The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab


A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever—and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.From the Publisher

So many people have recommended V.E. Schwab to me over the years, but this is the first of her work that I’ve read. Why did I wait so long to read her work???

Put simply, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is one of the most unusual and enchanting books I’ve read in a very long time. Bookshelves overflow with tales of the old gods and retellings of familiar stories, but very few take those old allegorical tales and turn them into something new and fresh like Schwab has done here.

There is so much to unpack in this story – what it means to live and die, what people must do to survive, what it means to be remembered (“It is a lonely thing, to be forgotten.“), what it takes to resist temptation – but at the same time, there is the telling of a captivating story that keeps you turning the pages just to see what happens to Addie, Henry, and the green-eyed man.

I completely understand why Schwab’s work has been so highly recommended to me. Reading this story is making me seek out her earlier work, and I could see this sweeping through book clubs this fall. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Published By: Tor Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly


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When a stranger arrives in town, with a bulging blue bag and a whiff of adventure, the neighborhood takes notice. When he asks for his meals to be sent to his room and peace and quiet for reading, curiosity turns to obsession. Each day he stays there, locked in his room, demanding books: Plath, Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte (the eldest), Dickens, Dumas, Kesey – on and on, the stranger never leaving his room. Who exactly is he? What is he reading? And will it be able to save us from the terrible state of the world?

Written by award-winning author Alice Jolly, and based on an idea by the book lovers of Swindon town, this funny and, ultimately, dystopian tale, reminds us of the importance of literature in an increasingly dark world.

I don’t really know what to say about this odd little book except that it can’t be characterized. Is it dystopian? Is it chick lit? Is it speculative fiction? Is it satire? Is allegorical?

I think it’s ALL of the above and more.

The concept is intriguing. Some guy shows up at a B&B, retreats to his room and reads for days on end. The B&B hostess and her nosy friends feel they must read what the guest reads, so they discover classics like Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad. But, they cannot shake the idea that the guest is more than he appears and that his reading is somehow subversive. Eventually, their obsession with him destroys their society.

In the end, I was left thinking if it is possible to disrupt the natural order of things through reading. Throughout history, when a civilization is threatened or conquered, the first thing to go are the books, so yeah, I think it’s reasonable to say that reading can be subversive.  This would be a magnificent selection for book clubs, who could spend hours debating the meaning behind A Saint in Swindon.

Publication Date: April 15, 2020
Published By: Fairlight Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate


cover182289-mediumFrom the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours comes a new novel inspired by historical events: a dramatic story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its vital connection to her own students’ lives.

In her distinctive voice, Lisa Wingate brings to life startling stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.

Louisiana, 1875: In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.

Louisiana, 1987: For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Augustine, Louisiana. The town seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled live oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.

This book caught me by surprise. The concept intrigued me – parallel stories past & present about the “lost friends” letters in the Southwestern Christian Advocate that helped reunite former slaves and their families, and a modern story about descendants of some of those slaves who reconnect with their history.

It takes a skilled writer to construct a narrative that jumps between centuries but keeps a common thread running through both past and present. Often, one of the story threads is better developed and more interesting, but that doesn’t happen here. Both past and present are are equally captivating. I found myself reading swiftly through chapters because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.

The story set in the past, that of Hannie Gossett, is wrenching and raw. The unspeakable way slave families were broken up and sold and how black women and girls were treated by white men and women is hard to read, but it is an important part of the narrative which makes the end of Hattie’s story that much more satisfying.

The present day story about a naive but enthusiastic young teacher who finds a way to connect with her students through history is, at times, a bit too convenient. However, the teacher (Miss Silva), the adult characters, and the kids are well-developed and endearing.

