My Favorite Books Read in 2013:
(In no particular order; covers link to review or rating)
Synopsis: New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were selling out at the soda counter of Halderson’s Drugstore, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.
Frank begins the season preoccupied with the concerns of any teenage boy, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family— which includes his Methodist minister father; his passionate, artistic mother; Juilliard-bound older sister; and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother— he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal, suddenly called upon to demonstrate a maturity and gumption beyond his years.
Told from Frank’s perspective forty years after that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God. (publisher)
My brief take: I highly recommend the audiobook edition of this novel. The narration by Rich Orlow is superb.
Just read the synopsis above. If that doesn’t grab you, well, never mind. I think it will. And, in the end, you’ll probably be glad you read (or listened to) it. I don’t want to say much more than what I posted on Goodreads:
. . . A coming of age novel where ordinary grace meets the awful grace of God in a small town in Minnesota during one summer in the early 1960s.
It’s one of my 2013 Favorites.
Synopsis: Reluctant to leave her cherished New England hometown after her sister’s winter wedding, former journalist Vera Sterling makes a sudden decision. She takes what’s left of her severance pay and invests it in real estate … in one particular drafty colonial home and old timber barn set upon the pretty banks of Addison Cove. In that rough-hewn barn, she discovers a secret treasure left behind by the previous owner, the proprietor of the long-forgotten Christmas Barn gift shop.
While restoring her rundown, wood-sided home–its creaking floors, broken bannister, and neglected widow’s walk–that secret slowly unfolds like a bit of snowflake wonder, crystallizing hopes and dreams for many in this small Connecticut town. But mostly for Derek Cooper whose own tragic story has headlined Addison’s news. And whom Vera has come to love.
When the first snowstorm hits during Derek’s annual Deck the Boats Festival at the cove, residents become stranded. It is then up to Vera to not only bring the town together, but to mend one man’s heart she fears she may have lost. (book synopsis)
My take: Joanne DeMaio takes us back to Addison, a quaint Connecticut seaside town that you’ll want to visit (maybe even move to) after you read this charming tale. People in Addison are just like you and me. They experience life’s joys and sorrows and support each other along the way.
When Vera buys the fixer-upper Dutch Colonial she gets to know Derek who works at his family’s hardware store. He also fixes things – like stuck doors, broken steps, etc. Derek and Vera strike up a friendship that soon becomes more. There’s an easiness about them that lets them talk about anything – including the reason for Derek’s heartache. He appreciates how direct she is without being uncomfortable when talking about it. But one day when Derek misunderstands something he hears about Vera it drives a wedge between them. Vera doesn’t understand what’s wrong – until she does. She’ll have to prove to Derek she’s not going anywhere.
I like a novel that gets me invested in the characters’ lives and relationships and has an emotional impact. That was my experience with this book. Plus, it really put me in the Christmas spirit! I enjoyed Snowflakes and Coffee Cakes and look forward to my next visit to Addison. My thanks to Joanne DeMaio for this lovely Christmas story.
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Synopsis: For over a hundred years, the Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has relied on the leather produced by Vechiarelli & Son in Tuscany. This historic business partnership provides the twist of fate for Valentine Roncalli, the school teacher turned shoemaker, to fall in love with Gianluca Vechiarelli, a tanner with a complex past . . . and a secret.
A piece of surprising news is revealed at The Feast of the Seven Fishes when Valentine and Gianluca join her extended family on a fateful Christmas Eve. Now faced with life altering choices, Valentine remembers the wise words that inspired her in the early days of her beloved Angelini Shoe Company: “A person who can build a pair of shoes can do just about anything.” The proud, passionate Valentine is going to fight for everything she wants and savor all she deserves-the bitter and the sweetness of life itself.
Romantic and poignant, told with humor and warmth, and bursting with a cast of endearing characters, The Supreme Macaroni Company is a sumptuous feast of delights: a portrait of a woman and the man she loves, her passion for craftsmanship, and the sacrifices it takes to build and sustain a family business while keeping love and laughter at the center of everything. (publisher)
My take: The Supreme Macaroni Company is the final installment of the Valentine series. I’ve been a fan since I first met Valentine Roncalli in Very Valentine. She’s a modern, sometimes confident, usually headstrong woman who is intent on keeping her family’s shoe company in business.
