, I’d get into the story, but then completely forget what I’d read when I picked it up the next day. I kept zoning out and couldn’t keep track of all the characters. But, I also tried to read it right after finishing a 5 star book that absolutely blew me away and I don’t think it was the right choice for that moment.

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Why I Stopped Liking Historical Fiction…and 6 Types of UNCONVENTIONAL Historical Fiction I DO Like

September 20, 2018 Discussions 19

Unconventional Historical Fiction

 

I used to LOVE historical fiction. In fact, just a few years ago, it was one of my favorite genres. But, things have changed over the past couple years. For the past three years, historical fiction as a percentage of my overall reading has decreased every single year (2015: 12%, 2016: 10%, 2017: 5%). And, so far this year, I’ve read only 4 historical fiction novels. I think I’ve gotten bored with historical fiction…and started to view the genre as perfect for my mother’s generation, but not edgy enough for me.

But, it’s not all bad news. I have really loved a few historical fiction novels lately…and they were all atypical of the genre. I’ve figured out that I can enjoy historical fiction these days as long as it’s unconventional historical fiction.

What does unconventional historical fiction mean for me? I’m going to try to unpack that here.

Explore Modern/Still Relevant Themes

Though these books are set in the past, the themes they explore are still top of mind and being discussed today. The examples of this type of historical fiction that I’ve loved explore women’s roles and identities, racism, and sexuality.

Successful Examples: 

Feature Strong Female Characters

I could also call this my badass lady category! And, these ladies’ courage and accomplishments are all the more astounding given they occurred during a time when women weren’t necessarily encouraged to attempt feats of greatness.

Successful Examples: 

Set During A Specific Event I’m Interested In

There are certain events I’m kind of a sucker for. The JFK assassination is one…especially if it involves conspiracy theories. Various disasters are another.

Successful Examples: 

Contain Simmering Tension

You can feel the tension, but it’s a quiet, simmering tension. You know something bad is going to happen, you’re just not sure what it will be or how it will go down.

Successful Examples: 

Based on Real People

There’s something about fiction being based on real people that makes it all the more compelling. While reading these types of books, I’m questioning what details are real every single second. And, I always look forward to the “Afterward” where the author generally outlines what’s true and where he/she took liberties for the sake of the story.

Successful Examples:

Have a Soap Opera Quality

Pure, unadulterated juiciness. 

Successful Examples:

How do you feel about historical fiction? What types of historical fiction work for you? Which types don’t?

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June 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

June 14, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 14

June 2018 Books to Read

 

I’ve gotta say, my June books were excellent overall! Two of these books will definitely be on my Best Books of 2018 (So Far) list (coming soon). And, I managed to DNF the ones that weren’t working rather than force my way through them.

In addition to the June 2018 Books to Read in this post, I reviewed Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton last week. It’s certainly not for everyone, but is a “Read It” for a certain type of reader (i.e. the one who loves dark and demented).

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Read These

Visible EmpireVisible Empire by Hannah Pittard
Historical Fiction (Released June 5, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Plot Summary: Following the 1962 plane crash at Orly Airport that killed over 100 Atlanta art patrons (a massive chunk of the city’s social elite), Atlanta citizens connected to the crash must figure out who to recover amid the Civil Rights Movement.

My Thoughts: I know many people have mixed feelings about fiction based on real life events, but I’m a fan! In Visible Empire, the Orly plane crash is the big event that ties lots of disparate people and perspectives together (and the opening chapters recounting the crash are riveting). The overall book is more a portrait of Atlanta in the 1960’s from all these different perspectives (the Mayor’s wife, family of the crash victims, an African American teenager that has a chance encounter with a member of Atlanta’s elite, and an ambitious young woman) than about the plane crash itself. Pittard gives us a somewhat gossipy take on the crash’s impact on Atlanta’s elite and those who come in contact with them…and her social commentary is excellent. I felt like this would be the book that Dominick Dunne (former Vanity Fair columnist and author of “fictional” novels about real life crimes involving the wealthy) could have written about the crash…and it reminded me of a less epic A Man in Full (by Tom Wolfe). But, I did miss the Afterward that normally accompanies these types of books that lays out where the author stayed true to real life and where she took liberties for the sake of the story.

