The Bees by Laline Paull
This is one of the more unusual novels I’ve read, yet one that really kept my interest. Flora 717 is a very young bee when the book opens; a large bee with an unexpectedly good sense of smell for a lowly sanitation worker. As Flora matures, she moves up and down the strict hierarchy of her beehive. The reader experiences a year in the life of a bee colony from a unique inside perspective. The queen bee is revered as the Holy Mother, to whom all the other female bees are devoted. The sexy male drones are fawned over, but may not live out the year. Flora gets to work in the nursery, and even meets the Holy Mother. Later, she gets to gather pollen for the hive, learning the secrets of foraging from an elderly bee. Winter is a scary time, as are encounters with spiders and wasps. The code of the bees is to accept, obey, and serve the needs of the hive, but Flora dares to hope for more.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin
This isn’t the charming, feel-good book I was expecting from the publicity. The writing style is engaging and I found the book difficult to put down, but the tone is bittersweet with occasionally very funny sections. This is not a predictable book, and has more depth than I expected. Definitely a memorable read with wide appeal.
A. J. Fikry is a curmudgeon, although still in his 30s. Mourning his wife’s death in an accident, he has retreated from life. As he owns a bookstore on an island near Nantucket that is a problem, especially after the rare book he was saving to fund his retirement goes missing. He is very particular about the kind of books he will stock, and new publisher sales rep Amelia Loman finds him a tough sell. Then Maya, a little girl, unlocks the key to his heart, and the bookstore gradually becomes a community gathering place. I especially enjoyed the transformation of local police chief Lambiase from an infrequent reader to a passionate reader who leads a book discussion group. Eventually A.J. even finds love, as does Lambiase. Suggested for readers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and fans of bookstores everywhere.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This is a well researched book by author Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist at Harvard, on a topic that is true for more than two hundred thousand people in the U.S. alone–that figure does not include their loved ones, who early onset Alzheimer’s Disease also severely impacts. Early onset Alzheimer’s is the label given to people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who are stricken with this genetically inherited neurodegenerative disorder. This fictional story of Alice (who seems to represent a composite of many real individuals) is heartbreaking–but utterly fascinating. Its intrigue factor is one reason readers might stay with the story even though, arguably, it pushes “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath down the list of depressing reads! Perhaps what will draw you into this story the most is that readers only know what Alice is experiencing through her sense of recognition. So when this once brilliant, vibrant and formidable protagonist recognizes the person who helped save her from walking into traffic as “the kind stranger,” you, the reader, have to discern that this “kind man” is actually her husband based on the fact that a moment earlier she was holding hands with him and was fully aware of who he is and what he means to her. Although the author does an amazing job in reminding us that to be human is so much more than our perceived intellect…and that love is the one thing we require to feel whole (and Alice is fully capable of loving and of being loved until the story’s end), there is no escaping the sadness of this novel.
I hope other readers feel differently and instead see this as a story that, while tragic, is still one of triumph (I did see that to some degree, but just not as much as I wish I could have).
Lisa Genova is the New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice, Left Neglected, and Love Anthony. Check out her website at http://lisagenova.com/
Suggested read alike authors include Jodi Picoult whose novels revolve around everyday people coping with difficult circumstances and controversial issues; Oliver Sacks, neurologist, and author of numerous best-selling books that were inspired by case studies of people with neurological disorders. You may even want to stop in and check out the award winning movies “Awakenings” and “The Music Never Stopped” based on Sack’s printed works!
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien is back home in west suburban Franklin, Illinois, working at a Vietnamese restaurant with her mother and grandfather after college. She has finished her Ph.D. in American Literature but hasn’t yet landed a teaching job. Her mother is never satisfied, while her brother Sam wants money and freedom instead of taking over the restaurant. Lee’s grandfather tells stories about life in Vietnam, and of an older American lady named Rose who visited the café there and left behind a gold pin engraved with a house on a lake.