Val knows what she wants and one of those wants is Gianluca – the love of her life. Where Val is modern, American and in her 30s, Gianluca is a traditional Italian and in his 50s. These two don’t always see eye to eye but they never lose sight of their love for one another. When they marry Valentine must learn to compromise – easier said than done. Gianluca wants to take care of her and sometimes makes decisions without consulting Val. This causes some rocky times in the early days of their marriage.
What Val learns is that a willingness to sacrifice and compromise from a place of love will be a blessing to them both. Adriana Trigiani’s story is emotional and at times had me in tears so have some tissues handy. I’m going to miss the Roncallis and all the rest – maybe in five or ten years we can convince the author to let us know what’s going on in their lives.
Audio: Cassandra Campbell’s narration is first rate. Her performance of Valentine and the other characters enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
Synopsis: Rose Parker’s husband has been lying. About everything.
When a conversation with her husband triggers questions, Rose Parker uncovers alarming answers that shatter her perfect life. But it is only when she shoves her belongings in her SUV and drives off that Rose realizes just how far from perfect her life actually was. She has nowhere to turn.
While debating between distressing sleeping arrangements-her mother’s house full of questions or a hotel room with too much solitude-Rose bumps into an acquaintance from her gardening class and allows bubbly, exuberant Becky to indulge her in a wild night full of whiskey, weeping, and whispered confidences. Suddenly, Rose has a new friend, a roof over her head, and two gorgeous men moving her out of her marital home.
As Rose struggles to settle into her new life, she remains determined to comprehend her past. And with time and distance and especially wine, comes knowledge. Frank wasn’t the only one lying to her. Rose was lying to herself. (author)
My take: It was easy to sympathize with Rose and her new situation. She found out her husband was not the man she thought – perhaps something she’d known all along. With some distance between them she realized she had become a different person since marrying him. With that awareness Rose started on a path to rediscover her true self.
I loved the new people in Rose’s life beginning with Becky, the acquaintance who takes her in, as well as Becky’s brother, other friends, and Rose’s mother. They all had a hand in helping Rose move forward. It wasn’t an easy path. She moved backward a couple of times but eventually learned to listen to and trust her instincts again.
Redesigning Rose is Lydia Laceby’s debut novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story and characters charmed me and I couldn’t help thinking as I read that it would make a good movie. Recommended to fans of Chick Lit.
My take: With her last daughter’s wedding behind her, Sookie Pool is looking forward to relaxing with her husband on a much-needed vacation when she receives a registered letter that turns her life upside down. The letter pushes Sookie on a journey of discovery as she tries to solve the mystery that has suddenly taken over her life.
Filled with colorful characters, my favorite of the book was Sookie. Although I didn’t identify completely with her there are certain aspects of Sookie that every woman will understand. I think we’re all on the same journey – just at different places along the way.
Fannie Flagg is one of my favorite authors. I adore her charming and funny way of telling a story that never fails to pull me completely in. That was the case in this novel. She also taught me about the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) of WWII. I’d always heard about the war effort on the home front but the WASPs were new to me. What an amazing group of women!
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is one of my favorite books of 2013. If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh out loud and possibly learn something new you’ll want to read this wonderful novel.
Note: You can learn more about the WASPs here.
Synopsis: Holiday gifts don’t always come in expected packages…especially in the town of Hope’s Crossing.
No one has ever felt sorry for Genevieve Beaumont. After all, she has everything money can buy. That is, until she discovers her fiancé has been two-timing her and she’s left with two choices: marry the philanderer to please her controlling father or be disinherited and find a means to support herself.
Genevieve’s salvation appears in the most unlikely of prospects: Dylan Caine, a sexy, wounded war vet whose life is as messy as hers. Dylan’s struggling to adjust after his time in Afghanistan, and the last thing he needs is a spoiled socialite learning about the real world for the first time. True, she may have unexpected depths and beauty to match. But he knows he could never be the man she needs…and she knows he could never be the man she thinks she wants. So why are they each hoping that a Christmas miracle willl prove them both wrong?
My take: I loved how this novel began – with a bar fight on the day after Thanksgiving. The fight was started by a young socialite when someone wouldn’t stop playing the same rendition of The Little Drummer Boy over and over. It’s also the scene where Genevieve and Dylan meet. Now that is an unusual start for a Christmas romance!
Gen and Dylan find themselves thrown together when the judge sentences them to 100 hours of community service to begin immediately at a local resort for wounded veterans. This was not the way either had intended to spend the time leading up to Christmas.
RaeAnne Thayne’s novel is a sweet and emotional story of hope for more than just these two people who’d stopped believing they were worthy of being loved. If you like Christmas romances set in a small town I think you’ll enjoy Christmas in Snowflake Canyon. I did and now want to catch up with the series.
