This month: history, mystery, history of the fictional variety, bestseller, YA, literary fiction, romance and a classic I am very happy to have discovered.
1) Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, by S.C. Gwynne: First, a piece of Civil War trivia from this book that completely blew my mind: At the onset of the conflict, Stonewall Jackson was thirty-four years old. Thirty-four! That’s Beyonce’s age! I really enjoyed reading this, although I have to say, as a native New Yorker and twenty-first century resident, I tend to mentally root for the Union in Civil War stories. Here, the natural inclination is to cheer on Jackson, so that created some weird tension for me as a reader.
I am a huge fan of both history and books, and as a result whenever I read something like this, I mentally match up characters from stories set in the same time period. During each battle scene, I pictured Mr. March facing off against the Tarleton twins (warning: this is a dangerous and emotionally compromising way to read). Some of the military details got a little dense for me, but if you’re interested in learning what life was like for everyday soldiers in the Civil War, consider picking this one up.
2) Still Life, by Lousie Penny: When an elderly woman is found shot by an arrow in the small-town woods outside Montreal, opinions differ. It’s hunting season, after all, and fatal accidents are startlingly common. Things become a bit more complicated when no one comes forward about the accident, and then again when it’s learned that the victim recently submitted a controversial painting to an art show. Then there’s the fact that she never allowed anyone, even her closest friends, into her house. This classic “cozy” is the introductory novel for Montreal’s answer to Hercule Poirot.
3) Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby: Do I love Nick Hornby? Yup. Did I buy each collection of Believer magazine columns individually and then the same words again when they were republished in one volume? Yup. He’s on my auto-buy list, and so I was really excited to jump into this account of a female comedian trying to break into 1960s British television. I hope, since I’ve firmly established my love for Nick Hornby, that I can get away with saying I was a little disappointed at his attempt to write a female protagonist. She read like a dream girl drawn up by a dude to me. But he is a great writer and there’s always lots of smart, funny, honest moments in his books.
4) Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: Things have been off between sitcom writer Georgie and her stay-at-home husband Neal for awhile, but when Georgie has to miss Christmas in Omaha to work on a pitch, they go completely off the rails. Neal leaves in anger and dodges all of Georgie’s calls until, late at night at her mother’s house, she tries him on the landline. The phone connects her not to present-day Neal, but to the Neal she dated. Through this strange connection, Georgie has a chance to change her fate. But is she supposed to fix things with Neal or make sure they never married in the first place?
5) The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis: If Holden Caufield starred in Cruel Intentions, that would be this book. Charles, bored, womanizing member of the British elite, suffers a crisis of faith on the eve of twenty. His M.O. is to use women and throw them away like tissues, until he meets Rachel. When Charles’ initial efforts to seduce Rachel fail, he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having real feelings for her. There are not many people to root for in this story and, as a disclaimer, it’s really, really graphic, but the setting in 1970s London is worth a look.
6) Russka, by Edward Rutherford: Rutherford writes sweeping, 1,000-page sagas that follow one or two families from early A.D. to the present day. This effort starts in desolate, wild Russia and chronicles invasions from Tartars, Mongolians and Cossacks, as well as a host of internal problems. Did you know that Russia operated under a system of lords and serfs until significantly after the American Civil War? Or that, until the switch to the Gregorian calendar in the early 1910s, Russia lagged a full thirteen days behind the rest of the world? I’ve been to Russia, and I happen to really love it there. The history, the culture and the people are all fascinating. None of my history classes covered much outside of the twentieth century, and so I enjoyed this peek behind the curtain.
7) The Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes: Hallelujah Calhoun is going through a rough patch. The victim of gossip tinged with just enough truth to be believed, her friends have abandoned her and her parents don’t trust her. The latter send her to a week-long Christian youth retreat in the mountains of Tennessee, where Hallie and two others are separated from the group during a hike. Alone in the wilderness, hurt and scared, Hallie and her companions explore various concepts of being lost and finding home. Ms. Holmes is a debut author, and since the sales from a first novel often determine whether or not you get to write a second, I always like supporting that group. Help an author out, guys!
And the best thing I read this month…
8) The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin: My stepson Elliot and I read every night before bed. I usually don’t include those books in my monthly rundown, because although there are some great middle grade titles in there, it feels a bit like cheating. But this book was so fantastic that I have to include it, because it was truly the best thing I read all month.
The residents of Sunset Towers all rented their units by special invitation. The list was no accident (well, except for one person, who actually was an accident). When reclusive millionaire Samuel Westing dies in his mansion on Halloween night, each tenant is invited to solve a puzzle for the chance to win his $200 million estate. According to the will, the group consists of a bookie, a bomber, a liar, and a murderer—Samuel Westing’s murderer, in fact. Divided into teams, the residents work to solve the seemingly impossible puzzle. But is this just another one of Westing’s famous games?
I don’t know how, but I completely missed this book as a kid. It’s been in print since the 1970s and won a Newberry Medal, but somehow it just never made it on to my radar. I kind of like that, though, because it gave Elliot and me a chance to experience it for the first time together. E kept a notebook of clues and almost turned his face inside out puzzling over them, and my husband ended up joining the two of us for the last seventy pages or so. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Also of note: E and I are now reading The Defense of Thaddeus Ledbetter by John Gosselink. It’s a “found documents” book in which a middle school student attempts to fight his year-long in-school suspension. The story is stuffed with motions, depositions, character witnesses and other legal accouterments, which, as a lawyer, I really love, and it’s funny and clever and sweet. Highly recommended.