Close Enough to Touch by Colleen Oakley

touchThis book had so much going on in that was directly appealing to me. A young woman has been a recluse for 9 years, she is literally allergic to other human beings and touching someone can cause anaphylactic shock, there’s a library job with lots of references to books, a child with some mental health issues, and a divorced dad just trying to do his best. And a growing and unlikely love between him and the allergic woman. What’s not to love?

I liked how there was a rational explanation for her very rare allergy and I liked Jubilee as a person-she was funny and smart and not unaware of her issues. There were bits of humor and also real grief and pathos. Not even so much from the little boy, Aja, who lost both his parents, but from reading what the absence of human touch has done to her and meant to her. And then, when there is a growing attraction and they can’t act on it-so much tension!

I really enjoyed this a lot and also the structure-having the New York Times articles interspersed. This would get 4 1/2 stars from me. The one thing that didn’t ring true for me was in the epilogue. So spoiler alert!! Stop reading now if you haven’t read this, because I’m about to give away the whole ending…

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I just don’t believe that they way the last chapter ended, with them ready to take a chance and make it work,with their love and friendship so believable, that they would have just not seen each other or talked to each other once he moved back to NH. 7 years?! That just seemed to not match at all. Especially since she remained in contact with Aja (whom I would have liked a little more epilogue info about, and also what about Ellie? How did she turn out? Was the relationship with her dad repaired?) I was glad to see that she had built a family of close friends around her and her life was good, but I just didn’t believe Eric wouldn’t have been a part of it.
Also, according to the final article the gene stuff didn’t work, but it took at least 5 years to find out. And then they did try the herbal medicine stuff which the dr said had about an 80% success rate with her other allergy patients, and then that worked and cured her. Wasn’t that the same technique that, when Jubilee first met with her, she said wouldn’t be worth trying and they should do the gene stuff instead? Isn’t Jubilee infuriated that she just spent over 5 years trying something that didn’t work (and apparently cost 100s of thousands of dollars) when the 18 month treatment completely cured her? But no mention of that.
And one last dig, from a librarian. Please tell me where this library is that people just get jobs because someone asked for them to be hired. Recluses who are well read but have no library experience. And then get referred to as “librarian” all throughout the rest of the book. Because she wasn’t.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

choirAdd this to the list of my favorite WWII, set in England, historical fiction novels. This was marvelous. I felt like it started off with me thinking it was going to be a sweet story about women coming together in their village during the war, combined with gossipy town stories. And while it was that, I felt it really grew into something more.

The story is told through journal entries, occasional notices, and letters. The characters include a widow whose son is off fighting, the manor house family with snotty rich older daughter who toys with men, the younger sister who wants to be more grown up, the lovely new choirmistress and some other standard fare village characters. But throw in the completely unethical blackmailing midwife and suddenly everything got more complicated-bribes, spies, secret identities, etc. I really enjoyed how this story had plenty of that “plucky women get stuff done during the war” that I like so much, but what I especially liked was that none of the women saw that ability in themselves and it was a pleasure to see them come to recognize their strengths.
While it seemed, at first, that this would be mostly light, there was plenty of realistic sorrow. I also thought all the parts about the women singing were woven in very beautifully.

I loved this and could so easily visualize everything. Absolutely charming, winning, historical fiction.

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

jason1st book of 2017! And a nice way to kick off the year. This was a prepub that I got for Paul and he read it first and liked it very much. Teenage boys and video games in the 1980s-right up his alley.

This was a nice way to kick off a new year-a quick read, totally entertaining, and quite unexpected. Obviously I loved that this was set in the 1980s in a year I clearly recall, as well as set in NJ. (Though I could never quite figure out what town “Wetbridge” was supposed to be, or where St. Agatha’s was supposed to be. Perhaps they were combinations of other real life places. They were both easy for me to imagine.)
I thought this was a great story-I really enjoyed the look at early video game programming and the structure of the story. There was a big section I was very tense reading-I thought I could see the whole way the story was going and didn’t want to put myself through reading about the main character making Terrible Choices. However, I kept going and I was really pleased with how the author did not do exactly as I thought he would.
I’m not sure if this is being published as adult or ya, but definitely teenagers would enjoy it. And hey, you get to visit his site and play the video game, too!

