Last July I did a review of the most memorable books I had read over the previous year – see A Reading Sabbatical. I intended to do a quarterly review going forward, but other blog topics beckoned. Since we’ve nothing much to do this time of year when we’re shut by the weather, here’s a summary of the (mostly) wonderful books I’ve read since. Hopefully there will be something to tempt you to escape to another world for awhile….
Golden Girl – Elin Hilderbrand. The protagonist, author of 13 beach novels and mother of three almost grown children is killed in a hit and run car accident while jogging near her home on Nantucket. She ascends to the afterlife where she meets her guardian angel who allows her to watch what happens for one last summer. She is granted three nudges to change the outcomes of events on earth but with her kids lives full of turmoil must decide when to use them.
I can’t recall any other book where the protagonist was killed in the first chapter, so this was a unique twist on her usual drama-filled beach read. This was intended to the author’s last novel, and seems somewhat semi-autobiographical, considering her bout with breast cancer five years ago. For a swan song, it was a surprisingly good read, although being Elin Hilderbrand not without its annoying immature characters. I wonder what she’ll do next?
Hostage – Clare MacIntosh – You can save hundreds of lives – or the one that matters most. A claustrophobic thriller set on a twenty hour plane flight from London to Australia. The protagonist, a flight attendant with a five-year old daughter and a fracturing marriage back home, is handed a note by a hijacker, who knows exactly how to make her comply. The anonymous skyjacker is part of a radical climate change group, and there is more than one of them seated among the passengers.
If you can get past the premise that post 911, any flight attendant would ever allow anyone into the pilot’s cabin, then this was a very suspenseful read, and well done. Clare MacIntosh at her best. It seems like all my favorite suspense writers had excellent books out last year. Perhaps one blessing of the pandemic was more time to write.
The Rose Code – Kate Quinn A tale about the intertwined lives of three women codebreakers during WW2 and what destroyed their friendship.
I honestly don’t remember much about this book, other than it was a good read. There seem to be so many of these historical fiction books about WW2 lately that it’s hard to keep them all straight.
The Maidens – Alex Michaelides A therapist becomes fixated on The Maidens, a secret society of female students at Cambridge associated with a handsome and charismatic professor of Greek Tragedy, after one of the members, a friend of her niece, is found murdered.
The author’s first psychological thriller, The Silent Patient, was so successful (number one on the 2019 Goodreads mystery and thriller list), that it would be a hard act to follow, which he acknowledges in the notes. This one also involves a therapist, and the author himself went to Cambridge, so perhaps he was writing about what he knows, but while I found it suspenseful, I didn’t find it nearly as good. The whole idea of a secret sorority with slavish devotion to a professor seems like a throwback to the fifties, but then I’ve never been to Cambridge.
A Slow Fire Burning – Paula Hawkins. Psychological thriller about a young man found murdered on a London houseboat, and the three women who knew and resented him. Laura, the troubled one-night stand last seen on his boat, Carla his grief-stricken aunt, already mourning the death of another family member, and Miriam the nosy eccentric neighbour who lives on an adjacent houseboat.
Paula Hawkins wrote The Girl on the Train, and seems to specialize in damaged characters or misfits, but the character of Laura was so well done, you found yourself cheering for her. It was interesting to read the point of view of someone normally shunned by society. An excellent read with a satisfying ending, this was rated number one in the Goodreads Mystery category for 2021.
L.M. Montgomery – The Gift of Wings – Mary Henley Rubio The definite biography of L.M. Montgomery, by the esteemed author who edited her five published journals and had extensive access to papers and interviews never published before, including with LM Montgomery’s son.
I blogged about the life of L.M. Montgomery back in May (see link), and having read several biographies over the years thought I knew a lot about her, but I found this book absolutely fascinating, especially from a psychological point of view, as Maud was a very complex woman. The depth of research in it was amazing, but then she knew her subject well from decades of study. It’s a 2008 publication, so I had to order it from the library, but it was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year.
The Other Passenger – Louise Candlish Jaime, an older well-off male protagonist meets a group of fellow (“river rats”) passengers during his daily commute on a Thames riverboat in downtown London, including Kit a young hip debt-ridden twenty something, and they go for Christmas drinks. The next time he takes the ferry the police meet him when he disembarks – Kit has been reported missing by his wife Melia and he was the last person to be seen with him…arguing.
Wow, this certainly had a lot of twists and turns. So well done, which just goes to show you can tell a riveting story about the most dislikeable and unrelatable of characters. The dedication at the front of the book said “For all those who think they want more” or words to that effect. This was my first read with this award-winning British mystery author, and I was impressed.
The Four Winds – Kristen Hannah Historical fiction novel set in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, with a strong female protagonist who after being abandoned by her husband, goes west with her children in search of a better life.
This was interesting read, but although it’s been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not Steinbeck. Kristen Hannah wrote The Nightingale (2000), a novel about fleeing Paris during WW2, but I didn’t find this one quite as good, although she is excellent at describing the plight of refugees, and it is a forgotten historical period, one I knew little about. I absolutely hated the ending, although I concede it was probably necessary.
