The start of a new year calls for a new list of books! Over the past few months I have managed to fit in some good reading time, filled with a wide variety of both fiction and non-fiction. Since there are so many to share, I am breaking them up into two lists. Here are recommendations and short synopses of some of the fiction books I have read over the past few months.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
This was my favorite read from 2013, and I plan on reading it again soon. The characters in this story are fun, genuine, and quirky, and from the first page they became like dear friends. It is written as a series of letters from Julia, the main character, to her publisher, his sister, and a group of men and women on the island of Guernsey off the coast of Britain. She is in London working on a story based on the Literary Society this group started during World War II, and in the process she grows to love them as her family. If you read only one work of fiction this year, I encourage you to choose this one.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
Set in Germany in the throes of World War II, this is a deeply moving story narrated by Death, who tells of a young girl named Liesel who gets into the habit of stealing books. A foster family in Munich takes her in after losing her mother and brother, and it is her foster father who teaches Liesel to read. Her foster parents find a young Jewish man on their doorstep in the middle of one night, and over the months that they shelter him, Max and Liesel form a deep friendship.
Wildflowers of Terezin, by Robert Elmer
A moving and thought-provoking novel based on the true story of the courage and determination of the Danish people to save their Jewish countrymen from annihilation by the Nazis. Steffen, a quiet and gentle Lutheran pastor in Copenhagen, reluctantly agrees to help the tenacious and vibrant Hanne Abrahamsen smuggle a group of Jews out of Denmark by boat. As the resistance grows, Steffen’s faith deepens and so does his relationship with Hanne. When she is captured and taken to Terezin, a work camp located in Czechoslovakia, Steffen’s participation in the Resistance grows stronger. With themes of faith, sacrifice, love, perseverance, and brotherhood, this book is well worth your time.
Now, in case you are under the impression that I only read books set in World War II, here are a few more from a wider range of genres.
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
This is the first of Kate Morton’s writing that I’ve read, and I was captivated by the story of a young girl who appears on a wharf in Australia by herself with no idea where she came from, and fleeting memories of a woman known only as “The Authoress”. She ends up being raised by the Wharf Master and his wife, and at the age of 18 her father tells her the truth about how he found her, embarking her on a quest to find out who she is and where she came from. She assembles a few of the pieces, but is unable to put together the whole story, so after her death her granddaughter continues the journey and discovers the whole truth. Well written and easy to read, this book keeps you engaged from beginning to end. Morton does an excellent job of weaving together the mystery, giving you just the right clues along the way.
The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton
Like The Forgotten Garden, this book is also a mystery that weaves its way back and forth from the early 1900’s to the present. It follows the life of Grace, who as a young girl worked as a housemaid at Riverton, and tells of the unique and tragic relationship she has with the mysterious sisters of the manor, Hannah and Emmeline. The story centers on the death of a young poet at the house in 1924, and Grace is the only living witness to the event. Now that she is old, Grace decides it is time to tell the whole story of what happened, choosing to share it through recorded tapes to her Grandson. At points this book seemed a little tedious in the details, but overall it was engaging and worth the read.
Divergent, by Veronica Roth
This dystopian novel is similar in tone and themes to The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (although from what I have read, Roth began her story long before THG was in print), with a strong female lead character who rises up to help lead a rebellion against the autocratic and oppressive government. Books such as these remind me of the saying “the best way for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke). As a student of history, these stories remind me of the resilience of people and the unwillingness to submit to tyranny indefinitely. At some point, truth wins over lies. Every time. I found the storyline of this particular novel a bit lacking in depth and character development, and it was easy to guess where she was going with the story. If you enjoy this genre though, the story is clean and a quick read.
Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline
Another novel based on true events, Orphan Train is the ficticious story of two women separated by about 80 years, who meet and find out that they share a very similar life story. Molly is a young woman about to be aged out of the foster care system in 2011, angry at the world and at her life. She steals a book from the library, and has to do 50 hours of community service. She ends up helping 90 year old Vivian clean out her attic, and discovers that she was one of the 249,000 orphaned children sent west from the east coast between 1850-1930 to live and work with families who were willing to take them. This is a quick read, and one that is full of humor, poignancy, and the realities of love and loss. It is also a fascinating historical lesson on what happened to many of the children who rode the trains, and will make you want to learn more about this time in our history.