Top Ten Books of 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016

It’s a sad truth that I haven’t been putting my reviews here since August. BUT. I’ve still been meticulously keeping track of all I read, and writing brief reviews on Goodreads. Here it is December 31 and I wouldn’t dream of not doing my top ten books of the year post.
First, how was my reading this year? This year I set my goal to be 70 books, which I thought to be reasonable, and possibly even low (ever since the year I didn’t meet my goal, I go for “attainable.”) I easily exceeded and finished with a very nice 91 titles. You can see a lovely image of all the covers here.  My reading changed a bit this year because I returned to work as a school librarian in a school for 4th and 5th graders. Thus, I’ve upped my middle grade reading. As usual I did not count picture books, although I read plenty, though I did include the audiobooks we listen to as a family. Things got a little fizzley at the end of the year, with nothing wowing me or captivating me. Fortunately I was handed a prepub of Miss You by Kate Eberlen right after Christmas and it saved the day. Good to end the year with an emphatic 5 stars!
As in the past two years I was determined to reread at least one or two old favorites, and this year I reread Patty Jane’s House of Curl by Lorna Landvik, Anne of Green Gables and  Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery (beautiful new editions I got for Christmas), Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes, and  The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher.  They are all five star books and were all a joy to reread and rediscover. Every time I read a little detail I’d forgotten I’d have a lovely gasp of recognition.  I’m not going to include any of them on my top 10 list (so I can squeeze more in, of course), but if I did I would put The Shell Seekers and Harriet the Spy on it. The Shell Seekers is on my permanent Top 10 list and not surprisingly this not only held up, but was like a vacation from life as I was totally immersed in it. It will forever be one of my favorite books. It’s engrossing, historical, emotional, and really made me realize how often I refer to it consciously or unconsciously when reading other British historicals. Here was my full review of it.  Harriet the Spy was a treasured childhood book that I have not reread as an adult. Rereading it now I realized that it was an even better book than I’d realized at the time. It’s also more mature than I realized, really tapping in to difficult friendship problems and emotions. The characterization of Janie and her parents was hilarious and I remembered just how much, as a child, I’d love these stark unflattering portrayals of adults and children. Here is my full review of it.

 

Top Ten Books of 2016: (in no particular order)

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: What a beautiful story. I adored this. It had the lovely writing I expect from Allende, was nicely put together, had some interesting historical parts (internment camps of WWII), and she made characters I deeply cared about. All woven together into a bit of mystery. How did the past part turn into the current part? What happened in their lives? How is this all fitting together? Though my books aren’t ranked, I would put this in the top 3.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling (and others): I was initially reticent about reading this-screenplay, not really Rowling, do we need it? But boy am I glad I read it. It was a very welcome return to HP’s world and extremely satisfying. I loved it.
Miss You by Kate Eberlen: Can’t say enough about this, the last book I read of the year. Dreamy, romantic, nice and long, really everything I want in a book.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud: The only graphic novel to make the list. This book was fantastic. The ending took my breath away-literally made me gasp, and then cry. It was perfect.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: A favorite writer. This was part of that whole Jane Austen rewrite thing (I also read Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler,which I enjoyed.) and it was immensely satisfying. Funny, clever, the whole package.
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume: O Judy! I loved this! Such an interesting specific historical time (and New Jersey local!) that I really knew nothing about. I loved the many points of view, and of course Judy’s writing. I was very caught up in this story.
Scythe by Neal Shusterman: The only YA to make the list this year. A perfect example of dystopia and I can’t stop thinking about so many aspects of it. A great story and the structure and writing were great.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: A worthy follow up to the success of Where’d You Go Bernadette? I really enjoy her humor and style of writing. This book made me laugh and cringe.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: The only children’s title to unreservedly make my Top 10 list. Absolutely wonderful historical fiction, touching, beautiful story with some really harsh truths about humanity in it. A great addition to this genre (WWII, London children evacuees.)
One True Loves by Taylor Reid Jenkins: I only gave this 4 stars, but I’m putting it on the list because, to be frank, the story has stuck with me more than some of my 5 star books. I love “what if?” concept and I thought she charmingly managed to explore a person’s two possible paths very nicely and neatly.

