THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah

February 27, 2018

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I’m a long time Kristin Hannah fan. She started off  writing women’s fiction and I often recommended her books to Danielle Steel readers who wanted to step up a bit. Then she wrote The Nightingale, and never looked back. That book lingered on the NY Times bestseller list for well over a year, a real anomoly for fiction and certainly well deserved. The Great Alone debuted at number one on that list and I have a feeling this book, too, shall linger.

Leni Allbright is a young teenager who has lived a difficult life. Her father, Ernt, is a Vietnam war vet obviously suffering from severe PTSD, undiagnosed and untreated at that time. Her mom, Cora, loves her husband madly and truly seems to understand the demons that drive him. He can’t hold a job, he drinks to much, and he has black moods on a regular basis. Leni has a harder time, but knows her father loves her. Leni and her mom are very close, unusually close for a child that age, but the family constantly moves, often several times a year, due to Ernt’s troubles, so Leni and Cora cling to each other.

Ernt receives a letter from the father of an old army buddy of who had died in the war, informing him that his buddy has left him 40 acres and a house in the wilds of Alaska. This book opens in 1974 in the pre-cruise era, and even the cities in Alaska weren’t all that populated. Ernt decides this is just the break he needs and he loads his family into an old VW bus and they make the drive from Seattle to Alaska.

They arrive in the tiny town and are amazed – the main street has a general store and a bar and not much else. The population is in the double digits and everyone who lives there is living off the grid – no electricity, no running water, just spectacular vistas and a very hard life. Fortunately, they arrive in spring so they have the summer to prepare for the long, hard winter. Ernt seems happy, and Cora and Leni are enjoying learning to hunt, how to can fruits and vegetables for winter, how to smoke fish and so forth. Leni goes to school in the one room schoolhouse and makes her first real friend. But as darkness falls on Alaska, so does Ernt’s mood.

This is a fascinating look at a life most of us would never experience, living entirely off the land and bartering for whatever else you need. It is also a coming of age story, a story about the effects of war, about an abusive marriage, anarchy, and more. While the storyline is nothing like The Nightingale, it is about two strong women and the life they build, something Hannah excels at. This is not a happy story, but a dark, searing one that will be staying with me for a very long time. It is such a gripping novel that I just couldn’t put it down and I can’t wait to talk to someone who has read it – it will make a fabulous book discussion. Don’t miss it.

2/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah.  Holtzbrinck Publishers; First Edition edition (February 6, 2018).  ISBN 978-0312577230. 448p.

KINDLE


THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin

February 21, 2018

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As regular readers probably know, in December I started having some trouble with my eyes. Reading becams difficult, but I perservered as long as I could. This forced me to become extremely discriminating in what I read until it became just impossible to read either print, on my iPad or the last to go, my Kindle. This is the last book I chose to start. I only got about a third of the way through it and I was so involved I even tried having my Kindle read it to me but I just couldn’t cope with that. So I set it aside. I had surgery, and week of horrendous recovery, and a few more weeks of tolerable recovery and my eyesight seemed to improve daily. It’s still not great, and computers are the most difficult for me to manage, but I have managed to read on my Kindle again. At first, I could only read for about ten minutes at a time, then my eyes would tire. So it took me an extraordinarily long time to finish this book, but I am so glad I did.

The story starts out in the late 1960’s on the Lower East side of New York. The Gold family, four siblings, have heard about a fortune teller who has recently come to their neighborhood. Apparently, she can predict the date of each client’s death. Intrigued, the children find her, and one at a time, she tells them their death dates. They are freaked out, as they should be, and take off without even paying her. But their lives are never really the same after that.

They don’t all share their dates, but hints are dropped. As they get older, this information steers how they live their lives. The youngest, Simon, realizes as a teen that he is gay and his sister Klara encourages him to move to San Francisco, and she lives with him. This is in the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and Harvey Milk and more. Klara becomes a magician and eventually moves to Las Vegas. The oldest son, Daniel, becomes a doctor and works for the armed services, determining who is fit to become a soldier and Vanya, the oldest daughter, becomes a research scientist studying, not ironically, longevity.

The book follows each of the lives until their deaths. It obviously poses the philosophical question if you knew when you were going to die, would you live your life differently? But it delves even further than that into relationships, both familial and others. It is beautifully written and each character drives their own story. Worthy of all the praise it has received, and certainly worthy of discussion. It is not a stretch to say that I’m sure it will be on my best books of the year list.

