Great novels we enjoyed this year – and a few we haven’t read (yet.) ON SALE 20% OFF

Beth tends to read more novels than I do, as do most of our staff, I suppose.  It is fun talking about characters and plot and often Beth and I, especially, read the same books and compare notes. Our tastes are pretty similar, I think, and our selections often overlap.  Here are a few we talked the most about this year, stories and writing we enjoyed, or, for one reason or another, really appreciated. Or they are books we intend to read, and want to tell you about. 

Like most people, we sometimes need a good word from somebody we trust, or a thoughtful review or a hint of the benefit of a particular novel, so maybe these sort descriptions will help you choose a good novel or two even in these gentle days of Christmastide. We happily recommend these, among so many others, of course.  Call us or use the “inquiry” form at the website if you want more ideas or have questions.

The Invention of Wings.jpgThe Invention of Wings  Sue Monk Kidd (Viking) $27.95  This much-discussed book was one of Beth’s favorites this year, beautifully rendered by the talented author of The Secret Life of Bees. She could hardly tear herself away from it, or stop talking about it early this fall.  Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is soulful and passionate, as it needs to be in this great story, loosely based on the Grimke sisters, revivalists and abolitionists of the early 1800s. This chronicles Sarah’s move to Philadelphia, and, in a parallel plot, traces the life of Hetty “Handful,” the slave she was given as a young girl. This is truly one of the great books of the year. Here is what it says in on the dust jacket:
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

The Art of Fielding.jpgThe Art of Fielding Chad Harbach (Back Bay) $14.99  I know I’m a year late to the game, but I hadn’t read this last year, and wanted to wait until baseball season this summer to dive into this renowned sports story.  As we all know, good novels are so much more than what they seem to be about. (Who was it that said something about how silly it is to think that Moby Dick is just a story about a whale?) This baseball story is set in the complexities of liberal arts colleges, and, in fact, the college’s sports teams are called the Whalers, since the great Herman Melville once visited the campus, and the campus President is a Moby Dick and Melville scholar. (This figures in just a bit — so fun!) The school’s baseball team goes to the playoffs, for the first time in years, due to the extraordinary gift of one very talented player. I can’t spoil all that goes on throughout that fateful season and those last games, as the plot thickens more than you can imagine, but the mentoring this young player received from an older team-mate becomes a much larger matter as, together, they try to figure out their young adult years, their futures, the women they love, loyalties and more. It has been positively reviewed from great sources, and called everything from “engrossing” “triumphant” “astonishingly assured” “intensely readable.”

It is a great, long, well-imagined story in a believable place. I cared about these characters, about Westish College, and, despite some vulgarities and troubling behaviors, found it to also be a book of virtue and vision, asking big questions about ambition and family and commitment and the like.  The practices and scenes in the gyms and locker rooms (and road trips) seemed very realistic to me.  

The Signature of All Things  hardback.jpgThe Signature of All Things paperback.jpgThe Signature of All Things  Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking) $28.95 (hardcover); $17.00 (paperback) This is nothing short of stunning, an epic tale of a 18th century man who, through entrepreneurial ingenuity, courageous involvement with the likes of explorer Captain Cook and sheer dogged diligence, becomes a self-taught botanist and global leader in the commercial trade of early pharmaceuticals. He becomes very, very rich, known in the world’s of landscaping, gardening, and more, professional horticulture. He learns to grow medicinal pants, and becomes involved in global business. After marrying a Dutch wife and moving to Philadelphia, they raise two girls, one herself a young botanist, who, well… I can’t say, as I’ve not finished it yet, and don’t want to spoil anything. I am willing to say that Beth loved this book, despite some weirdness (I haven’t reached that part yet) and I am thinking it may be my favorite novel of the year. The prose is solid and weighty, almost old fashioned (not at all like Eat Pray Love, which I enjoyed, by the way.) This is a marvelous, learned, intriguing, captivating, mature book, playing with questions of what it means to truly know, the quest for knowledge, perhaps even questions of science and faith, data and magic, and certainly huge themes emerging from the era when the Age of Enlightenment gave way to the Industrial Revolution and theSignature - inside.jpg romantics arose in response to the narrow vision of the rationalists. The hardback edition from last year has lush botanical illustrations in the inside cover, almost making it worth the investment to own this as a wonderfully-made hardback with deckled pages.  It is now out in paperback.
Here is what one reviewer wrote of it, giving a bit of back-story that is fun to know about Ms Gilbert:
As a small girl, Elizabeth Gilbert scrawled her name in the most
extraordinary book in her house: an original illustrated folio of
Captain Cook’s voyages. Decades later, her parents discovered her
signature and gave her the book, reigniting her passion for scientific
exploration in the century leading up to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
She became fascinated with the women–always wives or daughters of
scientists–who made their own discoveries, in spite of the cultural
constraints that kept them from true exploration. Her invented heroine,
the insatiably curious Alma Whittaker, daughter of a scrappy botanical
baron, spends most of her life confined to her family estate in
Philadelphia, yearning for a life of greater passion and liberty. She
channels her desires into botany, thrilling to the miniature universe of
moss in the forests surrounding her house, developing a new taxonomy
that becomes a theory encompassing all living things, parallel to
Darwin’s. When she finally turns herself loose on the world, it’s to
claim her place in a lineage of explorers. An earthy, elegant, deeply
sensual novel of daring breadth and imagination, The Signature of All Things gives us the cosmos in the life of one woman, in her worlds within worlds.
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good.jpgSomewhere Safe with Somebody Good Jan Karon (Putnam) $27.95  This is one of those wonderful books to show customers and to sell — so many people adored the Mitford series and have been hoping for a chance to revisit that charming town, Father Tim, and all the others there. Does Mitford, to swipe a line from Bruce Springsteen, still “take care of our own?” Pastor Tim doesn’t have a pulpit any more, of course, but there is plenty for him to do, relationships to guide, tough stuff to explore; for instance there are serious troubles at the Happy Ending Bookstore. (Ahh a story where the plight of the beloved local bookstore figures in — wow.)  As we had announced earlier, we acquired a few autographed copies, and we still have a few left.  Nice.