Honorable Mentions: The list was originally 13, so I’m forcing 3 onto the honorable mention list.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty: Moriarty remains one of my favorite authors. I know I will like anything she writes. Good long stories with many points of view, human foibles fully on display, and realistic outcomes. I did have to look up which one this was, though, as I can’t keep her books straight. And rereading my review I see that yes, I didn’t like this as much as her other books, but on its own it was compelling and well written. I gave it 5 stars, but given the previous sentences I’m putting it in the honorable mention section.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Apix Sweeney: I know I gave this 5 stars, but I’m bumping it to the HM list because…I really couldn’t tell you much about it unless I reread my review in great detail. At the time I enjoyed it very much and liked the writing but very little of the story has stuck with me.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson : I truly liked this very very much and am not sure why it only got 4 1/2 stars from me. Unlike The Nest I remember quite a bit about this WWI story, and in fact some scenes remain vivid in my mind. Simonson really captured this moment in time quite well. Though like all WWI stories you know it’s going to be sad..

Other Bests and Honorable Mentions:

I may not have kept track of all the audiobooks this year, but we did listen when we drove places on summer vacation. Also, with the start of my job my son drove to work with me and we listened to books on our very short commute together. My two favorite were both books I’d already read in print, but enjoyed something new from the marvelous audio production. The first was City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, read by Wendy Dillon. The atmospheric sounds added so much, especially at the end of the novel. The other was The Graveyard Book, read by the author, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a wonder at reading his books. He’s basically both author and amazing actor. I loved hearing this.

As I mentioned before I’ve been upping my middle grade reading since I’m now a 4th/5th grade librarian. These were the standout children’s titles I read this year:

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan: Wonderful! I loved the structure, which is that the story of this last year of a school (before it is destroyed) is told from many points of view in poetry. So beautifully put together and showcasing many forms of poetry. Really super.
The Seventh Wish By Kate Messner: Drawn to this by the hubbub surrounding its release. I thought it was wonderful and I do so love this genre-realistic with a little bit of magic. Same style as her other book, All the Answers, but this time taking on what it’s like to have a drug addict in the family. Really solid good story.
Baker’s Magic by Diane Zahler: Top notch magical adventure. I loved it and the students I’ve passed it on to have loved it as well. I’m struggling to find a readalike for this. A great story structure-every single chapter came to an end and made you excited to turn the page and find out what happens next.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker: What an ingenious blend of animal story-human story, and not magical, fully realistic. Some dark explorations of contemporary war, lots of stress for animals lovers, and an emotional story. A real gem.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson: Newbery honor graphic novel, I (and my daughter, and all my students) loved this. No easy answers in friendship and yes, as you grow up, you sometimes grow apart from your friends, and it’s not easy. The roller derby angle is simply a really interesting added bonus to a great story about growing up (not too much!) and finding your own interests and friends.

Honorable mention YA book would be The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. As a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, I loved the premise of this. Consider all those shows and books like Buffy that focus on the few kids who are always fighting off supernatural danger. What about everyone else?? Very clever and fun.

thisisjustOne more honorable mention for a (not new) nonfiction book that I “discovered” on the shelves of my library: This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman. I do love the poem This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams, and that’s the set up for this terrific story. A class reads that poem and then each writes an apology poem. The second half is the poems that the apology recipients write back. And what’s so impressive is that the stories together (not unlike The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary) form a bigger story. It’s really incredible to read on your own, or as a class.

squidAnother nonfiction that I loved was Giant Squid by Candace Fleming. (It’s getting award buzz, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it gets.) I loved the poetic opening, Eric Rohmann’s gorgeous dark illustrations, and how Fleming writes about a creature that we know very little about! As usual, I loved the extra information in the afterward. If I remember nothing else it will be the astonishing fact that sperm whales have been found with thousands of giant squid beaks (they don’t digest, but remain whole) in their stomachs. Which means there are thousands and thousands of squids swimming around in our oceans and yet we only ever saw a living one for the first time a few years ago!!!!

A very full varied year of reading! I’m so glad I took the time to reread so many old favorite this year and will continue to do so next year. Who knows what 2017 will bring? Well, of course we know some things. My next most anticipated books will be Kevin Kwan’s newest and I just hear that J. Courtney Sullivan has a new book in the works. Hooray!

