The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi

A complicated motor vehicle accident involving a “lorry” (semi) and many cars is the focal point of this novel.  We learn a bit about each of the characters that are involved as a prelude to the accident, and then it happens, sort of in slow motion, almost as they experience it.   But it is the aftermath that carries each story line (and there are many that intertwine).  The accident complicates and devastates, but in some ways revives and empowers.  In every case, it changes the course of each of the lives of those involved in it.

There are quite a few characters, but the author does a wonderful job of endearing each of them to the reader, such that it is easy to keep track and stay interested in each of their trajectories.  And transitions are particularly smooth.    And because there are so many different story lines, the book never, ever gets dull.  Honestly,  a few of the characters are so charming and feel so real that by the end you’d like to invite them over for tea!

This is an utterly delightful novel that I very highly recommend!

 

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

where the crawdads sing

At only age 5, Kya watched her mother carry her suitcase and walk away from their shack in the swamp, without even a glance back.  Most of her siblings already having gone, her older brother Jodie, her protector and confidant, soon said his goodbye as well.  It was then down to only Kya and her father, Jake, who was as stingy and unpredictable as his disability checks.   Fortunately, Jodie had coached her well on how to navigate her way around the swamp, how to make herself disappear, and most importantly, how to appreciate the natural wonders around her.  Because of the caring eye of a few who did look out for her, Kya  did become much more than merely the “Marsh Girl.”   But did the Marsh Girl also become someone capable of murder?

This is a riveting story, yet one told with subtlety and beauty and utter sadness.  The innocent heartbreak of young Kya just tears at your heart and you can’t help feeling her loneliness yourself.  Because the writing feels so intimate, as Kya grows, you feel her loss and vulnerability and her few victories personally, as if going through them yourself.  And the analogies from nature all around her are quite striking.

My favorite writing technique of flipping from one time period to another is used in this story to full advantage.  Going from when Kya is tiny and left alone to fast forward, when  a dead body is found in the marsh, helps to lay down the root of a suspense that grows over the course of the story.  It doesn’t play much of a role in the earlier part of the book, because we are so taken with little Kya, but it builds greatly later on as it comes to a crescendo.  It’s really quite patiently and beautifully constructed.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is definitely a “MUST READ.”  It’s beautiful, well-written, so very sad, but also suspenseful – definitely could not put it down!  Highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

only woman in the room

When Hedy Kiesler receives her first ostentatiously presented, dozen bouquets of hothouse roses from an admirer after a performance at the theater, she has no idea that it is from the well-known, millionaire, munitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandl.  While she can’t imagine that she’d really be attracted to this older man, she finds she is actually taken in by his charm and charisma.  In actuality, she has little choice, as her father pointedly insists that Hitler’s advances in Germany in 1933 foreboded danger for Jews in Austria as well, and their family needed the protection Mandl might provide.  As Hedy acquiesced, she gradually became trapped in a marriage which was more like a cage.  As she plots her escape, she incurs a stain of guilt that she subsequently spends years of her life trying to repair.

This is in fact, the story of Hedy Lamarr, actress, scientist, and inventor.  After she comes to America, she spends her days behind the camera and her evenings combing physics textbooks in order to master an ideal system to direct torpedoes without being able to be intercepted by an enemy, for use during WWII.  She is not only beautiful and talented, but also brilliant and creative; much to the disbelief of the men around her.  But knowing her secretive backstory gives her inventions context and helps the reader understand her motivations and connections to the war effort.

While this book is based in fact, it is written as fiction, and therefore so easy to read.  Right from Page 1, it draws the reader in and it is difficult to put down until the end.  There is humor and warmth and even a bit of suspense, and certainly anger on Hedy’s behalf.  But overall, there is a great deal of respect for the person she was and the accomplishments she achieved.  It also showed how strongly she had to fight to be respected for her internal beauty and intelligence when she had such striking external beauty.

 

Shopaholic to the Rescue by Sophie Kinsella

shopaholic to the rescue

After reading so many non-fiction and, frankly, disturbing books in a row, I needed something light and fun – and this was just the thing!