Don’t you understand, Lulu? The world – not just the governor, not just the president – the world is watching. Right now, I am being watched. You and I and our dear, dear city are being watched. Do you understand? They want to know if we’ll ever stand up again. They want to know if this is the beginning of a spiral into the ground, or if we’ve got fight and life in us yet.

We Are GatheredWe Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman
Fiction – Literary (Released June 5, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Plot Summary: The story of an inter-faith wedding (between Jewish Elizabeth and Christian Hank), told from the perspectives of various wedding guests (mother of the bride, grandfather of the groom, childhood best friend of the bride, etc).

My Thoughts: The publisher says We Are Gathered is a debut novel, but I think it reads more like a series of closely interconnected short stories (similar to Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible). Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different wedding guest, but much of the book is the each guest’s backstory with a smaller portion focused on the wedding itself. Before reading it, I thought We Were Gathered would be a light, fun read and a potential candidate for my 2018 Summer Reading Guide. It was immediately clear I’d judged wrong because many of the characters’ backstories are dark and sad and the overall tone is subdued. These people have demons and some are dealing with big challenges. There’s the childhood friend of the bride with a birthmark that covers half her face, the grandfather of the groom who can’t move or speak but whose mind is works just fine, yet no one knows it…and more. Despite it being different than expected, I liked We Were Gathered‘s unique perspectives and the astute life observations. But, the ending focused on two of the characters I was least interested in and was somewhat odd compared to the rest of the book. I’d recommend We Were Gathered if you like quieter books with life observations from interesting perspectives…and don’t mind depressing.

I was twenty-one years old; she was seventeen. We were children. I know that now, but that’s how old people were when they got married. Elizabeth is twenty-eight. She would have been considered an old maid. No one told us that marriage would be hard. There were no therapists or counselors. You got married, maybe for love, for lust, for comfort, because it was time and you didn’t want to die alone. You had children. You didn’t think about what you wanted.

Us Against YouUs Against You by Fredrick Backman
Fiction – Literary (Released June 5, 2018)
448 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books)

Plot Summary: Amid the wreckage of the previous winter, Beartown residents face their beloved ice hockey team being disbanded and a volatile rivalry with nearby Hed Hockey.

My Thoughts: Let me start by saying that Us Against You is the sequel to last year’s Beartown (one of my favorites of 2017) and I highly recommend you read Beartown before reading Us Against You. The minute I picked up Us Against You, I breathed a sigh of relief to be back among these people in this town. Like in Beartown, Backman masterfully plunks the reader right into the center of things and makes him/her feel deeply for these characters and the town. But this time around, Beartown has lost its innocence. The story is even darker, more sinister, and more focused on the adults and the politics of sports (a very real thing). The town is reeling amid the wreckage of what happened in Beartown (the book) and trying to find its way forward. Like in Beartown, the story is about far more than hockey…friendship, rivalry, marriage, parenting, power, sexuality, and violence. Backman captures general human nature and its basest elements beautifully. While I didn’t love Us Against You quite as much as Beartown, I was still completely engrossed in the emotion of sports, which Backman captures better than anything save Friday Night Lights (and if you’re missing FNL, these are the books for you!).

Side Note: I thought this series was supposed to be a trilogy and Us Against You did feel like a “bridge book” right up until the end. But, the ending made me question whether a third book is on the way. I couldn’t find anything online confirming the third book. Does anyone have any answers?

Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie, the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating each other is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else.

Great BelieversThe Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: June 19, 2018)
432 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Viking)

Plot Summary: A group of gay friends and their female friend (Fiona) navigate the AIDS crisis and deal with the death of one of their own in 1980’s Chicago…and decades later, Fiona sets out to Paris to find her estranged daughter and encounters the past in the process.

