Many readers of the bestselling novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry have wanted to read more about Harold, Maureen, and Queenie. Finally, we have a companion novel told from Queenie’s point of view. Twenty years after she left the brewery, Queenie is living by the sea in a small bungalow with a unique sea garden, decorated with rocks, driftwood, flowers, and even seaweed. Illness forces her to move to St. Bernardine’s Hospice. Queenie is clearly very ill, as are the other residents, but they gradually bond and become a family, especially while they are waiting for Harold Fry to arrive. We learn about Queenie’s past, how she liked to dance, her sorrows and her big secrets. Queenie’s affection for Harold is not a big surprise, but her friendship with Harold’s son David is unexpected, as is the guilt she feels about keeping the friendship from Harold. The focus of this story is daily life at the hospice, which is surprisingly uplifting reading. Queenie’s story is definitely bittersweet, and may move the reader to tears. I suggest this for readers who would enjoy a character-driven novel that is reflective, at times emotionally intense, and always memorable. Other reviewers have said that this novel can be read on its own, but I would read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry first.
First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
First Frost is a pleasant, mostly gentle read that may make you hungry. I didn’t realize at first that it’s a sequel to the author’s first book, Garden Spells, set ten years later in Bascom, North Carolina. Claire is living in the house she inherited from her Waverley grandmother, but now makes candy with edible flowers instead of catering. Her niece Bay enjoys helping out, but Claire is increasingly tense. The Waverley women all have minor magical talents. Elderly cousin Evanelle gives people unusual gifts they may need later, such as a spatula. Claire’s affinity is for flowers and cooking, while her sister Sydney is a wonderful hair stylist. But Claire’s young daughter seems quite ordinary. Bay knows where some people and things belong, making her a great organizer, but when she gives Josh a note telling him that he belongs in her life, he doesn’t know how to respond. When a stranger in town tries to convince Claire that she’s not really a Waverley, it takes the magic of first frost, when their apple tree blooms, to set things to rights. It’s nice to visit with the Waverleys again, and Bay is an appealing narrator, but I wanted more back story to remind me what happened in the first book. Actually, I’d really like a book set earlier than First Frost. Complaints aside, this was a very enjoyable book to read, and I will probably re-read Garden Spells.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
How to describe a book that the author describes as six long, inter-connected novellas? Amazing comes closest. Not a happy book, but not bleak either. I won’t suggest this for a book discussion as it’s 624 pages long, but it’s well worth reading. Our first narrator is Holly Sykes, age 15, getting ready to leave home in southeast England in 1984 after a big argument with her mother. She meets the mysterious Esther Little, is aided by teen Ed Brubeck, and has a horrible scene removed from her memory on her way to picking strawberries on a farm. Other scenes are set in different countries in different decades, with a group of people who are reincarnated and can live for centuries (horologists) battling with those who would steal souls to stay alive. Holly is a recurring character, and she encounters both groups of people throughout her life. The scenes set a few decades in our future are quite fascinating; a look into one possible future. This book reminded me a little in its size and wideranging themes of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and some of Neil Gaiman’s books.
Lock In by John Scalzi
A pandemic has left many people completely paralyzed in this science fiction thriller. Named after the President’s wife, Haden Syndrome patients can interact with the world via humanoid robots known as threeps, online with each other in the Agora space, and occasionally with human Integrators who’ve had a neural net installed. A law cutting government financial support for Haden patients has led to protests and corporate mergers. Chris Shane, a famous Haden patient, is a newly minted FBI agent who is teamed with Leslie Vann, a former Integrator, to work on cases with a possible Haden connection. In their first week together, Shane and Vann handle a series of murders and the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant. Shane proves to be as hard on his robotic threeps as Stephanie Plum is on cars. John Scalzi is a very creative science fiction and fantasy writer, and has been blogging at Whatever for sixteen years. I hope he writes more crime thrillers featuring Shane and Vann.
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!