The Comfort Book – Matt Haig A slim collection of one-per-page notes, quotes and observations that serve as gentle reminders that life is not all gloom and doom.
I sometimes enjoy a Philosophy-Lite book, and while I liked his novel, The Midnight Library, I was never able to get into any of his other non-fiction essay type books, most of which deal with depression. Some of the quotes were memorable, and I thought I might write them down, but now I’ve forgotten them.
Not a Happy Family – Shari Lapena When a wealthy couple is murdered the day after a contentious Easter dinner with their three estranged children, they stand to inherit the family fortune, unless one of them is responsible for the murder.
Well, the title says it all. Shari Lapena is one of my favorite murder mystery writers, and I look forward to her annual offering. This was good and certainly well done, but we’ve become so accustomed to unexpected twists at the end, that when there isn’t one, it’s feels somewhat disappointing.
The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell A teenage mother leaves her baby with her mother while she goes out for the evening with friends, and never returns. She was last seen going to a party at a mansion in the woods. A cold case, an abandoned mansion and the kind of dysfunctional family Lisa Jewell does so well.
Lisa Jewell is another of my favorite mystery authors and she’s really outdone herself in this latest one.
World War C – Sanjay Gupta Lessons from the COVID Pandemic.
I debated not reading this, as aren’t we all sick of hearing about the pandemic, but it was quite interesting, but then I like a good science book. His style is immensely readable, and I picked up some facts about the coronavirus I was unaware of. 25% of all mammals in the world are bats, and they tend to have immunity to coronaviruses. Since the book went to press in the summer, it’s already out of date, but still a worthwhile read.
The First Survivors of Alzheimer’s – edited by Dale E. Bredesen MD Seven patients talk about how they recovered life and hope in their own words.
I saw this on the shelf at the library and was curious, especially since I had read Sanjay Gupta’s book about building a better brain and the preventative changes we can make in middle age. It’s edited by a physician who has developed a certain treatment regimen. The patients were in the self-reported early stages of mild cognitive decline. While the patient’s stories were interesting, they never really explained what the regimen involved. I guess you have to buy his first two books for that. After I got to patient seven who was gulping down 40 pills a day, I lost interest. Not recommended at all.
Taste – My Life Through Food – Stanley Tucci Food memoir by the actor Stanley Tucci.
I loved this book and blogged about it in November. (see link) This was my favorite non-fiction read of the year, and you feel like you’ve found a new friend when you’re done.
The Bookseller’s Secret – Michelle Gable – A Novel of WW2 and the Mitford sisters
I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it. Another historical WW2 novel involving a modern-day journalist and a forgotten manuscript but as I don’t care about the Mitford sisters I never got past the first few pages.
Wintering – Katherine May – a book of personnel essays about wintering the difficult periods of our lives.
Blogged about it – (see link) – loved it – such wonderful writing. Hope we hear more from this British author.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos – Dominic Smith A novel about art and forgery, spanning three continents and three time periods. A rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, is on a collision course between the inheritor of the work in 1950’s Manhattan and the celebrated art historian in Sydney who painted a forgery of it in her youth.
I would like to know more about the art world and thought this was a good premise for a novel. A good read, nice writing. A prize-winning author, but it’s the first book of his I’ve read.
The Last Thing He Told Me – Laura Dave Wife is handed a note – Protect Her. Mystery about a man living a lie and his new wife and 16-year-old daughter who band together to discover what happened after he suddenly disappears.
This was a selection of my book club and a Reese Witherspoon pick as well. Very well done for one of those how well do you really know your spouse genre mysteries. A satisfying ending.
Wish You Were Here – Jodi Picoult Thirty something art specialist who has her life all mapped out, travels to the Galapagos Islands alone when her surgical resident boyfriend must stay behind in New York to deal with the early days of the COVID crisis (2020), and then starts to re-evaluate her life, job and relationships.
She’s one of my favorite authors, but I’ve barely recovered from her previous disaster The Book of Two Ways – that 400-page tome about death doulas/Egyptian mythology/archeology digs/AI/old boyfriends/parallel universe with the totally ambiguous ending.
First of all, I hate a dumb protagonist. If an island is closed and they tell you to go home, don’t act like a rich entitled tourist and stay and then gripe about it. I was so irritated by the main character and the whole premise that I was going to abandon it, because of course she meets someone on the island, and there are some truly laughable love scenes……but then……around page 190…..it all changes. What a brilliant piece of trickery! So, my advice would be to stick it out, although after the “sudden revelation,” I did guess the ending. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s gotten her groove back, but it’s close. I just hope she doesn’t start writing romance novels because love scenes are not her forte.
One word of caution though – do not, repeat, do not read this in the ER dept as I did, (for a non-COVID issue), and also if you have lost someone to COVID or are paranoid of catching it then best to skip it altogether. Her boyfriend’s texts/emails contain way too much ICU detail, and aren’t we all sick of the pandemic anyway – do we really want to read about it, even in a novel?
So curl up with a cat and a cup of tea, and a good book! I hope this wasn’t too long, but for book lovers can there ever be too many books to check out?