Saturday, November 28, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015

The Year of the "Tied for #X Place" Books

Despite the fact that there are two books published in 2015 that I haven't even begun to read (Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter, and Therese Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy), being dyslexic, and considering the length of my present reading list, I have my doubts I'll be able to finish either before the year finishes. Because of this, I've decided that I'm going to give you my top five fiction books of 2015 a little early.

While last year a slew of curmudgeons dominated my list, this year seems to be much more eclectic. However, the glut of excellent books made is especially hard to pick only one title for each of my top five slots, hence the year of the "tied for #X place" book list for 2015 with the following countdown (which is also my 200th post to this blog).

5. The Sunken Cathedral: A Novel by Kate Walbert and The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Both of these two novels are innovative and unusual, but equally as compelling. These come together because of their particularly interesting concepts. With Walbert's novel, the use of impressionism in her writing was what impressed me the most. Karlsson, on the other hand, uses very plain language to investigate what seems to be a type of mental illness.

4. It's. Nice. Outside. by Jim Kokoris

This book takes on a subject that most authors have ignored - dealing with a young adult learning-disabled autistic son. That's one that (as far as I know), even Jodi Picoult hasn't tackled, and that's her loss. Good thing too, because this book isn't the least bit sensationalist, nor is it sentimental. Furthermore, it packs a punch with a level of literary flair combined with simple language that makes every page sing. My only worry is that someone will want to make this into a movie that won't do the book nearly the justice it deserves.

3. Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

This genre fascinates me - historical fiction spotlighting unknown or lesser-known women who played important parts in the lives of well-known men. In this case, we learn about the sculptor Camille Claudel, a talent in her own right, who studied with August Rodin, and with whom she had an affair. Webb brings Camille into beautiful focus, showing us both her genius and her flaws, and how those two elements led to a tragic life, partially because she lived in an era when women in the arts were woefully under-appreciated. (Despite the fact that I read this book in 2014, it wasn't published until 2015 so it deserves to be on this list.)

2. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood and Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Say what you will about these two authors, but the thing that unites them is their ability to use just the precise level of satire in their genres to express their political opinions. Atwood's novel takes on the dilemma of the growing economic gap, and speculates what kind of solution the 1% might decide to employ to solve that problem. Rushdie, on the other hand takes fantasy and magical realism to debate the growing polarization between those driven by blind faith in their religion and those who abandon religion in the face of logic, science and reason. Together these two books hit on the most sensitive nerves of today's world.

1. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler and My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman

Okay, so maybe this was obvious from my reviews of these two books, but yes, these two are certainly my favorite books of 2015. The absolute and pure enjoyment I felt while reading these two novels is precisely the reason why I read in the first place. I loved these books so dearly, I cannot stop recommending them to everyone I meet. What more can I say besides "read them, please," because if you do, you won't regret it? 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Merchant Prince's Woman

What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age by Renee Rosen

One of the first jobs I ever held was as a salesperson for Marshall Field & Co., in their Evanston branch (just north of Chicago). At the time, all new employees had to undergo three days of training in their flagship State Street branch. I was no stranger to that store. I spent many happy hours wandering around its luxurious interior, looking at things I couldn't afford to buy, and even standing outside in the cold to see their incredible Christmas window displays. Marshall Field's was part of my history, part of the history of Chicago, and a huge chunk of the retail store industry's history. Where I grew up, everyone knew that, respected it and it made us proud*. That's why I knew that a historical fiction novel about this particular woman behind this particular empire-building man was exactly my kind of story.

The novel begins with the Great Chicago Fire, and how Delia meets Marshall for the first time, and from there we follow the two and their paths - both separate and together - until Marshall's death. It is, of course, a love story, but one filled with quite a few hardships. To begin with, Marshall Field was married to Nannie Douglas Scott, and two of their children reached adulthood. Dalia Spencer was married to Arthur Caton. After the deaths of Arthur and Nannie, Marshall married Dalia - his "long-time friend," as the papers called them, despite the rumors about an affair between them, which certainly caused a scandal in their day.

On the side of commerce, the Chicago Fire wasn't the only disaster that befell both the city and Field's business. These included another major fire, a financial panic that lead to a depression and the rise of the labor unions, which Field opposed. Put these two together, with a heavy dose of conjecture, and that's just the perfect recipe for a rip-roaring historical fiction romance novel, which is exactly what Rosen gives us.