Expected publication: October 29, 2013
Synopsis: March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago. (publisher)
My take: When a poet living on the Isle of Skye receives a letter from a fan in the US neither has a clue to what has begun – a friendship that will become much more. Letters from Skye is an epistolary novel about Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn and American David Graham. She’s in her mid-twenties and married and he’s a few years younger – still in college. But they are on equal ground in most other things. Their letters begin during WWI before the US enters the war. Elspeth’s husband soon enlists and leaves for the front. David and Elspeth continue to correspond sharing their secrets, hopes, and dreams.
I loved reading their letters that told everything from the goings on of their everyday lives to life-changing world events. Woven into the book are letters from Elspeth’s daughter Margaret (a young woman in her twenties) to her sweetheart Paul a (WWII) RAF pilot. So the eras have changed but some of the circumstances have not. The reason for the inclusion of their letters becomes clear as the novel progresses.
This is a very romantic novel – not romance in the modern sense (although there is that as well) but rather mostly in tone. There’s such longing in the letters. That longing was heightened by the lack of immediacy that comes from waiting weeks for another letter. For me that added to the enjoyment. I won’t say more about the novel because I think readers should find out what happens on their own.
If you like epistolary novels and this era I think you’ll like Letters from Skye. Highly recommended.
Note: A few pages in I decided to purchase the audiobook. I listened while I followed along with the print edition. If you like audiobooks I highly recommend you experience Letters from Skye that way. The narrators’ wonderful performances increased my enjoyment of the novel even more!
My take: When Leslie falls into an unmarked manhole while following her husband, his best friend and his new wife (who happens to be half Leslie’s age) down a street in Edinburgh and they all fail to notice – that is the first sign that she is no longer cherished. The second sign is when her husband leaves her hospital room to play his planned round of golf at the Old Course.
When Leslie and Wesley (no, really) return to Atlanta she decides to put some space between them and accepts her brother’s offer to stay at his Charleston home while he’s in Italy. While away from her family Les does a lot of thinking about her relationship with her husband of 30 years and whether she wants to stay in the marriage. She also considers her two grown children and how they take her for granted as much as their father. What Les needs most is the courage to put herself first for once.
I laughed a lot but Dorothea Benton Frank addressed some serious issues as well. I can’t say I related to Les and Wes’s marriage problems but I’m about the same age as Les and think that’s what made me like her all the more! It’s the first of Frank’s books I’ve read so I’m happy to see she has a nice back list.
Narration: After reading a few reviews on Audible I understand some southerners took issue with the narrator’s accent. I’m not from the south so I couldn’t tell you if the narration is correct in accent or not but Robin Miles’ performance kept me listening and walking (and often laughing). I was thoroughly entertained.
Synopsis (publisher): Teddi Overman found her life’s passion for furniture in a broken-down chair left on the side of the road in rural Kentucky. She learns to turn other people’s castoffs into beautifully restored antiques, and eventually finds a way to open her own shop in Charleston. There, Teddi builds a life for herself as unexpected and quirky as the customers who visit her shop. Though Teddi is surrounded by remarkable friends and finds love in the most surprising way, nothing can alleviate the haunting uncertainty she’s felt in the years since her brother Josh’s mysterious disappearance. When signs emerge that Josh might still be alive, Teddi is drawn home to Kentucky. It’s a journey that could help her come to terms with her shattered family—and to find herself at last. But first she must decide what to let go of and what to keep.
My take: Looking for Me is the story of Teddi Overman, a woman who found her talent for restoring furniture as a young teen and made it her life’s work. With love and great care she gives cast aside pieces a second chance. That theme repeats in the lives of a few characters – most notably Teddi’s best friend, her brother Josh and a man who reminds her of Josh, Gabe. Whether furniture, old books, or animals, they repair the broken down for another chance at life. The novel is filled with great characters – Teddi’s coworkers, friends, and relatives. I enjoyed each one.
What I loved most about Teddi was her kindness and compassion for pretty much anything or anyone. She had such a pure heart and optimistic spirit and saw the good in everyone. And yet she was human – she had her limits when people pushed her. I’d want to be her friend. The goodness she sent out to people in her world came back to her time and again.
I had such a good feeling while reading Looking For Me that I didn’t want to say goodbye to Teddi and her world. It’s a story filled with heartbreak, friendship, love, mystery and so much more. It is one of those books I know I’ll read again and I rarely do that. I hope you’ll read it soon.