Lee has always been fascinated with the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially as her family moved frequently around the Midwest, and wonders if the lady was Rose Wilder Lane. Maybe the pin really is the one mentioned in These Happy Golden Years. She impulsively decides to look into the writings and life of Rose and her mother Laura, and travels from Iowa to Missouri, San Francisco to Connecticut, looking for answers about Rose, and about her own dysfunctional family. She meets a man who may be the (fictional) grandson of Rose. There is much about Vietnamese food, Asian buffets, and the life of a young academic who’s finding her place in the world. Having recently read another well-researched novel about Rose, Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, it was fascinating to read about other parts of Rose’s life and her writings. The author, a Vietnamese immigrant who goes by Beth, is married with two children and has written two other books, but clearly remembers well the uncertainty of life after college, wondering about future careers, family, and home. I’m putting her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on my list of books to read.
Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen
A year after her husband’s death, Kate Pheris realizes that she’s been all but asleep, and that her mother-in-law Cricket is taking over her life, and her 8-year-old daughter, Devin. Packing after selling their house, Kate and Devin find an old postcard from Kate’s Great Aunt Eby, inviting her to visit again. Not yet ready to move in with Cricket, Kate and Devin head for Lost Lake, a resort camp in Georgia, where Kate spent a memorable childhood summer. The author of Garden Spells and three other novels likes to put a touch of magic in each of her books. An alligator “speaks” to Devin at Lost Lake, perhaps with the voice of a boy who died long ago. Kate’s Aunt Eby is planning to sell Lost Lake, which is run down, but with cabins full of antiques she used to collect. Her cook, Lisette, communicates only in writing, and makes it clear that she’s not leaving the lake. Summer regulars return for a farewell visit and party, including Selma, who can charm men into marrying her, at least for a while, and Lisette’s very shy suitor. Jack, the boy from Kate’s summer at Lost Lake, now runs a pizzeria and a handyman business. Lots of quirky characters, an appealing southern Georgia setting, and a hint of magic make for an appealing read.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
“Death of a Salesman” in the desert. Alan Clay is a semi-failed entrepreneur. He has made a lot of deals and started up a lot of companies, but in the end owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to his creditors. He needs one big jackpot, winner take all sale, to make himself whole. Not only is he in debt up to his eyeballs but his beloved semi-estranged daughter will have to leave her very pricey upper crust college. So here he is in King Abdullah Economic City, in Saudi Arabia by the Red Sea, trying to sell the King himself on an IT system for the whole city which is only a quarter built and that quarter threatens to slide back into the desert wastes. The problem is that the King is a very busy man, and may come to his presentation or he may not, no one knows. Alan and his associates are stuck in a tent in the middle of half built KAEC, waiting for the King. It could be days, it could be months.
This novel is a beautifully written reflection of business in the early twentieth century. People spending years and ungodly sums of money chasing a proposal that may or may not work out, but who cares since it is all subsidized by Petro Dollars, magic money that gushes out of OPEC bank accounts that make Smaug’s hoard look like “chump change”. Alan could spend the rest of his mainly irrelevant life chasing proposals, but that’s why he likes the Kingdom so much. Like him it is a place of illusions and double standards.
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is not the book fans would expect from award-winning science fiction writer Robinson. He is best known for his Mars trilogy, beginning with Red Mars, and for his Science in the Capital novels about global warming, beginning with Forty Signs of Rain. Other recent books include Antarctica and 2312. All of his books have been set in the future. Now he travels back tens of thousands of years, to the Ice Age. His main character is young Loon, an orphan and the reluctant apprentice to his clan’s shaman, Thorn. The book begins with Loon going on his wander, two weeks alone in late winter with no food, clothes, or supplies. He is supposed to rejoin his community at the next full moon, with stories to tell. He certainly has some memorable adventures, on his wander and over the whole span of this book. There are some similarities to Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children saga, and also to Jack London’s stories set in the Yukon Territory. Loon becomes a teenager, tries to memorize Thorn’s stories, travels to a clan gathering, falls in love, goes on a quest to the icy north, gets kidnapped, and learns to create cave paintings. The setting and culture are vividly described; I’d really enjoy a sequel or companion novel.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
North Korea is the setting for this frightmare of a book. North Korea is a Stalinist worker’s “paradise”. Everyone is a slave to the “Dear Leader”, “Kim Jung Il” at the time of the book’s writing. Slaves are forbidden to talk or communicate with anyone from the outside world. The citizens of North Korea could just as soon be living on the moon for all the interaction they have with the outside world. As far as they know, they are the premier country in the world. Their air, food, water, shelter, and life of the mind are far superior to the rest of the planet, and who is there to tell them otherwise? There is no otherwise. No one has ever defected from the DPRK. (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Why would anyone want to?