This will appeal to Wingate’s fan base, for sure, and would make a decent book club book. It must be said that there are better novels about life as a slave out there (Beloved and certainly The Water Dancer by Coates), but The Book of Lost Friends is a good addition to that genre of books and will introduce readers to the Lost Friends letters which can be viewed online. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020
Published By: Random House – Ballantine
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

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cover171999-mediumThe story of a solitary green notebook that brings together six strangers and leads to unexpected friendship, and even love

Julian Jessop, an eccentric, lonely artist and septuagenarian believes that most people aren’t really honest with each other. But what if they were? And so he writes–in a plain, green journal–the truth about his own life and leaves it in his local café. It’s run by the incredibly tidy and efficient Monica, who furtively adds her own entry and leaves the book in the wine bar across the street. Before long, the others who find the green notebook add the truths about their own deepest selves–and soon find each other In Real Life at Monica’s Café.

The Authenticity Project’s cast of characters–including Hazard, the charming addict who makes a vow to get sober; Alice, the fabulous mommy Instagrammer whose real life is a lot less perfect than it looks online; and their other new friends–is by turns quirky and funny, heartbreakingly sad and painfully true-to-life. It’s a story about being brave and putting your real self forward–and finding out that it’s not as scary as it seems. In fact, it looks a lot like happiness. The Authenticity Project is just the tonic for our times that readers are clamoring for–and one they will take to their hearts and read with unabashed pleasure.

Reading this book was a balm for my soul during a particularly difficult time. I’ve spent my career believing in the power of words to reveal and heal, and Clare Pooley accomplishes that in this heartwarming story. Being authentic, truly authentic, is terrifying for most people. Would you ever reveal your deepest secret, and if you did, would it be in a notebook that you leave on a table in a coffee shop for a complete stranger to read? That’s what happens here, but instead of strangers remaining strangers, the people who find the notebook and read the contents become friends who help each other move on from particularly difficult parts of their lives.

This will make a great book club selection and will be a popular read for those who are craving happiness and human comfort.

Publication Date: February 4, 2020
Published By: Penguin Group Viking; Pamela Dorman Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card


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A transporting debut novel that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations, in the tradition of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Stanford Solomon has a shocking, thirty-year-old secret. And it’s about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley, a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend.

And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.

These Ghosts Are Family revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the house boy who loved Vera, whose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.

These Ghosts Are Family explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is an engrossing portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret. This electric and luminous family saga announces the arrival of a new American talent.

A man steals another man’s identity and lives a whole new life over decades. What happens to his first family and how do his actions shape their lives? Maisy Card’s debut novel is bursting with the stories of all the people touched by Abel Paisley’s split second decision to become Solomon Stanford. She skillfully weaves all the stories together and lets the lives of so many bleed out on to the pages. You won’t like all the characters, but you will be drawn into their stories nonetheless.

Stories like this always make me think about the decisions we make and how they affect others. There are so many paths we could all walk down throughout our lives – whose path did we affect and what did it mean? Card doesn’t pull punches. There are some ugly things in this books, but the characters feel real and raw so that you can’t help but feel their pain, sorrow, and joy.

This will be one of the best of 2020. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez


cover175515-mediumThe first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the internationally bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words.

Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?

I finished this beautiful book several days ago and it continues to call to me. I keep dipping back into it to re-read passages. Some might dismiss this as taking advantage of the current political issues around immigration and human rights, and to those skeptics I say f*** you. This is a haunting, beautifully written story about life after tremendous loss, what it means to be human, and to recognize and celebrate humanity wherever you find it. Here, it’s a pregnant, undocumented girl who is more than a statistic. She is a real person who needs help and who, in turn, helps Antonia find a new path.

This should be popular with book clubs and community reading programs.

Highly recommended.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020
Published By: Algonquin Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Doorways to the Deadeye by Eric Guignard


cover170618-mediumFrom the Publisher: Luke Thacker is a drifting hobo in Depression-era America, riding the rails of the nation and surviving by crumbs and hope. Along the way he learns the iconography of transients—the Hobo Code—better than anyone else and deciphers a secret that thrusts him into Athanasia, the middle ground of memories. He learns that Athanasia exists around us, a realm in which the deceased persevere by how they are remembered, and the memories Luke meets will do anything to not ever be forgotten, whether by trickery, violence, or daring.