There’s clearly something amiss when Becky is not enthusiastic about shopping.  She and her mother and the shopaholic cast of characters are on a trek to Las Vegas in search of Becky’s father, who’s gone missing on a mysterious “errand” with Becky’s friend Suze’s husband, Tarquin —  and she’s found she’s lost her shopping groove.  She also may have lost her best friend, Suze.  And her father.  As they all set out to find Becky’s father, they learn about her father’s kind-hearted mission to right a past wrong and they find a wild way to support him in the end.

While the previous Shopaholic book was a painful disappointment, I have to admit that this one was adventurous and highly amusing.  None of these shopaholic books will be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but they are entertaining, engaging, plot-driven, heartwarming, and endearing – and they are a wonderful escape from these stressful times.

I highly recommend this as a delightful distraction from your everyday routine – and you don’t even have to tell anyone that you’ve indulged, as I’ve admitted to here!

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

the atomic city girls

June  has just arrived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, circa 1944.  It is a town that has just been built, but does not exist on a map, and the job she’s been hired to do involves monitoring gauges on machines she is not even told the purpose of.  Her roommate, Cici, is more seasoned and while she could care less about the purpose of her job, her real purpose is to search for a husband among the many soldiers who are stationed right here in Oak Ridge.  Meanwhile, Joe, a Negro construction worker who has also come to the town looking for opportunity, misses his family deeply and just means to keep his head down and earn as much as he can in order to send his good wage home, while trying to keep his younger friend out of trouble.  Eventually, these lives converge as their mission in Oak Ridge comes to a crescendo, and they all become swept up in a historical moment in our dark history.

This is an effective historical fiction novel about a very bleak moment in the history of the world.  While it deals with this global issue, it tells the story through the lens of fictional but realistic individuals who were involved in the production of this most destructive weapon ever created – and used! – on our planet.  It relates the social and political class and racial issues that were on everyone’s minds at the time, whether it was finding a husband for the women who did not have access to higher paying jobs, or accessing decent housing because of one’s skin color.  It also reveals the attitudes towards the final product of Oak Ridge of each of the participants, which varied widely from pride to guilt.  The army’s secrecy throughout the whole project is stunningly creepy.

I’d recommend this book as a both an important piece of historical fiction, and as just an engrossing read.  I listened to it on CD and it held my attention the whole way through!

 

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

this is how it always is

This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince.  While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy.  As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.

This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true.   Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life.  We come to love each member of this family almost as our own.  The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities.  And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end.  This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity.  One does not have to be male or female.  While this may be hard for  many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.

I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit.  It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret.  It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway.  And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.

 

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

chiefs

In looking for something different to read, I stumbled upon this thriller from the 1980’s, which was so much more substantive and nuanced than I ever imagined.

It begins in 1919, when Will Henry Lee is appointed the Chief of Police in the tiny town of  Delano, Georgia.  Things are fairly quiet until the first body turns up – that of a young boy, naked, with suspicious marks on him.  This case is niggling at him but life goes on and he is forced to move on with the times.  As the years pass, the case becomes buried deeper and deeper in layers of race, power, politics, and in simple human nature and the ultimate resolution is a shock to everyone.

This story is so carefully delivered, over time, even over generations, and the reader’s patience is rewarded with an exquisitely intricate plot.  There is a horrifying overlay of the deep south’s history of racial bias which, sadly, is quite poignant and relatable today.  So too, are the political power plays, the small town alliances, and injustices.  Timeless, apparently.

The writing, too, is sharp and clear, with poignant dialogue and a few great scenes.  My particular favorite scene is one in which the wife of Billy, Will Henry’s son, buys a shotgun and shows what a woman can do all by herself to protect herself from the nasty Klansmen who are out to get her and her husband.  I won’t give it all away, but I’d say that scene alone is worth reading the book for!

This book is a definite page-turner and one that will stay with me for awhile.  I’m not sure it’s a “must read” but it’s close!