My Thoughts: The Great Believers is one of those “issue” book that makes the issue an organic part of the characters’ lives…and these are the types of “issue” books that work for me. It’s ultimately a gorgeous story about friendship in the face of disaster and is the kind of book you can just sink into. It’s got a little bit of The Heart’s Invisible Furies (sexuality, the AIDS crisis, characters you can root for wholeheartedly) and a little bit of A Little Life (a group of male friends facing terrible circumstances, but without the overwhelming violence), but retains its own uniqueness. These characters worked their way into my heart, even as it was breaking for them. Makkai’s writing wasn’t the kind that had me highlighting right and left…it was more the kind that just pulled me right into the story. And, the dual timelines come together in a surprising and satisfying way. This book has heart…and it’s seriously literary, but will still keep you turning the pages because you just have to find out what’s going to happen to these characters.

And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone’s life. Making room for someone in yours.

Skip These

Florida by Lauren GroffFlorida by Lauren Groff (Released June 5, 2018)
DNF at 17%

Short stories are always hit and miss for me, so I hesitantly picked up this collection (mostly because I liked Fates & Furies). I wasn’t a fan of the first story, did like the second, but the third totally lost me. From the bit I read, this collection seemed like a very dark, depressing take on life in Florida.

 

 

A Place for UsA Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (June 12, 2018)
DNF at 29%.

I had high hopes for this novel because of its rave reviews and I liked it alright, but I just kept waiting for something to happen. I read the 3 star Goodreads reviews and the main complaint was the novel didn’t have much of a plot. So, I figured things weren’t going to pick up. For a novel like this to work for me, the writing has to sparkle and I thought this writing was just average.

 

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

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Backlist Beauties: The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

October 10, 2017 Book Lists 21

Since my Fall reading has been so lackluster, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the best backlist books I’ve read in 2017 so far. When new releases aren’t working for you…dive into the backlist for some relief!

I always say I’m going to make more time for backlist titles and, every year, I don’t follow through. My goal is to read enough additional backlist titles by the end of the year to warrant another Backlist Beauties post!

This post contains affiliate links.

The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

Books for Living by Will SchwalbeBooks for Living by Will Schwalbe
Nonfiction – Essays (Released December 27, 2016)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: The author of The End of Your Life Book Club‘s collection of essays featuring individual books and how they impacted his life.

My Thoughts: Each chapter of this introspective collection focuses on one book and how it impacted and contributed to Schwalbe’s life. He covers classics (Stuart Little), nonfiction (The Importance Of Living), serious books (A Little Life), and lighter fare (The Girl on the Train). I certainly hadn’t read all the books he discusses, but I related to many of his points about life. And, I’m now in the process of reading a couple books Schwalbe talked about in Books for Living (What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott). This book would be a fantastic gift for serious readers or someone who is reflecting a bit on life. 

Reading is a respite from the relentlessness of technology, but it’s not only that. It’s how I reset and recharge. It’s how I escape, but it’s also how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement.

Dark Matter by Blake CrouchDark Matter by Blake Crouch
Fiction – Thriller / Sci-Fi (Released July 26, 2016)
354 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Crown)

Plot Summary: After college physics professor Jason Dessen is abducted at gunpoint one night, he awakens in another world.

My Thoughts: Despite the hype, I avoided this book for quite awhile because I’m decidedly NOT into sci-fi. But, Dark Matter is sci-fi like The Martian (my review) is sci-fi (i.e. it has broad appeal). There’s definitely some science in it, but the story is deeply human and is more about life choices than the science. The story begins with a “WTF is going on here” vibe reminiscent of The Beautiful Bureaucrat (my review). I had no idea what was going on for awhile, but could not stop reading. Dark Matter is a page-turner in the purest sense…with an action-level on par with an episode of 24

No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it. No time to flinch or brace.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam HaslettImagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Fiction (Released May 3, 2016)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A multi-generational family saga of the impact of depression and mental illness on a family.

My Thoughts: Incredibly sad, but poignant, this 2016 National Book Award Long-Lister is beautifully written and captures the frustration, resentment, and crushing sense of responsibility and worry that come with having a family member who suffers from mental illness. While extended sections from Michael’s perspective are hard to read and nonsensical at times with long tangents on esoteric music, they serve a distinct purpose (allowing the reader inside mind of someone suffering from depression). And, the second half flows beautifully toward the inevitable, yet still drama-filled conclusion.