Synopsis (publisher): After the sudden loss of her husband in a car crash, Libby Moran falls on hard times – so hard, in fact, that she’s forced to move in with her hyper-critical mother. There, sleeping on the pull-out sofa so her two children can share the guest room, she can’t stop longing for the life she had. So when a letter arrives from Libby’s estranged aunt offering her a job and a place to live on her goat farm, Libby jumps at the opportunity. But starting over is never easy. With an aunt who is nothing like she imagined, a shaggy farm manager with a tragic past, a psychic at the feed store who claims to be able to contact the dead, and a bully at her daughter’s school, country life isn’t at all what Libby expected. But it also offers her what no other place can: A chance to define the good life for herself. A chance to piece together the mysteries of her own past. A chance, even, at love. And, finally, a chance to bring herself, and her family, back to life.
My take: I love Katherine Center’s novels. They are wonderfully relatable, funny and heartstring tuggers. Her latest, The Lost Husband, is no exception. When it comes down to it, Libby is every woman. Like I said, relatable. Life hasn’t turned out the way she expected yet, despite that fact, she keeps trying her darnedest to keep her family moving forward.
The offer to move to her aunt’s goat farm comes at the right time. She knows she can’t keep living with her domineering mother if she has any hope of a life. A fresh start in new surroundings is just what she and her two young children need. And a new life is exactly what they get.
From her eccentric and loving aunt, to the nice yet mysterious farm manager, to the interesting young woman at the feed store, Libby’s new life is populated with strange but caring people. And they’re all doing their best to move forward as well.
Center is a gifted storyteller and I loved this one. It’s a story of hope and never giving up – trying your hardest even in the darkest moments. Because when all is said and done – it’s worth it. Loved it. Highly recommended.
Synopsis (publisher): Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has never been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.
Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.
A Love Story for this generation, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart?
My take: This will be brief. I loved this book. It’s a story that made me laugh out loud and brought me to tears. Louisa is a character who lights up the page and I couldn’t help but cheer for her as she started to put herself before the needs of everyone else. That wasn’t an easy thing for her to do because she’d put herself last most of her life. I’d love to read her story about ten years from where the book leaves off.
As sad as this book was it was also quite uplifting. The point to live in the moment and appreciate each moment was a theme throughout the novel. There’s also a highly debatable topic that I’m certain would invite lively discussion for book groups. I’ve only touched the surface here. It’s a wonderful novel that I’m still thinking about weeks after turning the last page.
I highly recommend Me Before You – it’s on my 2013 Favorites list. Now I need to track down Jojo Moyes’ backlist. If you’ve read any of her previous books do you have a recommendation?
Synopsis (publisher): What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can — will she?
My take: What a unique story! It’s the first of Kate Atkinson’s novels I’ve read and after a bit of a sluggish start I really liked it. Sluggish because I started reading and then life got busy for me. It took me about a week to read the first 200 pages. So I recommend reading this book in as few chunks of time as possible. I think that would have helped me get into the rhythm of the story more quickly.
I really don’t want to say much about the plot because the synopsis tells enough. Kate Atkinson’s writing is lovely. With each lifetime another layer of Ursula’s story was added. And with each lifetime I cared more about Ursula. There were a couple of times in the second half of the book that I found myself in tears quite unexpectedly. That just doesn’t happen to me very often.
Atkinson brings to life London during the blitz as well as Germany in the time leading up to WWII. We see it all through Ursula’s eyes and feel the powerful emotions felt by many characters.
So, if you’re up for a memorable novel I think you might like Life After Life. It’s filled with good characters, settings, and a compelling era. It would be a fabulous book club selection. There are definite philosophical points to discuss. I know that Ursula, Hugh, Teddy and all the others will stay with me for a long time.
My thanks to Reagan Arthur for sending me the book.
Synopsis (Publisher): The Good House tells the story of Hildy Good, who lives in a small town on Boston’s North Shore. Hildy is a successful real-estate broker, good neighbor, mother, and grandmother. She’s also a raging alcoholic. Hildy’s family held an intervention for her about a year before this story takes place – “if they invite you over for dinner, and it’s not a major holiday,” she advises “run for your life” – and now she feels lonely and unjustly persecuted. She has also fooled herself into thinking that moderation is the key to her drinking problem.