2/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons; First Edition edition (January 9, 2018).  ISBN 978-0735213180. 352p.


PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

December 31, 2017

I wanted to get in one more really good book before the year ended and this was a wonderful selection. This was a National Book Award finalist and the paperback just came out a few weeks ago, so do yourself a favor and grab a copy.

The story follows a Korean family starting in 1910 through the 1980s. Sunja is the on ly child of a very poor couple in a small village in Korea. Her parents rent a small house and rent out space to local fisherman. The boardinghouse keeps them from starving, but when Sunja becomes pregnant, it could destroy the family. She won’t tell who the father is because when she tells him she’s pregnant, he tells her he’s married and has children, all living in Japan. Hansu is a wealthy Korean businessman and while he offers to keep Sunju as his mistress, she breaks it off with him.

The story follows their lives over four generations, from their move to Japan through wars, the division of Korea, and the immigrant experience of Koreans in Japan. It was a story I was completely unfamiliar with, and it is a heartbreaking one. Koreans, even third or fourth generation born in Japan, are not considered citizens of Japan. There is extreme prejudice against Koreans, and they actually carry Korean passports, even though many have never set foot in Korea.

This book was obviously a work of great passion, and I urge you to read the author’s note at the end. Apparently she worked on this for decades, and it was her move to Tokyo where she got to interview many Koreans about their experiences living in Japan. I found myself completely immersed in the world Lee created, and the book has stayed with me. It is an eye opening story that educated and entertained me and has found a place in heart. An excellent way to end this year of reading.

12/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee.  Grand Central Publishing; Reprint edition (November 14, 2017). ISBN 978-1455563920. 512p.

Kindle


SWEET TEA AND SYMPATHY by Molly Harper

December 11, 2017

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Southern Eclectic Series, Book 1

This is a contemporary romance with oodles of charm and laughs. This author is new to me as her previous bookls were paranormal, which I just can’t get into for whatever reason. But this book, the first of a new series, is paranormal free and right in my wheelhouse.

Margot is a top flight party planner in Chicago until disaster strikes. Of course it is all caught on video and goes viral, causing her to lose her job and consequently her home. Margot has lost her mother, and her father took off when she was a toddler, and the only family she has left is her stepfather who adopted her as a child. Then he pulls the rug out from under her, telling her he was never really married to her mother. While she is reeling from that bit of news, she gets a job offer.

Margot’s great Aunt on her father’s side calls to offer her a job at the McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop in Lake Sackett, Georgia. Margot has always believed her father, an alcoholic, wanted nothing to do with her but she is definitely curious about him and his family, so off she goes. She is sending out resumes everywhere trying to get a job as a party planner in a city, but then she meets Kyle, the principal of the elementary school, and things start looking up in Georgia.

Lots of small town charm including every Southern stereotype from sweet tea to bless her heart, but who cares when a book is this engaging. The characters are quirky, the setting brought skillfully to life, and there is just enough romance and drama to keep it all interesting. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

12/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

SWEET TEA AND SYMPATHY by Molly Harper.  Gallery Books (November 21, 2017). ISBN 978-1501151224. 320p.

Kindle


THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV by Elizabeth Berg

December 4, 2017

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I’m not sure when charming stories became a genre, but they really have and this one is terrific.

This is a multi-generational look at loss, from Arthur who has lost his wife, to Maddy, a teenager who has lost her mother, to Lucille, Arthur’s widowed neighbor. Maddy meets Arthur at the cemetery, where he has spent every day having lunch with his dead wife. Maddy’s mom was cremated, so she’s not there but Maddy likes the solitude of the cemetery.

Maddy is having problems at home and at school, and she and Arthur form a friendship. Eventually, Maddy moves in with Arthur, as does Lucille. They are all friends and lean on each other to deal with their loneliness. It’s not as dark as it sounds, there are a lot of laughs and real emotion throughout this book. I laughed, I cried, I loved it.

This was another winner that I found through LibraryReads.org.

The top ten books published each month that librarians across the country love. I get a lot of wonderful recommendations from these lists, and I can honestly say I think there was only one book in the past several years that I didn’t love, so check it out.