There is no getting better. There is love I cannot bear, which has kept me from drifting entirely loose. There are the medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.

Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake by Anna QuindlenLots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released April 24, 2012)
182 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: A combination memoir/essay collection covering marriage, girlfriends, motherhood, faith, loss, work, and much more!

My Thoughts: Listening to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake was like seeing a therapist and falls into the same category as Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. Quindlen just has such a grounded, practical outlook on life that really puts things in perspective for me. Highly recommend for anyone craving a “life wisdom” type read!

Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward: We are good parents, not so they will be loving enough to stay with us, but so they will be strong enough to leave us.

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftMothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Historical Fiction (Released April 26, 2016)
177 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Knopf)

Plot Summary: While the staff of British estates has time off for Mothering Sunday of 1924 (a Protestant and Catholic religious holiday that was somewhat of a precursor to our current secular Mother’s Day), Jane (a maid) and Paul (an heir to the neighboring estate) meet to continue their illicit affair.

My Thoughts: Mothering Sunday is a technically a romance, but is so unconventional that I hesitate to call it a romance at all (maybe also because I’m not a romance fan). It’s a quiet, gorgeously written story about the evolution of a woman (Jane) from the Mothering Sunday tryst with her illicit lover to late in her life. The story is unique, yet not weird and I could say the same about Swift’s writing style. Mothering Sunday reminded me a bit of Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon (my review) and would be an excellent choice for fans of Downton Abbey.

It was called “relaxation,” she thought, a word that did not commonly enter a maid’s vocabulary. She had many words, by now, that did not enter a maid’s vocabulary. Even the word “vocabulary.” She gathered them up like one of those nest-building birds outside. And was she even a maid any more, stretched here on his bed? And was he even a “master”? It was the magic, the perfect politics of nakedness. More than relaxation: peace.

One True Thing by Anna QuindlenOne True Thing by Anna Quindlen
Fiction (August 30, 1994)
315 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: Ellen Gulden returns home from her prestigious job as a New York City journalist to care for her mother as she’s dying of cancer…only to be accused her mercy killing.

My Thoughts: I’m a bit late to the Anna Quindlen party, but she’s fast becoming a go-to author for me whenever I’m craving some “life lessons/perspective” in my reading. She just gets life…especially marriage, motherhood, and women’s work/life balance. One True Thing explores the relationship between Ellen (an ambitious career woman) and her mother (a Stepford-style stay-at-home mother) and their efforts to understand each other as people before it’s too late. This novel is heartfelt, sad, moving, and thought-provoking and reminded me a bit of My Name is Lucy Barton (a novel about a mother and daughter getting to know each other during a hospital stay) and Home is Burning (a memoir about children serving as caregivers for their parents). 

But in the end what was important was not that we had so misunderstood one another, but that we had so misunderstood her, this woman who had made us who we were while we barely noticed it.

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We Were the Lucky Ones: Q&A with Author Georgia Hunter

February 14, 2017 Historical Fiction 22

We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia HunterHistorical Fiction
Released February 14, 2017
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Author (Publisher: Viking)

I’m thrilled to welcome debut novelist, researcher, and friend, Georgia Hunter, to the blog today! We Were the Lucky Ones has been getting fantastic advance buzz from Publisher’s Weekly, Audible, Penguin Random House, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour Magazine and I loved it as well!

This post contains affiliate links.

My Thoughts about We Were the Lucky Ones

World War II “annihilated over 90% of Poland’s Jews and […] all but about 300 of the 30,000 Jews from Radom,” Georgia Hunter’s ancestors’ home. Yet, her entire family survived. We Were the Lucky Ones is based on the story of how they did it.

The Kurc family’s experience during World War II, beginning in Poland and stretching to Siberia, Italy, and Brazil is nothing short of a harrowing odyssey, the outcome of which defies statistics, explanation, and imagination. Despite the many horrific details of their experience, this is a story of hope, inspiration, and true grit.