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

26247008First, the non-spoiler review: As with her other books I went into this blind-I knew I would read anything she writes and this was my most looked forward to book of the summer. I deliberately read nothing about it, so knew nothing to expect, which I love to do. I read this entire book in one day, which seems an unheard of extravagance, as well as a bit of a waste-why couldn’t I stretch it out and enjoy it longer? But it was a rainy Saturday and frankly, this book was hard for me to put down. If you read her other books, but particularly the previous one (something or other Lies) then you know Moriarty is very good at employing a technique of establishing right away something big has happened, but not quite coming out and telling you. She moved between “the day of the barbecue” to the present, 8 weeks after the barbecue. You see the terrible effects of whatever the incident was, but it takes a long time to find out. So, hard to put down because she builds up to it so effectively. As usual, I really enjoyed her writing, her ability to create that suspense, and her multi-dimensional very human characters and their points of view. Two people I know who’ve also read it (mom and Melissa) said they didn’t like it as much as her others. I can see that. If I was ranking all her books this wouldn’t be my favorite. However, I still loved it, couldn’t put it down, and thought it was great. I think that if you read her books not in publication order you wouldn’t necessarily give it that critique.

Now, I’m going to move on to some more detail which would/could spoil it if you haven’t read it, so move on if you like a blank slate when you read.

Having not read anything I didn’t know what the big event was going to be. I had a guess, which turned out to be correct, but I dismissed my initial thought because it didn’t seem quite right. There was so much sexual tension and discussion that it felt very Tom Perrotta. I kept thinking, do they all suddenly swing? Did someone do an inappropriate sexual act and a child saw? I was very tense about it being a sexually uncomfortable incident. In the end the sexual part was really not a big deal at all.  I was most fascinated by all the, well I wouldn’t call them side stories or subplots, but the parts not having to do with the incident: Erika’s horrible childhood, her mother’s hoarding and mental illness, Erika and Oliver’s adult life as a reflection of their awful childhoods and their compulsive neatness, Clementine’s professional music career, Sam’s awful job, Harry the elderly neighbor and his nasty behavior and death. And then best and most impressive of all–how it all tied together and some of the surprise revelations at the end. I found myself wondering often about Clementine and Erika’s relationship and if they ever had a good time together, knowing how each perceived the other.

Another fantastic story by Moriarty!

Rereading a Treasured Favorite

It’s been months since I’ve written here, and while one of my goals this summer is to get caught up on all my reviews, today’s post is not a review. For the past few days I’ve been completely consumed by rereading a favorite book. And so many thoughts have swirled around in my head, that I felt the need write it all out. So maybe you want to read this, maybe you don’t. But here it is, a little essay about rereading a favorite book.

When I was young I reread a lot. Part of the reason was that if there was a book I liked, why not enjoy it all over again? Another reason was that our library was small and we relied on the books that were there. Without the internet, social media, Goodreads, there was much less awareness of what new books were coming out. I simply read what was on the shelves. If I didn’t see anything I liked (and sometimes it felt like I’d read everything), I just grabbed something I already knew I liked and read it again. When I started my job this winter I shared this quotation with my students:  “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.” ― Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic.

I think it’s important for kids to know that it is ok to read the same books over and over again (and I also think it’s absolutely ok to read books “below your level” and can’t stand it when I hear people tell kids not to, but that’s another story.) and I do believe that a book can become a part of you. I still find myself thinking of lines from books I read as a child in certain circumstances.

As an adult, though, I rarely reread anything. A big reason is the opposite of the reason I did reread as a kid–with social media, Goodreads, book publicity and promotion, I literally never run out of books I want to read. I have a huge list of titles I’m interested in. I seek out and anticipate newest titles by favorite authors. I know I’ll never get to them all, and so it seems I don’t have time to reread something. [Once, at dinner with my girlfriends who also love to read. Denise: “Do you ever worry that someday we’ll run out of good books to read?” Melissa: “No! I worry that I’ll never get to them all before I die!”]

A couple of years ago I decided that my reading goals would include taking the time to read a couple books each year that I have read before.  I even created, what else? a list on Goodreads of the titles I would like to reread, of course.