12/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV by Elizabeth Berg. Random House (November 21, 2017). ISBN 978-1400069903. 240p.

Kindle


THE LIBRARY AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

November 14, 2017

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November 2017 LibraryReads Pick

The top ten books published each month that librarians across the country love. I get a lot of wonderful recommendations from these lists, and I can honestly say I think there was only one book in the past several years that I didn’t love, so check it out.

The titular “edge of the world” is a peninsula in Ireland that is undergoing some big change, a reflection of the change that Hannah Casey is going through. Hannah has returned home from a posh London life after an acrimonious divorce to share the hot pink cottage of her childhood with her mother. Hannah is the town librarian, not a job she loves by any stretch of the imagination. She always wanted to work in an art museum, but that was not meant to be. She is, I’m sorry to say, the stereotypical librarian, shushing people, taking control of the books as if it pains her to lend them, and consequently does not have the best reputation in this small town.

Hannah is determined to move out of her mother’s house, but during the divorce, she was so angry at her husband that she refused any sort of financial settlement, and now her ex isn’t interested in helping her out. She borrows some money from the credit union and sets out to restore the tiny cottage her great aunt had bequeathed to her. A local builder, a real craftsman, takes on the project but he is a bit eccentric.

Big changes afoot on this tiny peninsula as the local politicians decide to put all their resources into a big marina and hotel that will entice the cruise ship trade. But that means the rest of the island is out of luck, and slowly Hannah becomes “Joan of Arc”, at the center of the rebellion.

This is a lovely, charming book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I admit, most books about books and libraries usually get my immediate attention, but this one goes beyond that, with unforgettable characters and setting, making this an altogether excellent read.

11/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE LIBRARY AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Felicity Hayes-McCoy.  Harper Perennial (November 14, 2017). ISBN 978-0062663726. 368p.

Kindle


ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

October 26, 2017

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Translated by Jessica Cohen

Set shortly after 9/11 in New York City, Liat is an Israeli, born into an Iranian-Jewish family. She is on a student visa in New York, working on translation skills. While there, she meets Hilmi, a Palestinian artist who is living in Brooklyn. They are both from the Middle East, but like Romeo and Juliet, they are from warring sides. And unlike that famous pair, the obstacles in their way are considerably bigger than a family feud.

Liat knows she is on a six-month visa and she goes into the relationship thinking it will just be a fling, but she quickly realizes that she has fallen in love. Hilmi also falls in love, and he is very much aware that their political differences are going to be a problem. In fact, the only thing they fight about is geography and the occupation of the Palestinian territories. And Rabinyan manages to show both sides of the Palestinian argument, the good and the bad.

Liat knows her family, especially her parents, would never accept such a relationship. She tells her sister who is very judgemental, but for the most part, keeps the relationship secret from the other Israelis she knows in NY. Hilmi is resentful of this but cares enough about Liat to overlook it, most of the time anyway, but still finds it very hurtful. When Hilmi’s brothers come to visit, Liat gets into a huge argument with them and Hilmi keeps silent. Eventually, the brothers leave and the lovers find their way back to one another.

Then Liat’s time is up and she must return to Israel. Hilmi decides to leave shortly after, planning on spending the summer at home. And then tragedy strikes.

This is a beautifully written book and covers a lot of significant events. What I found most interesting is that these characters are not your typical Israeli Jew and Palestinian Muslim. Liat is Persian and Hilmi has been brought up by an atheist father, and does not appear to be religious at all.

Rabinyan won Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize in 2015. The book became politicized when Israel’s Ministry of Education banned the book from the high school curriculum. Nevertheless, it has been translated into 17 languages and is being taught in high schools around the world.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not include this from The Guardian (2004) which officially blew my mind:

They were young, talented and free in New York. Dorit Rabinyan was an Israeli novelist and Hassan Hourani was a Palestinian artist. Their passionate friendship, impossible at home, flourished abroad. Last year, visiting his family, Hourani drowned in Jaffa. Rabinyan writes him a farewell letter.
Not surprisingly, All the Rivers makes for a very interesting book discussion.

10/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan. Random House (April 25, 2017). ISBN 978-0375508295. 288p.

