American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
Imagine a five-month long crime spree in which no one is killed or even seriously injured. This happened recently on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, in rural Accomack County, once wealthy and now full of abandoned buildings, dozens of which have been set on fire. Meet the firefighters, mostly volunteer, stretched to their limit, and the law enforcement officials trying to figure out where the arsonist will strike next. Likeable mechanic Charlie and his girlfriend Tonya, an attractive night clubber with two children, are clearly involved, but the author, an award-winning reporter, frequently surprises the reader as the story unfolds, from the first fires to the final court case. This is a story of small-town America and how it’s changed over the last century, along with an unlikely love story and a page-turning crime drama.
Mr. Gandy’s Grand Tour by Alan Titchmarsh
Finally, a feel-good novel perfect for summer reading. Set in England, Paris, Monaco and Italy, it’s also great for armchair travelers. Tim Gandy is feeling overlooked. At 55, he’s facing early retirement and must admit that his marriage to Isobel is rather blah. He’s close to only one of his three children, although Rosie is pregnant, so there’s happily a grandchild in his future. Tim has always dreamed of traveling in Europe, and Rosie encourages him to make his Grand Tour, even without Isobel, who dislikes travel. Despite feeling a bit guilty indulging himself, he’s off to Paris. Sketching at Versailles, he meets Francine, a gallery owner, who fascinates him. In Monaco, he meets Archie, a young yacht salesman, and poses as a consultant in a very funny scene aboard a superyacht. Afterwards, Archie takes him to meet his Aunt Rosamund, an elderly novelist who give Tim some good advice. The author is known in Great Britain for his gardening books and television shows, and does an excellent job with the gorgeous scenery and giving the story a strong sense of place. The characters are appealing, the story is not too predictable, and it’s quite charming. Perfect escapist reading, although it may make you long to escape to the Riviera, Paris, or Italy for a stroll in a garden or to enjoy a fabulous meal.
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin
This atmospheric novel focuses on a pivotal summer for eleven-year-old Marcus on a South Carolina barrier island, living with his artist aunt, helping guard a sea turtle nest, and becoming fascinated with a ruined cottage. Locally known as Grief Cottage, a family staying there may have died in a long ago hurricane. Charlotte frequently paints the cottage, and Marcus likes to visit it, wondering if it’s haunted. Having lost his best friend and his mother, Marcus is unsure if his eccentric, reclusive Aunt Charlotte really wants him to stay. He visits with an elderly neighbor and gets good advice from Charlotte’s friend Lachicotte Hayes when not riding his bike, checking on the turtle nest, and unpacking boxes and memories from his last apartment with his mother. Young Marcus is good company in this melancholy, leisurely read. A fairly lengthy epilogue makes for a satisfying resolution, tying up some loose ends on a hopeful note.
The Stowaway: a Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro
17-year-old Billy Gawronski, finishing high school in New York City in 1928 but reluctant to join his father’s upholstery business, is fascinated by news stories about Commander Richard Byrd’s plans to fly over the South Pole. Billy’s father refuses to give him permission to apply for a position on the crew, so the persistent teen swims across the Hudson River to Hoboken to stowaway, only to find out that others have had the same idea. It takes a couple more attempts, but finally Billy is allowed to join the crew as a mess boy and later coal stoker on the Eleanor Bolling for the journey to Tahiti and New Zealand. Will he get to Antarctica, and maybe even winter over? Billy’s Polish grandmother predicted that Billy would meet Commander Byrd. Billy is a minor player on the exciting expedition but he gets plenty of publicity back home, and even gets his moment of heroism. Later, the crew struggles through the Depression, and Billy tries to work his way through college, helped by a letter of recommendation from Admiral Byrd. Billy later finds his calling in the Merchant Marines, becoming one of the youngest captains during World War II. This is an enjoyable readalike for 81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy and Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff.
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
Emmy Lake, with her fiancé Edmund overseas, wants to do her bit for the war effort. Volunteering at a fire brigade station answering phones helps, but she’d really like to be a journalist, maybe even a war correspondent. But instead of landing a job at a London newspaper, Emmy’s hired as a typist for Henrietta Bird, advice columnist for a women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird won’t tolerate any unpleasantness, and most of the letters are to be shredded. Secretly, Emmy sends advice to some of the women, signing her name as Mrs. Bird, which upsets her friend and roommate Bunty. Emmy is worried that Bunty’s boyfriend Bill is taking unnecessary risks as a firefighter, and then gets an unexpected telegram from her fiancé. Emmy wonders who is supporting the women on the home front, who are expected to send cheerful letters to men in uniform, but are struggling themselves. Life in wartime London in 1940 is vividly described, as Emmy is encouraged to find out what she can do best. I raced through this terrific first novel, which made me laugh, cry, and want to cheer on Emmy and Bunty. This Library Reads pick is a good readalike for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Tom Barren briefly traveled back in time to 1965, then returned to another timeline in 2016. Instead of the high-tech utopia he’s used to, everything is different. His parents are still together, and his father is nicer but never invented a time machine, instead writing science fiction. Tom even has a sister. Everyone calls him John, who turns out to be a very arrogant architect who copied the buildings of Tom’s world through shared dreams. With the help of his family and his new girlfriend, bookseller Penny, Tom tries to make things right, whatever the cost, with predictably entertaining results. For more time travel books and films, check out my July book display at the library. This is a good readalike for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, a Great American Read selection.
The Year of Less by Cait Flanders
In her mid-20s, Cait Flanders got out of debt and stopped drinking, very intentionally. Now she plans to tackle mindless shopping, partly to save money but mostly to find out what she really needs. No buying takeout coffee, scented candles, or books; but some restaurant meals, travel, a special occasion dress, and gifts for others are allowed. Cait learns that she has been shopping for the person she wants to be, not who she is right now, especially where books and clothes are concerned. She took her name off store email lists, deleted lots of favorites from her browsers, and tried to only buy what she needed. Most of the time she succeeded, but found herself binge watching television, liking her job less and less, and worried about family issues. Cait learned so much about herself that one year of minimal shopping turned into two, and she is sharing her journey to self-awareness to help others to be more mindful consumers. Cait also donated or sold more than half of her clothes and other belongings, and hasn’t yet missed anything she discarded. This is a quick, thought-provoking read. Learn more at caitflanders.com.