The Lake House by Kate Morton
Sadie Sparrow is a detective in London in 2003, but is visiting her grandfather in Cornwall while on leave. On a run with her grandfather’s dogs, Sadie discovers an abandoned house, Loeanneth. In 1933 the Edevane family hosts a midsummer’s eve party at Loeanneth. The next morning, their little boy Theo is missing and is never found. Sadie is fascinated by the story and the house, and works with a retired policeman, the local librarian, and an elderly mystery writer to find out what happened. Much of the book is set at Loeanneth in 1932-33, where three sisters, Deborah, Alice, and Clemmie are growing up, mostly oblivious to their family’s many secrets. Readers who like mysteries and family sagas may enjoy this book, along with readers of Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher, or Melanie Benjamin. The beautiful house has its own secrets, and there are many twists and turns to the plot. Some readers thought it too long, but I kept turning the pages to find out the answers. Sadie is an appealing character, as is the mystery writer’s personal assistant. This was a memorable, satisfying read.
After You by Jojo Moyes
Lou Clark, featured in the very popular novel Me Before You, is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. After some travel in Europe and a longer stay in Paris, she’s bought a flat in London but has barely furnished it, and is working at an Irish pub at an airport. Lou is still smart-mouthed and there are a few funny scenes, but her life is pretty blah. Then troubled teen Lily breezes into her life, and Lou has a bad accident. This leads her to reconnect with her parents, and finally start going to a support group. Then she meets a cute paramedic named Sam, who she confuses with his brother. I would definitely recommend reading the poignant Me Before You first. Not a lighthearted book, I’m glad I read this mix of humor, sadness, family life, and romance.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
The poet Emily Dickinson comes to life in this novel set in 1860s Amherst, Massachusetts, which also features her (entirely fictional) maid, recent Irish immigrant Ada Concannon. Emily writes her short poems, gardens, bakes, and occasionally visits with her sister-in-law Susan, who lives nearby with Emily’s brother Austin. Increasingly reclusive, Emily decides to wear only white, and rarely travels beyond her home. In contrast, Ada, 18, is hard-working, outgoing, and friendly. Ada first lives with her uncle, then with the Dickinsons. Her beau, Daniel Byrne, cannot protect her from a stalker, and Emily seeks her brother Austin’s reluctant help for Ada. Except for the stalker, this is a charming story told from two very different points of view, and it made me want to learn more about Emily Dickinson’s life. Several of Emily’s poems are included, a nice touch. Nuala O’Connor is an Irish author, and part of the book is set in Dublin, Ada’s hometown. An unusual and memorable historical novel.
Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis
This isn’t the sort of book I usually read in December, but I’m glad I did. Gavin is a young Scottish doctor who is thrilled at the chance to spend 14 months on the Antarctic ice shelf at British research station Halley. He takes passage on a freighter headed there with supplies, via South America. 60 scientists and engineers spend the short Antarctic summer at Halley, along with those there to resupply it and haul away the waste. The station, the fifth at the same location, needs jacking up every summer above the level of the snow. The fourth Halley station is buried under snow, and another eventually fell into the sea. I was interested to learn that a newer Halley station can move horizontally across the snow and ice as needed on skis. Gavis was at Halley from the end of 2002 to the beginning of 2004, as station doctor. Only 14 crew spend the seemingly endless winter together, where time alone on the small station is at a premium and contact with the outside world is rather limited. Gavin is fascinated by emperor penguins, and a colony is wintering nearby. He is also well-informed on the history of Antarctic exploration and shares just enough of this with the reader, allowing more space for observations on the penguins, and on life in the beautiful Antarctic. One of the crew members trades duties to avoid going outside in the frigid winter, but Gavin rather likes shoveling snow into their water tank and watching the stars and the Aurora Australis. I found this to be an absorbing, thoroughly readable memoir.
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck
I thought this was a terrific book. Rinker and Nick Buck, two brothers from Maine, ages 60 and 54, buy three mules and set off to make the first unassisted crossing of the Oregon Trail by covered wagon in a century. A wagon trip with their father and siblings from New Jersey to Pennsylvania a half-century earlier is part of a parallel story about their father, who died young. Rinker, a journalist, gets fascinated by the history of the Oregon Trail, and reads over 100 books about it before they head west from Missouri to Oregon, sometimes following the original wheel ruts of some of the 400,000 pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century. Rinker originally thought of taking the trip alone, but it’s clear that would never have worked. Nick can fix anything, and is skilled at driving a team, and it really takes two people to catch and harness three mules every morning. The mules, Jake, Beck, and Bute have very distinct personalities. Wagon wheels, brakes, and axles need frequent repair, and the mules need regular care. The men, not so much. Rinker sleeps on a mattress in the wagon while Nick and his terrier, Olive Oyl, sleep on the ground or in sheds. Showers and laundry are infrequent and meals are very simple. A series of strangers greet them, help them navigate mountain and river crossings, and offer space in their corrals for the mules at night, and become their trail family. The kindness of those they encounter on their trip, with one notable exception, stunned them with their hospitality. I enjoyed the descriptions of the scenery, found the history of the trail quite interesting, and hoped the very different brothers would find a way over all the obstacles to reach the end of the trail. A very enjoyable journey, one that reminded me a bit of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo.
Dashing Through the Snow by Debbie Macomber
Once I got past the first scene in an airport, I enjoyed reading this light holiday romance. Ashley Davidson, a grad student in San Francisco who works in a diner, wants to fly home to Seattle in time to surprise her mother for Christmas. Naturally, no seats are available, but the man in line behind her gets the option to be on a wait list. Instead, they end up sharing the last rental car available at the airport. Sensible Ashley wants a character reference, and accepts one from Dashiell’s mother on the phone. Ashley and Dash don’t get on at first, especially as Dash wants to drive straight through, even skipping meals, to get to a job interview. Instead, they somehow end up with a puppy and are chased by the FBI, who are looking for a different Ashley Davidson.
Slade House by David Mitchell
Readers who have enjoyed David Mitchell’s earlier novels, The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas, or who are looking for a haunted house story will be entertained by Slade House. Otherwise, you may be just as confused as young teen Nathan, college student Sally, or policeman Gordon when they open the tiny iron door in Slade Alley and enter the garden of Slade House. The door only appears every nine years on the last Saturday of October. Of course, things are not what they seem, more like Alice in Wonderland than Brigadoon, and eventually they encounter evil twins Jonah and Norah. Not nearly as substantial as his other books, Slade House is humorous and scary, but not very satisfying.