Isabel's Daughter, Judith Ryan Hendricks. Avery, a young woman raised as an orphan, gets unexpectedly thrown onto the track of her mother's identity when she stumbles upon a portrait that resembles herself, in Santa Fe, NM. The questions of what she'll discover, and how her relationships will turn out with the other people she meets along the way, kept me reading; and I also loved the influences of Native American culture, herbology, and a whiff of magic. But my favorite feature was probably the setting and its mouth-watering sensory detail. The colors of scenery and artwork, the sounds of desert thunder, and best yet, the taste of New Mexican peppers and sopapillas and chilis verdes--yum! Oh, also, Hendricks gets mega-bonus points for actually emailing me back personally when I dropped her a line to say I liked her books--and for saying she'd read one of mine too! Thank you, Judi!
Bread Alone, Judith Ryan Hendricks. Hendricks also wrote a couple of books featuring my dear city of Seattle. This is the first in the series; I haven't read the second yet, but plan to soon. A Californian woman, abruptly dumped by her husband, finds solace and redemption in making bread for a small Seattle bakery. Again, luscious sensory detail. Reminded me never to write a scene without smells, tastes, textures, and colors.
Moon of Little Winter, Margaret Marr. Kudos to Marr for drawing me right in with an original and quirky premise: two strangers (a man and a woman) show up in the middle of the night to claim the same house, which apparently sits smack dab on a property line. Needless to say, sexual tension kicks in immediately, but so do the spooky complications: bones discovered on the property, objects moving by themselves, spirit wolves, witches both good and bad, and the darkest of family secrets. Marr put a fresh spin on the old "haunted house" storyline with her many innovations. I had a great time reading it and didn't want to put it down.
Voices on the Waves, Jessica Chambers. Chambers is such a skillful novelist, I would never have guessed this was her first published book. She writes with the beauty and grace of a complete pro. This story sucked me in from the start with its rich cast of diverse characters and utterly gorgeous English seaside setting (doesn't hurt that I'm an Anglophile, I suppose), and charmed me into staying up late to keep reading. The characters' interactions were complex enough that I couldn't foresee where they would all end up. Though love does blossom in one or two places, its darker cousins, jealousy and shallow lust, play important roles too, as does good old friendship. I truly cared about all these people, even the ones who behaved badly, because Chambers is so good at finding the humanity in everyone.
The Love Thing, Chris Delyani. Delyani's novel is set up with an irresistible premise: the story of Pride and Prejudice as a modern American office romance, with nearly all the characters played by gay men. Really, do I need to say more? All right, I will: the cakes! The young hero gets roped into the job of baking birthday cakes for everyone in the office, and, though lacking culinary training, dives into the task boldly and turns out a drool-worthy series of baked masterpieces that would make Julia Child approve. Made me ashamed of my Duncan Hines boxed mixes, I tell you. A tasty and charming story all around.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, Susanna Clarke. If you liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, with its simultaneously dark and tongue-in-cheek mingling of Regency and Faerie, and want another taste, then this collection of short stories along the same theme ought to satisfy your cravings. It also would work for anyone who couldn't get through the weighty length of Strange and Norrell but did enjoy the premise. Fanciful, odd, ever so creative.
Swann's Way (In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1), Marcel Proust. I didn't so much read this as meander through it a few pages at a time over the course of a couple of years. And oddly, I tended to find myself liking it. Calling it a novel would not feel entirely right, though of course technically it's a novel. What's remarkable about Proust, though, isn't the plot and characters so much as the startlingly true insights about emotions, love, the senses, time, and memory--and such insights crop up on pretty much every page. As someone wise once put it, Proust was (nearly) a neuroscientist. I'll tackle volume 2 one of these days. Really.
The Gravesavers, Sheree Fitch. This one's Young Adult, loaned to me by a friend, and I'm so glad I got to discover it. A 12-year-old girl spends the summer with her sour grandmother in Nova Scotia, and discovers not only (of course) the family harmony she'd been lacking, but ghosts and spooky truths about a shipwreck that occurred off the coast long ago. At times sad, at other times invigorating and beautiful, this was a lovely and addictive read.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. Is this novel overly precocious, with its young author, and even younger narrator (age 16), spouting graduate-degree-level political theories and literary references, complete with bibliographical citations in parentheses? Yes, it is. Does the author lean too heavily on ultra-unusual-and-brainy metaphors and analogies, some of which take the shape of page-long anecdotes that get in the way of the action? Sure, no question. Are a lot of the characters--the teens especially--so flawed as to be annoying to read? Yep, definitely. HOWEVER...as I passed the halfway mark, did I crave this novel more and more intensely, putting off other tasks simply so I could sit and read and learn what happened between a group of cliquish teens and their mysterious teacher (and the narrator's brilliant dad)? Yes, absolutely. And as that is the central challenge to any author, and best test of any novel, I give this one high marks.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Yeah, okay. You know what To Kill a Mockingbird is about. You read it in high school. So did I, but I'd forgotten nearly everything about it, so I re-read it, and was thoroughly charmed and moved, as everyone tends to be. Young Scout is a shining example of a candid, engaging narrator, and Atticus is the parent we all wish we could be. We'll try harder, Atticus, we promise.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson. When Bryson realized he had no idea why the oceans are salty, or how a nuclear bomb works, or why the periodic table looks the way it does, he set out to get a thorough, ground-level education in science. This book lets us acquire one too. Having Bryson as the author makes it a fun experience, of course--he never lets go of his sense of humor, and always gives us a look at the quirky human beings behind the stuffy, dry scientific discoveries. If you, like so many of us, find yourselves in danger of having your high school (and college) science education completely gone from your brain, and wish to remedy the situation, this is about as pleasant a method for doing so as you could find.
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. Chicago hosted the World's Fair in 1893, as you might have heard. I kinda-sorta knew that already. But the "White City"--the Fair's huge buildings and grounds--and the effort it took to build them were completely new to me. Oh, and there was also a serial killer operating in Chicago at that same time. An incredibly scary, prolific one, who built an actual murder mansion to make the killing easier. I would tell you about the basement but I don't want to spoil it for you. Or revisit that chillingly horrible part of history, honestly. Still, a fascinating read! The very best of humanity squished alongside the very worst.
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder. Writers, snap this one up! The sadly departed Blake Snyder penned this little handbook to help screenwriters turn out good, marketable scripts, but the principles of scene and storytelling he lays down are applicable and hugely useful to any writer. It got me rethinking my novels, and energized me to face the revisions with new purpose. Also, he's hilarious, and so easy to read. Thanks, Blake. You'll be missed.
To the many, many other authors I know: I probably just haven't gotten to your books yet! I apologize and hope to do so soon. Those two little kids take up a lot of my would-be reading time. Someday apparently they'll be teenagers and spend all day sleeping and texting their friends. Or so I'm told. Anyway, I'll catch up on my to-be-read list then.