Last summer it was The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Then I received a new set of Anne of Green Gables for Christmas and I read Anne of Green Gables, and then last week Anne of Avonlea. Last summer I read aloud to my children the Melendy Family books: The Saturdays, The Four Story Mistake, and Then There Were Five. These titles were probably the ones I had most recently read. And over the years I have read other children’s books from my childhood to them-Queen Zixi of Ix, A Dog on Barkham Street, The Trolley Car Family-and these held their own pleasures. And then, this week, in a fit of not wanting to read anything new I had around, I turned to The Shell Seekers (also, like Anne, a new edition I’d received for Christmas.)

The Doomsday Book, Anne of Avonlea, The Four Story Mistake, and The Shell Seekers. These books do not have very much in common, except that they are all books I would count as my very favorites of all time (top 5!) Why had it taken me so long to come back to them? When I read the Doomsday Book I truly could not remember the ending.

On the one hand reading these books was a pleasure because they are good stories, well written, and stand the test of time. The Doomsday Book is incredible historical fiction and introduced me to Connie Willis’s meticulously researched style. It brought to life for me the horrors of the Black Plague, and the dirty and hard details of life in the 13th century.  Anne of Green Gables might be super old-fashioned, but it is still a lovely story about a feisty heroine who is smart and spunky and romantic. The Anne books were a huge part of my adolescence and I couldn’t believe I had forgotten some very significant things in them. I also realized that I’ve seen the movie so many times that now when I read the books that is what I visualize.

On the other hand, reading these special-to-me books again, from the viewpoint of many, many years since I’d first read and fallen in love with them, gave me an insight I was not expecting. I was able to clearly see that many of my perceptions and expectations had their origins in these books! It was, honestly, kind of emotional. With the Enright books I realized that, having read them as a child, I truly believed my own children would be like the children in those stories. Guess what? They’re not.  And as I reread those books with my own falling-short-of-being-like-a-fictitious-1950s-child children, I saw that I had loved those stories so much that I believed my own family when I grew up would be just like theirs. I realized as I read a chapter about Rush and Oliver just whiling away hours in the woods, exploring on their own, that that’s where I’d developed that expectation for my own boy.

Now, The Shell Seekers. I adore Rosamund Pilcher novels, especially Coming Home and The Shell Seekers. I would love to live in one of her books. Reading this book again was like falling into a wormhole into a world I didn’t want to be disturbed in. The story was just as wonderful as I remembered, and it all came back to me so easily and quickly. How funny to find, too, that I visualized the places exactly as I had when I first read it. You see, those characters and places had become real to me, thought of over the years from time to time, and they were still there when I went back to them. I realized, the more I read, that this book is what created for me the things I look for in a British book, the likely misconceptions I have about Britons (everyone is “frightfully clever”, things are “horrid and ghastly”,  everyone has a scotch or whiskey or gin and tonic all the time, and people are clueless about medical care), and the interest I have in World War II fiction. And perhaps most of all, the built up in my head over the years idea that Cornwall is the most idyllic place in the world and that I must go there someday. Though let’s be honest, if I do, I won’t be a Pilcher character who easily throws on threadbare caftans and looks glamorous, easily treks 3 or 4 miles to get to the sea, and so on.  In the novel, The Shell Seekers is a painting, valuable and significant for many reasons, but especially because Penelope (whose father painted it) has found solace in the painting her whole life. When I read it this time I was very aware of all the times that Penelope sat and looked at the painting, and how she felt when she did. And I realized that this book had become, to me, much like that painting had to Penelope. A story that, even when I wasn’t reading it (as I haven’t for 20 or so years) I could escape to in my mind to find that same peace.

I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people (or characters,I’ve yet to meet a person in real life who actually does this) who reads a favorite book annually. But to go back and read a treasured book after a long time apart, well, it’s wonderful. Go ahead, try it.

 

All the Stars in Heaven by Adriana Trigiani

starsThis was such an interesting story. I really wasn’t sure which elements were 100% true, and what was completely made up. The author’s note tells us to read it as straight up fiction about some real people, but I had a hard time not just believing it all as 100% real.
The story is about Loretta Young and Clark Gable and their love affair. It’s also about the movie industry in the 1930s and Loretta’s acting career. Such a neat inside look at what movie productions were like then. My favorite part of the whole thing was when Clark and Loretta were filling together in snowy, remote Washington state. All the actors and crew together, eating and living together in a lodge, Clark pitching in chopping wood. It was hard to imagine movie stars of today ever acting like that.
I really enjoyed this as a love story, historical fiction, and nice long saga over time.