With all that information available, Rosen needed to make sure she didn't include too much history and not enough fiction. Thankfully, Rosen shows she knows her stuff, carefully treading that fine line like a professional tightrope walker. That means that Rosen had to put the love affair at the very heart of this story, and then weave everything else around that, even at the expense of some facts going astray. As necessary as this focus is, there was one small section where I think she got a touch carried away with the romance part, which I feel could have been left out of the final version. That said, I did like her idea about how she solved the problem of Nellie Field being suspiciously absent, while Marshall, Delia and Arthur were constantly seen together hobnobbing around Chicago's high society.

Rosen achieves all of this with a very simple prose style, which has enough touches of formal language to give us a feel for the era, without sounding archaic. Furthermore, she builds Delia's character with precision so that we cannot help but empathize with her. This also helps us believe how both Arthur and Marshall would fall in love with her. Despite how Rosen shows Marshall's harsher side, in his relationship with Delia he is both charming and endearing, which of course, is exactly why Nellie loved him as well. This leaves Nellie to be the prime antagonist in the story, and Rosen has her play that part with all her might.

All told, this book is simply a joy to read from beginning to end. Rosen's style is engaging and era appropriate with elements that made this almost into a page-turner mystery novel. The only small problem was the part of the story that bordered on being too romantic for my taste, but otherwise this novel is hard to fault. Despite my already knowing many of the facts behind this story, I found some non-fictional things that I didn't know anything about, together with some very enjoyable fictional additions. For all of this, I can warmly recommend this novel with four and a half out of five stars.

(*This is why many Chicagoans - myself included - boycott Macy's, because they refused to leave the name "Marshall Field & Co." up on that the State Street building when they bought them out.)

"What the Lady Wants" by Renee Rosen is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), from an IndieBound store near you as well as new or used from Alibris.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A well-punctuated road-trip

It's. Nice. Outside. by Jim Kokoris

John Nichols isn't doing very well. He's 50-something, divorced and unhappy with his job, so with his two daughters no longer at home, his whole life surrounds his 19-year-old autistic and mentally disabled son, Ethan. What's more, as much as John loves his son, it's getting harder to handle him. Aside from that, John's feeling like the life he dreamed of having may slip away forever, unless he does something about it soon. Now he's driving with Ethan from Illinois to his daughter Karen's wedding in South Carolina, with a secret plan that will change everything.

Excuse me for playing the "literary comparison" game, but I'm surprised that no one else has called this something like "Mark Haddon meets Fanny Flagg" by now. Actually, that's not far from being accurate, to tell the truth. Of course, the Haddon comparison comes with any book that has even one character with any kind of autism spectrum syndrome, but there's no avoiding that. The Fanny Flagg part is another thing altogether, and what I mean by this is the type of wit and humor she brings to her writing, particularly when the subject matter could have been very heavy. With this book, Kokoris combines exactly these two elements - a serious subject, and a heavy dose of humor.

Sure, this is nothing new, but what makes this novel special is how Kokoris leads us through the story with varying levels of frustration and satisfaction. Of course, some of this comes from Ethan, and his unconventional behavior. Ethan can be wholly unpredictable, with days when he's so difficult that you can't believe anyone can figure out how to cope with him. On the other hand, there are those things that always evoke a positive reaction from Ethan; and in that, he's also predictable. Kokoris uses this to parallel the complexities of all the relationships in this family, some of which are so convoluted, they make Ethan seem almost normal at times. At the same time, any one or combination of these characters can be ultimately straightforward.

Isn't that what life really is like? Basic human behavior and routine interactions, punctuated with those anomalous events that - even temporarily - rock our world and sometimes cause us to react atypically, despite ourselves. This is what makes this book into an amazing delight of a story. It is real, it is honest, and every one of the characters is believable, because we've met them all before, or see something of them in ourselves. How often do we get to read books like this that make us laugh out loud, and then make us nod in total recognition, and even bring a tear to our eyes? Not that often, I can assure you.

I should note that when I told a friend about this book, the first thing they said was "this sounds like it would make a good movie." That reaction somewhat surprised me, but after I thought about it, I think they were right. One reason for this is the vehicle Kokoris uses to help the story unfold, that being the elaborate road-trip from Illinois through to South Carolina and then from there to Maine. This would certainly make it a visually interesting movie to watch. Since large amounts of the text here are conversations, both between characters and internal ones, I can easily see this as a screenplay. However, if you want the full impact of this story, you really should read this book. Furthermore, I have to admit that I couldn't find anything that didn't feel right to me (well, there was one character who preferred the White Sox to the Cubs, but hey, no accounting for taste), so I'm wholeheartedly recommending this book and giving it a full five out of five stars.