Luke learns, too, that what’s remembered yesterday is not always the same as what will be remembered tomorrow, and he sets off to keep alive the memories of those he loves in the way a ’bo does best: telling tales of old legends, and making up new ones alike. Fifty years later, the tall crossbucks of Luke Thacker are repeated by homeless King Shaw, who’s struggling to keep Luke’s own legend alive and with it, perhaps, his own.

’Cause it don’t matter if you rob banks with a dead John Dillinger, are hunted over the years by vengeful Earp brothers, or go against the monstrous railroad guard, Smith McCain: When a story is told, all who are part of it become a little stronger.

It’s been awhile since I read a book that has stayed with me as long as this one. I picked this one up mostly because I’ve been fascinated by the Hobo Code since reading about something similar in The Adventure of the Dancing Men by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The idea that it is a secret code that leads to an alternate reality is fascinating, and the alternate reality, Athanasia, is utterly remarkable.

There is so much to unpack with this story, which, really, is about stories and how they are used to keep memories alive. Storytelling goes back to the earliest days of humans, where people used stories as a way to remember and to teach. Guignard uses that in a cautionary way when describing the inhabitants of Athanasia and how their actions cross over from memory to real life in very unexpected ways. I was particularly fascinated with the American Revolutionary characters included here, and Guignard’s presentation of how the memories of one particular Founding Father persist was rather frightening.

The commentary on truth and how storytelling is designed to take “truth” and make it bigger is something the reader will think about for a long time. The desire to be remembered is something we all experience, but some need more. In many ways, this story is an allegory for our current rabid social media culture, where people so crave attention that they make up personas and lifestyles just to be noticed and remembered.

This would make an excellent choice for book discussions. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: July 26, 2019
Published By: JournalStone
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman


cover161184-mediumFrom the Publisher: In 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive. In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel to Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, then to a convent in western France known for its silver roses, then to a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be, waiting to avenge her little sister.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

I have started to write this review about 10 times and simply cannot express the blend of tragedy and joy you will find in this book. Hoffman has taken the horrifying historical context of the Holocaust and distilled it into the stories of four women: Lea, Ettie, Marianne, and the golem-woman Ava. It’s about survival when everything you know is ripped away; disbelief that your neighbors, friends, and country can suddenly turn on you because of your beliefs; love when the world seems consumed by hate; courage when faced with unimaginable loss, and humanity when it’s needed most. It takes a writer as skilled as Hoffman to take these heart-wrenching stories and tell them with such grace and beauty.

The story begins and ends with love – the undying, monumental love of a mother for her child, and of the child for her mother. Hoffman’s trademark magical realism is here in the form of Ava, the golem created to keep Lea safe who performs her job to perfection. In the face of unimaginable horror, ordinary people find strength, courage, and yes, love.

The best of the year for me.

“Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman’s exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience. The book builds and builds, as she weaves together, seamlessly, the stories of people in the most desperate of circumstances—and then it delivers with a tremendous punch. It opens up the world, the universe, in a way that it absolutely unique. By the end you may be weeping.” —Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge

“Alice Hoffman’s new novel will break your heart, and then stitch it back together piece by piece. It’s about love and loss, about history and the world today, about what happens when man goes against the laws of nature for good and for evil. It’s my new favorite Hoffman book—and if you know how much I adore her writing, that’s truly saying something.” —Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things and A Spark of Light

“An exceptionally voiced tale of deepest love and loss…one of [Hoffman’s] finest. WWII fiction has glutted the market, but Hoffman’s unique brand of magical realism and the beautiful, tender yet devastating way she explores her subject make this a standout.” —Booklist (starred review)

Publication Date: September 24, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson


bookwomanPhotos of the pack librarians of the early 20th century have been all over library social media recently, so I was pleased to find a book about the service. While this story includes the pack service as a central element, the real story is Book Woman Cussy Mary, a member of blue people of Kentucky. Not only is Cussy Mary a woman attempting to develop a career as a librarian, she is also different because of the blue color of her skin. I was prompted to research the blue people because I’d never heard of them, and was fascinated to learn about how the families evolved.

