Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Willie Lincoln, age 11, has died of typhoid fever. His distraught father, President Lincoln, visits the Georgetown cemetery the night after his burial in February, 1862. The Civil War isn’t going well, and Lincoln’s in despair. His vigil that night helps him organize his thoughts and plans on how to proceed with the war. This is not a traditional historical novel, as most of the book is narrated by a chorus of the graveyard’s ghosts who do not accept the fact that they’re dead, and have not yet gone on to face judgment, a transitional state Buddhists call the bardo. The ghosts are eccentric, disturbing, sad, confused, and sometimes very vulgar and crude. They are from different times and walks of life, and talk and argue with each other. They reflect back on their imperfectly remembered lives, and are moved by Willie, as young ghosts should not linger long. They try hard to connect the president with his son’s ghost. The scenes in the cemetery alternate with short chapters of quotes, both real and fictional, of people’s reactions to Willie’s illness, death, and the unsettled state of the country. The overall tone is melancholy, and it’s a very vivid, moving read. It took me a while to adjust to the book’s unusual style. This is a first novel by a noted short story writer. This book will have the most appeal for fans of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era, and readers looking for a unique, challenging and definitely worthwhile reading experience.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
In a life full of disappointments, Christina Olson both enjoys the coastal Maine farmhouse she shares with her parents, one of her brothers, and her cats, and longs to be free of the house and her life. In her 40s, she meets young painter Andrew Wyeth, who is engaged to her young friend Betsy, and they open up her world. Wyeth loves painting the old farmhouse and its surroundings, and sees Christina as no one else does. An illness as a young girl leaves Christina with shaky balance and weak legs, but she keeps house for her family after leaving school early, although she could have trained to be a teacher. At 20, Christina has a romance with a handsome summer visitor, but it too ends in disappointment. A few friends, sisters-in-law, clambakes, picnics, berry picking and other joys of summer enliven her life, along with the poems of Emily Dickinson, but the winters in a drafty house without electricity or a furnace get harder. This is a beautifully written book, and the author’s skill and extensive research make the Olsons and Wyeths come to life, along with the famous painting Christina’s World. This is a very moving and melancholy book, and difficult to read at times as Christina’s health suffers and her world narrows. In the end, Wyeth’s friendship and art help her see herself in a new way. This book is sure to be popular with readers of The Orphan Train.
The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug Mack
This is an entertaining and informative tour of our far-flung territories and commonwealths, some nearly forgotten. Travel writer Doug Mack visits St. Thomas & St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. While these islands are all part of the United States, their residents don’t have the same rights as residents of the fifty states, and these vary from territory to territory. Tourism and the U.S. military are major employers. From native islanders, Danes, and Japanese, Mack learns about each area’s history and listens to the debates about their futures, all while enjoying good company and some excellent food. An enjoyable and thought-provoking tour of some overlooked parts of America.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.
Odds Against, by Dick Francis
Former jockey Sid Halley has spent the last two years at a London detective agency, but is assigned only routine cases. After fourteen years as a steeplechase jockey, he’s restless and unhappy. On a simple assignment, he is shot in the gut and can’t eat solid food for a while. While he recovers, his father-in-law, Charles Roland, invites him for a visit, even though Sid and his wife Jenny are separated. Charles has borrowed an expensive gem and mineral collection and wants Sid to help him impress and investigate another guest, Howard Kraye. Kraye may be connected to a string of bad luck at nearby Seabury Racecourse. Sid learns that a developer wants to buy out Seabury’s shareholders and build houses on the land. At a visit to a stockbroker, Sid encounters secretary Zanna Martin, who hides an injury from the world, just as Sid does with his damaged hand. Thefts and explosions add to the suspense of this intricately plotted mystery, published in 1966. During an exciting pursuit behind the scenes at Seabury, Sid’s injured again, and his future at the detective agency is uncertain. I enjoyed the fast pace, well-developed characters, and some witty dialogue. Sid appears again in three more mysteries, and this book was made into a television series, The Racing Game.
The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg
In 1889, Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom founds a small town in Missouri. Nordstrom is a dairy farmer and Elmwood Spring’s first mayor. In this appealing tale, the town ladies encourage Nordstrom to find a Swedish-American mail order bride, and they send her notes along with his letters. Over the decades the town grows and changes, with the progress overseen fondly by the residents of Still Meadows, the cemetery on a hill. Much to their surprise, the folks at Still Meadows can talk freely with each other, and even (silently) enjoy visits from their relatives. Quirky small town charm and plenty of nostalgia make for a quick, pleasant read.
Remnants of Trust, by Elizabeth Bonesteel
I really enjoyed the first Central Corps book, The Cold Between, so I was eager to read the sequel. This is quite good, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much, as much of the plot centers around sabotage and possible betrayal, and there’s no romance, just military science fiction. Elena Shaw and Captain Greg Foster return, but their friendship is still strained. When starship Exeter is attacked and her crew are transferred to other ships, tensions rise. I really liked the scenes on the PSI ship, Orunmila, which is full of families and a very pregnant captain. There will definitely be a sequel, and I’m interested to see where the author takes the storyline and the complex characters.
I was looking at my lists of upcoming releases, and thought I’d share the science fiction books on my to-be-read list, including two books published in 2016. I may not read all of them this year, but I’m looking forward to some very enjoyable reading. Brenda
Anders, Charlie. All the Birds in the Sky. 2016
Chambers, Becky. A Closed and Common Orbit. March
Cherryh, C.J. Convergence. April
Corey, James S.A. Babylon’s Ashes. 2016
Huff, Tanya. A Peace Divided. June
Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome. April
Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. March
Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire. March
Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. June