I’ve historically had a tendency to get bogged down in World War II books, but I never felt that way while reading We Were the Lucky Ones. Hunter did a masterful job at keeping the story moving along, making it feel like a “quick read” in a page-turning sense, even though it’s not a short or light book. Rather than the war itself, the story is more about what life was like during the war for a Polish Jewish family and Hunter’s caring attention to detail made the backdrop come alive. We Were the Lucky Ones would be a fantastic choice for anyone who enjoyed The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

PS – I always love Author’s Notes section in historical fiction…and this one is not to be missed!

Q&A with Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones is based on your family’s real-life experience during WWII and you used their real names in the book. What made you decide to make the book fiction?

When I began writing We Were the Lucky Ones, I didn’t have a sense of what the finished product would look like – my goal was simply to convey the story in a way that did my family justice, and that felt less like a history lesson, and more like a novel: visceral and immersive. I wanted readers to understand, through the eyes of the Kurcs, what it meant to be Jewish and on the run during the Second World War.

I thought hard about penning the book as non-fiction, as each of my storylines is based on facts uncovered in oral histories or through outside research. (I did change a couple of names, but only for the sake of clarity.) I realized in early drafts, however, that I’d stuck so closely to what I’d been told in my interviews that my characters came across as a touch too perfect (most of my relatives were depicted to me – rightfully so – as heroes). The Kurcs were courageous, resilient, and ingenious, yes. But they were also human. They were falling in love (even making babies!), and they must have also been confused and angry and at times racked with fear.

And so, I decided in the end to write the book as fiction, in the present tense, allowing myself the creative license to dive deep into my characters’ psyches, imagining to the best of my ability what was running through the Kurcs’ hearts and minds. It’s my hope that in doing so, I was able to bring the story even closer to the truth.

Tell us a little bit about your research and writing. How long did you spend researching the Kurc family story and how long did you spend doing the actual writing?

I began researching my book nine years ago when I set off with a digital voice recorder and an empty notebook to interview a relative in Paris. From there I flew to Rio de Janeiro and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends – anyone with a story to share. My family’s narrative took shape, at first, in the form of a timeline, which I peppered with historical details and color-coded by relative to help keep track of who was where/when.

Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources – to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information.

I began actually writing my book in bits and pieces, and probably sooner than I should have! I’d come home from an interview so excited about a story I’d been told that I’d write it down and save it. By the time I put some serious thought into how the book should unfold, I had dozens of one-off scenes already crafted. Each would make it into the book eventually, but my most productive writing came when I sat down in 2011 to plot an outline and chapter summaries.

Your research involved extensive global travel. What was the most impactful destination you visited?

Great question! Of all of the places I visited in South America and in Europe, I’d have to say my trip to Radom, the city in central Poland where my grandfather was raised, was the most moving. 

My husband and I explored Radom with a guide, a young man named Jakub whom I’d contacted through the city’s Culture Center. Jakub showed us the old Jewish cemetery, which I was shocked to learn was still being restored, as the tombstones had been repurposed by the Nazis for a military airport runway. We visited the apartment building where my family lived, and I got chills running my fingers along a rusted mezuzah still adhered to the cement arched entranceway (only one of two remaining mezuzahs in the entire city, Jakub said).

I left Radom understanding why my great-grandparents had felt at home raising a family there – the city was quaint, livable; I appreciated its understated, small-town vibe. But I couldn’t help but also feel the presence of the 30,000 Jews who had once inhabited the city (a community that was reduced to fewer than 300 by war’s end), who had enjoyed it for what it was before their worlds were shattered.

Reading some of the more gruesome details hit me more than usual knowing they actually happened to a friend’s family. What was it like to learn some of the more horrific things your family went through?

It was tough, as it meant trying to put myself in my relatives’ shoes, imagining what it must have been like to experience the things they did (talk about putting my own “problems” in perspective!). It was also hard because the stories I uncovered in my interviews (e.g., what it was like to lose a sister, or to run through the streets of Warsaw during an uprising, or to give birth to a child in the thick of a Siberian winter) were conveyed with stoicism, the gruesome details glossed over. Even in the first-hand Shoah interviews I had access to, I was amazed at the matter-of-fact manner in which the Kurcs relayed their wartime experiences. It took a great deal of research to capture these stories on paper in a way that felt accurate to what my relatives might have been thinking/feeling at the time.