Kindle


EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

October 21, 2017

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This debut novel made quite a splash when it came out in 2014. I didn’t read it then, but I read her new book, Little Fires Everywhere. As soon as I finished it, I went looking for this book. It is deserving of all the hype that surrounded it, including:

New York Times Bestseller · A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice · Winner of the Alex Award· Winner of the APALA Award for Fiction · NEA Big Read Selection

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY:
 
NPR · San Francisco Chronicle · Entertainment Weekly · The Huffington Post  · Buzzfeed  · Amazon ·  Grantland · Booklist · St. Louis Post Dispatch · Shelf Awareness · Book Riot · School Library Journal ·  Bustle · Time Out New York · Mashable · Cleveland Plain Dealer

The reviews were uniformly excellent and I’ll just add to that sweet symphony.

From the publisher:

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

The writing is lyrical. The characters spring to life on the page and drive the story. Reading Everything I Never Told You is an emotional journey of the finest kind and an unforgettable read – and that is not something I say lightly. I may have liked it even more than Little Fires Everywhere, I’m not sure yet. Either way, don’t miss it.

10/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng. Berkley (October 17, 2017). ISBN 978-0451488756. 368p.

Kindle


SEVEN DAYS OF US by Francesca Hornak

October 17, 2017

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When I first heard about this book, a family with two adult children who are forced into quarantine together for a week, I immediately thought of the Jonathan Tropper book, This is Where I Leave You, which has a similar plot line. So I was surprised to find that the two books really couldn’t be more different. Sure, the dysfunctional family is still there but the voice is completely different, as are the dynamics of the characters. Plus this is set in Great Britain, so that dry humor is really different, too.

Olivia Birch, a doctor, has been working in Liberia during a humanitarian crisis. They are dealing with a deadly “Haag virus,” which I looked up and realized is just a made up plot device, however much it sounded real. She has fallen in love with a co-worker, Sean, a doctor from Ireland, but are keeping it secret as that is against the rules. They are both returning home for Christmas, and separate at the airport, he to return to Ireland and she to return to the family estate in the country. They are both under strict quarantine as it takes a few days for the symptoms of the disease to appear.

Olivia’s mom Emma waits at the airport and strikes up a conversation with a young man she meets there. While they don’t even exchange names, they do exchange secrets.

Emma whisks Olivia home where her father and her newly engaged sister are waiting, and the week of quarantine begins. Relationships are examined, secrets abound, and lots of drama occurs amidst the laughter. I don’t want to give anything away, it’s too much fun discovering what all is going on as you read.

This was a totally engrossing novel that made me laugh out loud on occasion, as well as cry, the whole emotional gamut. Hornak has a really unique voice that brings the Birch family to life. A wonderful read that would make for a great book discussion. Don’t miss it.

10/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

SEVEN DAYS OF US by Francesca Hornak. Berkley (October 17, 2017). ISBN 978-0451488756. 368p.

Kindle


THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

October 13, 2017

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A beautifully written book set against the background of the international world of music, both classic and general. Otylie Bautosova is a young girl that we meet in 1918 as she is saying goodbye to her father, a Czech soldier who is returning to the front at the very end of World War I. His parting words to Otylie are that music is everything and even the horrors of war revolve around it. He gives her a music manuscript that is clearly old and which her father tells her to guard and keep safe because it will ensure her future. Her father is then killed, becoming one of the last casualties of the war.

Years later, Otylie marries but the second world war intervenes. Her husband joins the partisans fighting the Nazi invaders but is unfortunately killed. With enough tragedy for several lifetimes, the capstone is the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Stalin and the Russians. Otylie manages to escape to England and works for the Czech government in exile while there. She later moves to the United States and her fate ties in with the second half of the book and the activities of an American pianist named Meta Taverner.

Meta lives in New York with the ability to become a great pianist. Unfortunately, she suffers an injury to one arm which takes away her ability to perform as required in playing great classical music. She is advised by a friend that there is a valuable undiscovered sonata in Prague. Meta makes the decision to try and locate the piece and return it to its rightful owners.

The search for the sonata is described beautifully by the author, whose expertise in the world of music makes this book a truly wonderful read. The reader is introduced to a world not often touched upon by most authors and introduces creativity given to some people that cause happiness in our world. This is truly a haunting book that will stay with the reader for a long time to come.

10/17 Paul Lane

THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow. Atlantic Monthly Press (October 3, 2017).  ISBN 978-0802127150. 528p.

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