- The Book Thief by Makus Zuzak -- I've read a lot of WWII-era novels but this is truly special. It is narrated by Death, who isn't at all evil...just a "guy" with a job kept quite busy in 1940s Germany. The protagonist is a young girl, sent to live with foster parents. The book celebrates acts of bravery...from big ones like sheltering a Jewish man in hiding to smaller acts like handing food to the starving or refusing to fall in line with Hitler Youth. Beautiful tale celebrating the important acts of everyday people. It's classified as Young Adult but has great value for adult readers as well.
- The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell -- I'm a fiction gal and I would never have bought it on my own. I'm so grateful that it found me (with help from the folks at Harper). Josh and his partner, Brent, both have middle America roots but are very much New Yorkers. During an apple-picking excursion, they fall in love with an old mansion on a farm in a small rural town. The memoir follows them as they work to restore it to working order, learning about the realities of farm life and also themselves in the process. I not only gave it five stars but felt inspired to write the author (who wrote back!!). It is a very real book, things aren't perfect nor are they all Green Acres cute. The farm struggles (still does), their relationship struggles, they doubt. But it is just a beautiful tale. Try it, even if memoirs aren't your thing. (Side Note: They have a TV show too, The Fabulos Beekman Boys...I watched a few minutes but it didn't pull me in. Also, I'm not a Martha Stewart follower but Josh's partner was Dr. Brent and on her show).
- Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese -- I just reread this story of twin boys (conjoined but separated at birth) born to a nurse-nun in Ethiopia who dies in childbirth. Their father, a doctor, flees and they are raised by two other doctors who are struggling to keep the hospital afloat and to save patients suffering as much from poverty and circumstance as disease. The author is a doctor himself, which is made clear both in the medical language and in the passion for the art of healing. At root, it is a story about family and loyalty. Taking the narrator from birth (well, even before...) to adulthood and Ethiopia to New York, the novel shows insight into culture, devotion, and the journey that forms our identity. (Side note: On the first read, I gave it four stars on goodreads...I actually enjoyed it much more the second time which is rare)
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer -- A young boy tries to make sense of the world after losing his dad in the 9/11 attacks. This is an unconventional novel but it works beautifully. The young protagonist (who shares narrating duties with his grandparents) is insightful and wise. His journey is unique (he looks to find a lock that matches a key he found among his dad's belongings) but the motives are universal -- it is his way of trying to make sense of a confusing and troubled world. Truly beautiful.
- The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton-- I don't tend to read thrillers or detective tales but recently became a fan of literary mysteries. This book tells one overall story through three women in three time periods. The modern narrator learns that her grandmother was a foundling whose efforts to track down her roots were cut off when the granddaughter was left in her custody. Many elements are beautifully woven together including a book of fairy tales, family secrets, a garden hidden behind a hedge maze, and competing loyalties and loves. A great book to get lost in and one you are sorry to leave.
- Little Bee by Chris Cleve -- An African girl (well, young woman) shows up on the doorstep of a successful and busy magazine editor on the day of her husband's funeral. Many reviews warn that they can't really tell you what happens without giving too much away and I agree. As the novel unfolds, we learn how the women are linked through an unthinkable shared moment during the editor's visit to Nigeria. The story is one of endurance...facing horrors, coping, surviving, and moving beyond the impossible. It stays with you for its depth and beauty. Even the somewhat comic image of the editor's son, a little boy who only answers to Batman and refuses to wear anything other than his costume, is a statement about coping and asserting control in a chaotic world.
I look forward to new journeys, meeting new characters and visiting new worlds, in 2011.