What was the most mind-blowing thing you learned about your family during the course of your research?

One of the pieces of my family’s narrative that felt the fuzziest going into my research concerned my great-uncle Genek (my grandfather’s older brother). I knew through interviews with his children that Genek had been sent to Siberia, and had ended up fighting for the Allies in the Battle of Monte Casino…but that was it – I had no idea when or why he’d been sent to Siberia, when or why he’d been released, or how he eventually ended up in uniform on Italian soil.

Through the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I discovered a nine-page, hand-written account of Genek’s, which answered all of these questions, and then some. I was also able, through the Ministry of Defense in the U.K., to track down Genek’s detailed military records, including Medals of Honor he’d never collected. It was a real joy to hand over these discoveries to Genek’s sons.

How has your family reacted to the book?

Thankfully, those who have read an early copy of the book have loved it! I can’t tell you how great that feels. Getting feedback from the family, hearing how much the book has taught them or moved them, has been the most uplifting and gratifying feeling in the world.

What’s the best book you read in 2016?

Hmm…it would have to be a toss up between Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun or Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things (which were released before 2016, but I read them last year and adored them both).

And, your top 3 all-time favorites? I know this is a ridiculously hard question to answer! 

Yes, nearly impossible to answer! I will say, however, that the three books I recommend the most to friends are:

City of Thieves by David Benioff (a WWII survival account based on stories passed down by Benioff’s grandfather – the book unfolds like a film and was an early inspiration for my own novel)

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (a Y/A novel about a young 5th grade boy with a facial deformity, struggling to fit in)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (insightful, funny, and provocative, for writers and non-writers alike)

What’s the best WWII book you’ve ever read (other than your own, of course)?

Another tough one! But if I had to pick, the one at the very top of my WWII list would be Julie Orringer’s historical novel, The Invisible Bridge. The book is nearly 800 pages long – and for that very reason it took me a while to pick it up – but when I did, I grew so consumed with the fates of Orringer’s characters, and so lost in her gorgeous prose, that I couldn’t put it down.

I see many similarities between Orringer’s protagonist, Andras (who is based on her grandfather), and Addy, my own grandfather, who were both young Jews living in Paris, separated from their families at the start of the Second World War. 

Finally…are you doing any writing now and do you have plans for a second book?

Most of my recent writing has been devoted to interviews and essays in preparation for the launch of We Were the Lucky Ones (Viking is keeping me busy!), so I haven’t had much time to think about book #2. That said I’ve got a running list of ideas that I’ll flush out when the time comes. I’m inspired (as you may have gathered) by stories based on truth, and I love an underdog protagonist – someone faced with terrible odds, whom you can really cheer for, and whose story offers a big-picture understanding of a place or time with which you might be unfamiliar. I just saw the film Lion and left the theater teary-eyed and thinking WOW – now that’s exactly the kind of story I want to write about next.

About Georgia Hunter

Georgia Hunter, We Were the Lucky OnesFor as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to write. I penned my first “novel” when I was four years old, and titled it Charlie Walks the Beast after my father’s recently published sci-fi novel, Softly Walks the Beast. When I was eleven, I pitched an article—an Opinion piece on how I’d spend my last day if the world were about to come to an end—to the local newspaper. Since that debut in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, my personal essays and photos have been featured in places like the New York Times “Why We Travel,” in travelgirl magazine, and on Equitrekking.com. I’ve also taken on the role of freelance copywriter in the world of adventure travel, crafting marketing materials for outfitters such as Austin Adventures and The Explorer’s Passage.

In 2000, a family reunion opened my eyes to the astounding war stories of my grandfather and his family. Eight years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones.

I kept a blog as my research unfolded, which you are welcome to peruse. I’ve also created a list of ancestry search tips, should you consider embarking on a journey to uncover your own roots.

Learn more about Hunter on her Author Website, FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Purchase We Were the Lucky Ones from Amazon (affiliate link)!

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