I love to read, especially books about real characters. I love characters who are multifaceted, with depth. I find characters so much more interesting if they struggle to be their best person. I also want characters who are resilient, who are changed by their struggles, but not defeated. I guess I am a sucker for hope, not sap, but real hope. So what books meet this criteria?
Here is what is on my reader in no particular order:
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
I loved this book. I don’t often read books with young boys as the main character, but this book was well worth going out of my usual preference. I read it because I love the way that Ivan Doig writes, I always feel like I am in the book. In Last Bus to Wisdom Donal, a down on his luck 11-year-old tells his story in first person. He loves living with his Grandma on a ranch in Wyoming, but when his Gran needs surgery he is on the bus and off on an adventure to live with relatives in Wisconsin. His Great Aunt is most unpleasant and Donal and his Great Uncle Herman bond over their unhappiness. The story really takes off when Donal and Herman escape and cross the west on a Greyhound (dog) bus. Their 1950s America is not an Ozzy and Harry saccharine world. Doig presents a nuanced depiction of kindhearted characters, thieves, rogues and hardworking people at the bottom of society, in other words, real life in the real west. Donal retains the enthusiasm and the awe of an 11-year-old even as he confronts challenges and hard work. I also really liked that this wasn’t a coming of age story. The lessons Donal learns are subtle and realistic and don’t culminate in an ‘ah ha’ moment and most of the action is focused on the adventures of the unlikely pair. Thank goodness. I was so immersed in an enjoyable tale of western life that a coming of age story would have ruined it. I highly recommend this book.
After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson
In this book we follow the character Charlotte who we met in the book ‘Somewhere in France’. Charlotte was a VAD nurse in London during WWI. After the war she works for a woman politician to improve the lives of Veterans and their widows. Charlotte is a quiet, studious woman of her time. At times she is a little preachy as the author seeks to highlight the extreme difficulty of the decade after WWI. The depictions of Edward, wounded soldier, POW and shell shock sufferer are sympathetic and engaging. I am a VA nurse and I found his struggles honored both the Veterans of WWI and current Veterans. After the War is Over is a quiet book, however, the quietness was a good reflection of the time and a different pace would have seemed less respectful.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
I picked up this book because we are having a family gathering and my mother likes us to read a book so we can discuss it and make a recipe together. I only made it 80 pages. I’m very picky about my books and I like a plot and characters. In 80 pages they hadn’t shown up, so I gave up. The main character has a little white middle class angst about what success might mean and the direction of her life, but no real conflict develops and the character stagnates. This is supposed to be a love story, but the main character spends much more time describing ingredients and markets than she does describing her perfect French lover. I was hoping for something to happen, an argument, even a mild disagreement, but no, nothing at all happens except shopping for food and eating. She rather smugly wanders around Paris naming same sounding names of streets and letting you know that she has lived there and knows the city. If want a nice description of Paris and like reading about people eating and then try out the recipes, this is the book for you. If you want characters and a plot give it a pass.
Somewhere in France: A Novel of the Great War by Jennifer Robson
Wow – what a wonderful novel. The characters are believable and relatable. I don’t really like upper class Edwardian characters, but Lilly is a woman willing to leave the confines of her privileged upbringing to seek a life that makes a difference. She succeeds in doing her duty as an ambulance driver in WWI. My next book is set during WWI, so I have done some historical digging myself and Ms. Robson is right on the mark in her descriptions of the time. I appreciated that she didn’t glorify the war or look away from the terrible human cost of the conflict. I am a nurse and found that Ms. Robson’s descriptions of the injuries and treatments of the time were accurate and compelling. In addition to the story of the great war is a love story. This book is not a romance, but the love story gives it hope. The love scene is the sweetest most caring love scene I have ever read. I will definitely be reading the next book in this series soon. Highly recommended.
Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
This is the first book of the series and we are introduced to the Bonner family. The character of Elizabeth is a compelling as she struggles to find a place in a world that doesn’t allow a woman to have a career or a life of her own. I really liked how Donati wrote about the black people and Native Americans in this book. In some books set in the 1700s the minority characters are undeveloped and exist for serving their masters. Not so in Donati’s book. They are real complex people who face the challenges of their timeIt held my attention with bravery and honest reactions. The love that develops between Elizabeth and Nathaniel is more complex and compelling than a traditional romance. The story that led into the wilderness didn’t minimize the dangers and difficulties but allowed the characters to meet real challenges and develop strengths along the way. Highly recommend this book.