"It's. Nice. Outside." By Jim Kokoris, release date December 8, 2015 from St. Martin's Press - Minotaur Books is available for pre-order from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What is your superpower?

My Grandmother Sends her Regrets and Apologises (aka My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry), by Fredrik Backman

Anyone who has been reading my reviews will know that my favorite book of 2014 was Backman's, "A Man Called Ove." This Swedish author took the world by storm with his poignant story of a man who has given up, and the people who keep him going. I was lucky enough to get that novel as an ARC, but when this one showed up on NetGalley, the publishers rejected my request. Undaunted, we paid good money to buy this book, and it's an investment we will treasure for years to come. In fact, Backman's second novel immediately became heavy competition for Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" for the #1 spot on my 2015 list.

If you've read Ove, you'll know that Backman knows how to tug at your heartstrings, as well as how to develop a character that is fully out of the ordinary. In his second novel, Backman takes us into the precocious mind of the almost eight-year-old Elsa, and her relationship with her grandmother, who seems to be certifiably insane, while dying from cancer. Of course, things aren't as they seem, and these two females have a slew of people to contend with as well as the rest of the world. You see, Elsa is the type of nerdy girl that kids in school are always picking on. Elsa's mother, Ulrika, is a high-powered hospital executive, divorced from Elsa's father and now pregnant with a new baby with her second husband. Not long after Elsa was born, granny decided to retire from her career to help take care of her, and became Elsa's best, and only friend. Of course, Ulrika appreciates this, but she's upset that her mother suddenly abandoned her career for Elsa, because she did the exact opposite when Ulrika was a child, running off across the globe to save the lives of strangers instead of taking care of her own daughter. Now that she's dying, she's not going to be there for Elsa much longer.

There are actually two parts to this book. First, there's the fantasy/fairytale world that Elsa's grandmother makes up - the Land-of-Almost-Asleep, which is actually several lands, all connected, and filled with princes, princesses, heroes, wild beasts, strange creatures, villains, magic, battles, destruction, love, disappointment and even a few happily-ever-after endings. Then, there's the world that they really live in, which includes the apartment building complex and its conglomeration of neighbors, and their dysfunctional relationships with the grandmother and with each other. These two worlds slowly come together with the "quest" that granny gives Elsa to carry out for her - to send her regards and apologies to the people she wronged throughout her life.

What makes this book so magical has nothing at all to do with the magic in the stories that granny tells Elsa. Rather, this novel delights us because through it, granny guides Elsa's moral compass using stories that anyone can understand. Not the least of these the lesson that we need to try to be understanding of people who are different, and be open enough to see through their differences to discover their "superpowers." Because, you see, everyone has some kind of a superpower, and that's something we can admire. More importantly, granny doesn't discourage Elsa in questioning any of the parts of granny's fairytales that she sees as being illogical or unreasonable. Granny's main lesson for Elsa is that she needs to observe, listen, and then come to her own conclusions regarding the best way to act and react to the things and people around her. Of course, Granny also teaches Elsa that none of us is perfect, and that's why she has Elsa apologize to all the people Granny believed she wronged. That, in itself, shows Elsa a weakness on Granny's part, which also further proves her point.

If there is anything that doesn't sit completely right in this book, it is how Elsa and Granny feed "the werst" - the very large dog living in their building - chocolate. I've always heard that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, so I decided to look it up. What I found is that yes, it certainly isn't good for them, but it might not kill them either. Since "the werst" is a very large dog, it is possible that the amounts they give him aren't large enough to be fatal. Then again, this could be a misguided translation, and what they give it is actually a well-known Swedish treat that doesn't actually have chocolate in it. Either way, although it did bother me a touch, it certainly didn't ruin the story for me.

Most importantly, in this novel, Backman doubled (if not more) the charm he displayed in his telling of the story of Ove. There isn't a page where you won't feel one kind of emotion or another, in some degree, making you smile, chuckle, guffaw or try to suppress that lump in your throat. Furthermore (and once again), I dare you to finish reading this without using up many tissues in the process. It is just that beautiful, that heartwarming, and that wonderful. Read it, please, because I can't recommend it more highly, and couldn't give it less than a full five stars out of five.