The story here is hard to read, given the horrible living conditions of people in the Kentucky hills in the early 20th century, which were even worse for women and those who were different. I was surprised and unsettled by the violence against Cussy Mary so early in the book, and had to actually put it down for awhile to process what happened to her. I did pick up again and finish the book, finding comfort in the fact that she eventually ends up okay, but the path there was so filled with bigotry, hatred, and violence that I would warn readers who are triggered by violence against women and minorities to be cautious reading this.

Published By: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger


67ED6962-E081-4A26-ABFC-089CF8128753Sometimes you need a book that soothes spirit – a book that starts slowly and meanders along at a gentle pace, telling a gentle story that leaves you feeling like you’ve been floating down a lazy river in the not-too-hot sunshine. Virgil Wander is that kind of book.

Leif Enger is known for his use of allegory and symbolism, and remains true to form in Virgil. The overarching theme that appears again and again throughout the story is flight and all the things that go along with it – here specifically weightlessness, freedom, and risk-taking.

The story begins with our titular character, Virgil Wander, recovering from an awful accident that had him driving his car off an embankment into Lake Superior. While his car doesn’t make it, Virgil escapes with some bodily damage and a traumatic brain injury. Language is one of the things that Virgil has lost – not the ability to speak, but the use of adjectives – the ability to describe. It leaves Virgil feeling like a stranger in his home, his job, and his life in general.

Into this confusion comes Rune Eliasson, an old man from the Arctic Circle searching for a son he didn’t know was conceived on a long ago trip to Greenstone, Minnesota. He discovers the son mysteriously disappeared a decade before, but stays to find out more about him. Virgil and Rune bond over flying kites and eventually become unlikely roommates.

What commences is the story of how Virgil Wander recovers his adjectives and discovers a new life right on top of the old one. Along the way, Virgil and the multitude of characters living in Greenstone struggle with the vagaries (and predictabilities) of small town life. The story is a common one across the Great Lakes region where towns that boomed with good fortune and wealth for years are now faced with closed factories, declining population, and aging infrastructure.

The big question is why do people stay in these small towns with no future. Enger’s answer, I think, lies in the symbolism here. One of the characters, Shad Pea, is allegedly killed by a monster sturgeon, which his surviving son vows to kill. The fish itself becomes a character here, driving one of the many sub-plots until a blood-pumping scene at the end of the book. The fish is often used as a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, a theme entwined with the lives of the characters and the town. Relationships are born and reborn throughout, further emphasizing the importance of friends, family, and acquaintances in daily life. People in Greenstone care about each other and, more importantly, take care of each other.

The more obvious theme here, though, is flight. For Virgil, his old life has flown away, but he’s finding a new one bit by bit. Rune’s amazing handmade kites are used as the vehicle to bring people together and to provide the sense of power and weightlessness that exists when something leaves the earth to swoop through the air. While you can see the kite and feel it through the string, a wayward breeze or a strong wind can take that kite and fold it up, crash it, or make it soar if only you have the courage and perseverance to keep it in the air. One of my favorite scenes has Rune and Virgil flying a kite in the dark. Virgil never knows which kite he was flying. All he knows is what he can feel through the string and he says it is “a curious privilege…to fly without so much as a glimpse of perception of the wing.” That is a turning point for Virgil when he realizes that his new life will require risk-taking.

Virgil’s budding relationship with Nadine is part of his transformation, and Enger handles it with the gentle matter-of-factness of finding a partner late in life. It just happens. And that is ultimately what Virgil Wander discovers. Life happens, whether you’re ready for it or not. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes you get a raw deal. How you respond to both the good and the bad is what makes your life important.

Virgil Wander is not the most exciting book you will ever read and, indeed, many reviews call it out for being boring. If you’re not a small town kind of person, I expect you would find this odd and a little dull. Anyone who has spent some time living in a small town will recognize the unusual (and usual) characters that show up everywhere, and will enjoy drawing comparisons to real-life examples of the Village Hall staff, the tired sheriff, the local marijuana grower, and the colorful characters who are found everywhere. If you have a couple hours of uninterrupted time where you want to fall into a cozy, friendly reading trance, pick this up and snuggle down. You’ll emerge refreshed.