Dawn on a Distant Shore by Sara Donati
This book continues the story of the Bonner family. I love the characters, especially Hannah who lives and two worlds and develops skills as a healer. I also really liked how much time Elizabeth spent nursing twins. I have read books where caring for a newborn hardly hampers the heroine. Elizabeth is a busy woman, but she is also tied to the needs of her children in a way that rings true. I found some of the action and the way the family gets to England to be a little farfetched, but it is a book, and excitement is expected, so I can forgive the stretch. I definitely plan to read the next book in the series.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
I must start this review with a disclaimer. I hate vampire books. The Twilight series is tops on my list of insipid reads. I don’t like vampire books because they are about vile characters who prey on younger helpless women. That said, I loved A Discovery of Witches. The vampire characters were complex and the relationship between the vampire and the witch was compelling. The characters were complex and interesting. The story moved with an engaging pace and plenty of twists and turns to keep me guessing. I highly recommend this read.
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
I had to read this book right after I read A Discovery of Witches. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. I was enthralled with their move to the 1500s. The characters and their relationship continue to be complex and interesting. Deborah Harkness wrote with enough realistic details that I felt transported to the time. I appreciated the complexity of the love relationship. This story was not a romance, but the love of the vampire Matthew and the witch Diana hold the story together. I highly recommend this beautifully written book.
Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
Last book in the series finds the characters back in modern England. I got a little lost in the details of the book and what it was actually about. I liked how Diana came into her own and became a really powerful figure. I like stories where the man and woman rescue each other. I’ve read other reviews that think the pace of the stories are too slow and too much description. That wasn’t my experience at all. I started the first book thinking I would just give it a try, then read straight through all three. I would read them again.
Maise Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
This book is the first in a popular series and was strongly recommended by my family. Unfortunately, much to my mother’s distress we have very different tastes in books. I couldn’t relate to the main character. I thought I would, I mean what’s not to like about a woman who had been a nurse in WWI and was now a detective. The problem was that the challenges in her life were too neatly addressed and too handily tied up. For example, she was born very poor, but brilliant. Fortunately, and easily she finds a benefactor and gets a world class education. Through her trials, she becomes a paragon of virtue and is frankly boring. Then there is the short and unsatisfying descriptions of her time as a nurse in WWI. She apparently spends most of her time holding patient’s hands while falling in love with a doctor. She even held hands during surgery? The patient was grateful during surgery, really? Hand holding was done in place of anesthesia? The post war story was also rather predictable. On the plus side Jacqueline Winspear did an excellent job of researching the time frame and the setting bringing the time period alive.
Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War. By Heather Webb (Author), Hazel Gaynor (Author), Beatriz Williams (Author), Jennifer Robson (Auhor), Jessica Brockmole (Author), Kate Kerrigan (Author, Evangeline Holland (Author), Lauren Wilig (Author) and Marci Jefferson (Author)
This anthology of short stories is held together by the common theme of love and the end of WWI. Each story has its own unforgettable characters, from the young rape victim in hiding, to the show girl to the grieving mother I was enthralled by them all. The characters experience the last day of WWI as a focal point to the experience of the ‘Great War’. I generally read books that are longer with the opportunity for more leisurely character development. I found this work to be a pleasant surprise. In the hands of these skilled authors I was instantly transported to the time and the experiences of the women. I heartily recommend this read.
City On Clouds by Marco Peel
City on Clouds by Marco Peel is told through the eyes of several characters in two time periods: early 2000 and 1200. Though at first the multiple use of first person is a little confusing, after a few chapters the characters become more developed and it is no longer difficult to follow who is talking. The action moves back and forth between two parallel stories of two similar young women. The character Alazais lives in the 1200s Spain and is caught up in the violence of her time and the children’s crusades. The character Alisha lives in the 2000s and is caught up in the violence of the 9/11 attacks in NY and then Darfur. The structure of the story subtly compares the different times and pulls the reader in. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions about human nature, violence and endurance and redemption. Marco Peel beautifully deploys the English language in a different way for each character allowing them to have their own voice. He surprised and pleased me with his ability to portray female characters authentically. I recommend this book for the compelling story. I do however caution readers that the times and the stories are explicitly violent and sometimes sexual in nature.