You can buy this book (and you really should buy this book) from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook, US audiobook or UK audiobook), The Book Depository in both US and UK versions (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an Indie Bookstore near you.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Business of Compassion

The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford

This is one of those books that, if you read it, you'll be glad you didn't overlook it because you judged it by its cover, its title or even its synopsis. Starting with the latter, the publisher's synopsis for this book is as follows:

Book-smart Melissa Fletcher lives a predictable life in her hometown, working behind the scenes for her charismatic father in a financial career that makes perfect sense. But when her dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Missy is forced to step up and take over as his primary caregiver and the principal of the firm.

After her father’s death, Missy finds a letter from him in which he praises her for being a dutiful daughter but admonishes her for not taking any risks in life.

Devastated, Missy packs her suitcase and heads for Italy. There she meets a new friend who proposes a radical idea. Soon, Missy finds herself in impoverished India, signing away her inheritance and betting on a risky plan while rekindling a lost love.

First, let's start with the things I didn't like about this book. Much like the above synopsis, half of this book focuses on Missy's learning about and coping with her father's Alzheimer's. While Handford was accurate regarding this part of the book (my own father died from Alzheimer's), and was extremely important to the character development, I felt that it took up too much of the story. This is mostly because, from the very beginning of this book, Handford makes Missy into someone we immediately like. Yes, we realize she's holding herself back but we want her to change, and we know she has it in her. We already know that she is going to break out from that life from the synopsis. That made me anxious to see that escape, but that only began after I had read over half of the book. Personally, I think cutting some of this down would have improved the pace of this novel. I believe the editors left it this way to help heighten the reader's frustration, which made Missy's break very effective.

As for the book cover and title, while neither is bad, they both seem incongruent. A picture of a woman walking down a pastel path, in what we suppose is India seems to evoke more romance than this book includes. While you'll get the significance of the title late in the story, for me, it was touch too poetic for a book about a businesswoman finally letting herself find her true passion in life. However, that's just window-dressing, and easily ignorable.

The meat of this story begins when Missy finally leaves for Italy, that's when the story takes off, and from then on in, I found myself totally hooked. From here, all of the hints regarding the true Missy in the first half of the book start to emerge, mature, and develop. Furthermore, despite the fact that each step is somewhat radical for Missy, nothing feels forced or unnatural. This is partially because Handford sets Missy up as a strong, 35-year-old professional, whose independence and self-reliance are the key pillars to her personality. Even her being fixed up with the tax lawyer nerd, while she's realizing she's still in love with her high school sweetheart work to underscore her growing self-awareness.

Handford does this with a measured style that is straightforward and uncomplicated. This works perfectly with Missy's personality; even when there is romance involved, Handford avoids sentimentality or flowery language that would have felt completely out of place. This doesn't mean that Handford ignores Missy's emotions or deals with them coldly; to the contrary, Missy's heart and feelings become increasingly evident to the reader as the story progresses, which helps us empathize with her even more. Then Handford uses that vulnerability to let Missy wake up and see what was in front of her all along - in every aspect of her life, including her own past. This, of course, is what allows Missy to start building for her own future. In a way, Handford has given us a modern-day heroine; a woman whose determination, despite her weaknesses, helps her overcome obstacles, and find a new way in the world for herself. What's more, she does this without needing validation or support from any of the men in her life. Yes, her father does kick-start the process, but we get the feeling that even if he hadn't, she might have come to the same conclusion on her own.

I truly enjoyed this book, for many reasons, not the least of which included Handford tackling such subjects as disabled veterans, disenfranchised children, and grassroots non-profit organizing. Handford gives us a female protagonist we can be proud of, and admire, whose emotions never overshadow her feminism or her fighting for things that she believes are right and just - both for herself and for others. Although the book isn't perfect, it is a novel written for 21st century women, which some men will probably enjoy as well. I highly recommend this book and can give it a solid four out of five stars. 

"The Light of Hidden Flowers" by Jennifer Handford, published by Lake Union Press (Nov. 10, 2015 release), is available for pre-order from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Teaser Tuesdays (Nov. 3, 2015)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teasers:
"Life can't be brought to a standstill all the same," he said. "You did the right thing, keeping the Library open." 
- page 98, from the short story "Carried Away" in the 2014 collection Vintage Munro by Alice Munro.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

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