The Plot involves the life of Jun Do, a sort of everyman North Korean Citizen. Juan Do begins life as an Orphan in a state run orphanage. His father runs the orphanage but does not acknowledge his son. Life at the Orphanage is brutally hard even by North Korean standards. Jun becomes hardened by this life and even excels at it to become a “Soldier” or “Agent” trained to fight in the lightless clandestine tunnels that connect the north to the south. He is given pain training in order to survive brutal interrogations by the South Koreans, a nation of degenerates where hunger and famine reign. He becomes a radio man on board one of the DPRK smuggling ships. He learns through radio transmissions that the DPRK is a lie. This undergirds all of his subsequent activities, which includes sabotage at the highest levels of Government.
This book is very difficult to get through. The level of pain, and torture and extreme mental duress start to make the reader feel very depressed and hopeless. But, if you stick with this book the reward is infinitely worth the price.
The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Is the universe out to get Alex Woods? Read this book and you could see why Alex wonders about it. At 11, he is struck in the head by a meteorite falling through the roof of his house. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that the blow has led to epileptic seizures, and he stays home for months recovering. He studies on his own, but mainly about the brain and astronomy. When he goes to a new school, there is no hope of fitting in. Of course, his hair won’t grow over the scar. And then there’s the issue of his mother being a witch, running a small occult gift shop, and reading Tarot cards.
So, Alex is bullied. When he runs away from bullies, he gets in trouble and has to make reparations for what they did. This results in spending Saturday mornings with Mr. Peterson, who writes letters for Amnesty International and introduces Alex to the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Later Alex confronts the same bullies and gets in even bigger trouble. He attracts unusual friends, mostly adults. He starts a book club to read Vonnegut. And then, he has to make a choice whether to help Mr. Peterson even though his mother would never allow it. This results in Alex getting stopped at 17 trying to re-enter England with lots of money, a significant amount of marijuana, and while having a partial seizure. It doesn’t look good for Alex. But ultimately, he finds that he has free will, and finds his own path in life. Here’s more about Alex and the author.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is flat-out a great book. It took the author ten years to write in his spare time. When the manuscript was put up for auction the price was bid up to $650,000 dollars. There even was a book published about the making and marketing of this book, entitled: Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of the Art of Fielding.
The plot centers around the struggles of the main characters on a baseball team at Westish College called the Harpooners. Henry Skrimshander is a preternaturally gifted shortstop who is recruited out of High School by Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ catcher. Although Henry is brilliant on the baseball field, he is shy and introverted and has a hard time adjusting to college life. Also in the mix is Guert Affenlight, the College President, whose staid life is upended by an unexpected romance with one the students. The student in question happens to be Owen Dunne, a gay intellectual, who also happens to play on the team. Pella Affenlight is Guert’s daughter from a previous relationship who shows up on Daddy’s doorstep after a marriage that goes sour.
According to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times: Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable, and fully realized characters who instantly take up residence in our hearts and minds. He also manages to rework the well-worn, much allegorized subject of baseball and make us see it afresh, taking tired tropes about the game (as a metaphor for life’s dreams, disappointments, and hopes of redemption) and interjecting them with new energy.
I enjoyed this book for its small college setting, and for the baseball stuff, but mainly for the affecting characters. I did not want this novel to end.