I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.
Glass Roses: A Victorian Fairytale by Britain Kalai Sonderquist
The characters in this story were two very engaging young upper class British women. Though they are proper women of the 1840s they each had enough spirit and openness to new experiences to make them interesting. The two women live the fairy tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast imagined as they might have happened without magic. Since the underlying fairy tales are well known, the pleasure in the read comes from discovering how the tale will unfold for real people and in recognizing the nods to the classic tales. For example, Eleanor’s glass slippers. The entire book is told through letters between the characters Eleanor and Isabella which allows for each character to speak in first person. The young women speak with proper English of the time, and the writing and use of the English language is skillful and enjoyable to read. The book moves between the Scottish countryside and the European continent and both settings are meticulously researched for the time period. The themes of finding love while being true to oneself are classic fairy tale themes that translate well to the time period of the book as well as appeal to modern readers.
I found the pace at the beginning of the book to be rather slow. Occasionally the dialogue seemed a little strained as the characters quoted what people had said in their letters to each other, this was however a minor distraction. The book could be considered Jane Austin fan fiction, and I do not enjoy Jane Austin. Readers who do will find Glass Roses: A Victorian Fairytale a charming read.
I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.
The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati.
I enjoyed the read of the ‘Gilded Hour’ by Sara Donati. The main characters are physicians Anna and Sophie Savard. Female physicians in the 1890s were rare and Sara does a good job of developing the characters into realistic, believable people. They had strengths and weaknesses that meshed well with the plot development. I did struggle with keeping Anna and Sophie straight as they were very similar characters. It didn’t seem that the book needed two plot lines of two main characters. However, as this book is the first in a new series, the series may depend on a large cast. I also struggled with understanding the back story as I hadn’t read the ‘Into the Wilderness’ series.
The story was a compelling mix of the professional and personal lives of the characters. They deliver care to women (the only patients they are allowed to treat) and run up against the powerful Postmaster General Comstock who has a personal vendetta against women’s healthcare, especially birth control and abortion. When someone starts killing women the story is even more absorbing. The professional story mixes easily with the personal plot lines that include a realistic love story.
The Gilded Hour is set in the 1890s New York City. Sara Donati did a fabulous job of researching the setting and writing in a way that made me feel that I was in NY of 1890s. Her descriptions of the place and the use of language and social norms of the time immersed me in the setting.
I recommend The Gilded Hour and I look forward to the next book in the series.
Sara Donati is the pen name of Rosina Lippi. Check out the Gilded Hour and her other works on her website at http://rosinalippi.com/weblog/
Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly. I read this book to give myself some background into the Irish story. It is a heartbreaking account of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. I thought the Michael character was a little too perfect, and I wanted more depths to the story of how they became Americans. However, the strength of the work was really the exploration of what it meant to be Irish in the 1840s and the potato famine and the accompanying attempted genocide of the Irish people. Check out Galway Bay and other Irish themed works at http://www.marypatkelly.com/
The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon, yep, the whole thing, all thousands of pages. I have to be careful about when I start reading one of these as I can’t stop reading so everything in my life stops. It is the history and the complex characters not to mention the long term love affair that grabs hold of me and won’t let go. It is definitely a good read. Check out her website at http://www.dianagabaldon.com/
River Teeth: Stories and Writings by David James Duncan. This book is a collection of short stories with characters who are achingly real and presented in crystal clear writing.
The River Why by David James Duncan. I am so inspired by the multifaceted Gus character and how he grows to love himself and his maddeningly flawed family that I re-read the book regularly. Check out his website http://davidjamesduncan.com/
The Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. You might know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time which I read in middle school. The Wind in the Door is the book that I turn to when I wonder if my life has any value. It is a youth literature book, but it reminds me that goodness isn’t about scale, but about heart. This is another book that I re-read regularly. Check out her website at http://www.madeleinelengle.com/
Encore: A Bella James Mystery by Alexis Koetting. This book is a thrilling mystery that only an accomplished actress like Alexis could write. Check her out at http://www.alexiskoetting.com/
To round out this eclectic list is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series by Stieg Larsson. I just love how strange Lizbeth is, but how she manages to find her way in the world. Check out his website at www.stieglarsson.com/