As if battling her demons wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Hildy soon finds herself embroiled in the underbelly of her New England town, a craggy little place that harbors secrets. There’s a scandal, some mysticism, babies, old houses, drinking, and desire – and a love story between two craggy 60-somethings that’s as real and sexy as you get. An exceptional novel that is at turns hilarious and sobering, The Good House asks the question: What will it take to keep Hildy Good from drinking? For good.
My take: Hildy Good is like that neighbor lady who knows everybody and will tell you everything about them. She’s lived in the quaint New England village of Wendover her entire life and knows all the secrets of the town’s major players. She has a big chip on her shoulder due in part to her family’s intervention which made her feel betrayed and downright angry. Also, the real estate market has suffered in recent years and Hildy needs to sell some houses.
Now, as crusty or salty as Hildy may seem she does have a softer side. She will quietly help people in need without making a big deal out of it. BUT pity the person who crosses Hildy or suggests she might want to stop drinking because she will turn on the poor soul and lay him or her out in no uncertain terms. Hildy sometimes feels as persecuted for her drinking as she might imagine her ancestor felt when she was tried for being a witch in Salem!
As the novel progresses, drama unfolds in Wendover that involves people who are close to Hildy. I began to wonder if certain characters were who I originally thought they were. This is Hildy telling the story so how reliable can she be given she’s still drinking. Ann Leary kept me guessing in the second half of the book.
I enjoyed The Good House and look forward to reading more of Ann Leary’s books. Hildy Good is a character that will stay with me and will undoubtedly bring a smile when I think about the book. I love it when that happens. Recommended.
Narrator: I adored Mary Beth Hurt’s performance. The voice she gave to Hildy Good was perfect. I also liked how she voiced Frank, the man who was Hildy’s boyfriend when she was a teen. I’m so glad I decided to listen to this book!
Synopsis: Set in Bakerton, Pennsylvania— the company town that was the setting of Jennifer Haigh’s award-winning bestseller Baker Towers—News from Heaven explores how our roots, the families and places in which we are raised, shape the people we eventually become. Through a series of connected stories, Haigh brilliantly portrays this close-knit community from its heyday during two world wars to its decline in the final years of the twentieth century. Exploring themes of restlessness, regret, redemption and acceptance, she depicts men and women of different generations shaped by dreams and haunted by disappointments. A young woman glimpses a world both strange and familiar when she becomes a live-in maid for a Jewish family in New York City. A long-lost brother makes an unexpected and tragic homecoming. A woman must come to terms with a heartbreaking loss when she discovers a shocking family secret. A solitary middle-aged woman tastes unexpected love when a young man returns to town. And characters familiar to fans of Baker Towers—indomitable Joyce Novak, her eccentric sister Dorothy, and their mysterious younger brother Sandy—return for an encore performance. Written with poignant realism, News from Heaven deftly captures our desire for escape and our need for connection, and reveals the enduring hold of a past that remains ever present in the lives of ordinary people struggling to understand themselves and define their place in the world.
My take: I shouldn’t be surprised that Jennifer Haigh’s collection of short stories made me rethink my automatic response to the format. Normally I don’t care for them at all. I find them bleak, depressing, and a chore to read. Not so with News From Heaven. Reading each story was like paging through a scrapbook. There’s history, relationships, celebrations, heartbreak, regrets, and even a bit of optimism.
Bakerton, Pennsylvania was home to the coal mine that employed most of the men from town. Once the mine was mined out the jobs were gone and the town was thrown into hard times. Haigh’s connected stories cover the ups and downs of the townspeople – from the mine owners to the workers and everyone in between.
I grew up in a small town so I could identify with the aspect that Joyce in “Desiderata” acknowledged of everyone knowing your story – or at least thinking they know. I don’t live there anymore so they don’t know the rest of my story. That’s not the case with the older residents in Bakerton. More than likely they were born there, raised families, and will eventually die there. Their complete stories known to all.
My favorite story (if I must choose one) was Broken Star. It’s about Regina, a girl in her early teens, and the summer her young aunt and cousin came to visit. I also liked the final story in the collection: Desiderata. The high school principal died a few months earlier and his wife is sorting through his things. Poignant, relatable, uplifting. Really, though, I enjoyed each story.
Jennifer Haigh is one of my favorite authors. I know it’s only January but I expect News From Heaven to be on my 2013 Favorite Books list. It was a pleasure to read.
Note: I read Baker Towers several years ago (the month it was published) and although I remembered the general story there was a lot I forgot. If you haven’t read Baker Towers I recommend doing so before News From Heaven. It’s not imperative but it could help in your overall enjoyment of these connected stories.