Third  Book of the Dun Cow- Peace.jpgSecond Book of the Dun Cow- Lamentations.jpgSecond Book of the Dun Cow: Lamentations and The Third Book of the Dun Cow: Peace at Last  Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Diversion Books) $13.99 each  Sometimes, we just throw back our heads and sing for joy. I didn’t know these two important, under-appreciated sequels to the National Award Winning fantasy novel, The Book of the Dun Cow, by the celebrated Lutheran writer, had been re-printed. You may recall the devastating battle with the Wyrm, Chauntecleer and his wife Pertelote who lead the animals from the Coop.  Years ago somebody said this was a cross between Watership Down and Lord of the Rings; be that as it may, they are thrilling fantasy stories with a profound moral imagination.  These two new editions have revised content, and matching covers.  The first one has remained in print, but these two re-issued companions are great to see. 

RiskOfReturning.jpgThe Risk of Returning: A Novel Shirley & Rudy Nelson (Wipf & Stock) $18.00  As you may guess, we stock a number of novels that are not in the mainstream, but are well down, and carry with them large and imaginative tellings of important matters for those who are interested in peacemaking, social justice, social renewal and the like. (Think of my reviews last year of A Land Without Sin by Paula Huston, a book in the “Slant” imprint curated by Gregory Wolfe.) This recent story, too, is haunting, teaching us much about faith in the midst of a violent and broken world. It is, to be sure, a mystery and political thriller, set when the character Ted Peterson, the son of former missionaries to Guatemala, return there to solve the mystery of his father’s death years before. There are deadly secrets in that place, and Ted learns much about himself as his father.  The title itself is allusive and important. What does it mean to return, to remember?

In a way, some of this explores what it means to be a “missionary kid.” (A working title early on was, in fact, MK.)

Eugene Garber creatively writes,
Full of stir and unfolding, the evocations of place — the landscapes and streetscapes and interiors and even the weathers never mere backdrop but an expansion of the paradoxes of beauty and terror. 

It is interesting to see great endorsing blurbs by those familiar with liberation theology (Gary Dorrien) and Presbyterian missions (Dennis Smith) and scholars of Central America, and great, great writers (Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s.) I read, decades ago, Shirley Nelson’s very powerful book The Last Year of the War, and this new one caught my attention in part because of that book and her good writing there.
Sister Eve, Private Eye- A Divine Private Detective Agency Mystery.jpgSister Eve, Private Eye: A Divine Private Detective Agency Mystery Lynne Hinton (Nelson) $15.99  We carry lots of books that are a bit lighter fare, too, interesting and hopefully inspiring. Ya gotta love the blurb from Publisher’s Weekly  who named it a top ten pick in the religion category: “Get thee to a nunnery, Sherlock.”  Ha.  This story is, in fact, set in a New Mexico monastery; Sister Eve is the daughter of a police captain turned detective, so she knows her away around crime scenes and solving mysteries. This is a fun story, a nice bit of mystery, with  soul-searching questions about vocation and calling and how to square her religious devotion with this rather chilling job. Hinton is an experienced writer, and does a nice job.  A rave endorsement from her earlier book in this series came from Philip Gulley, quite a thoughtful writer himself, and a pacifist Quaker.  So there ya go — this has something for everyone!
The Rosie Project.jpgThe Rosie Project  Graeme Simsion (Simon & Schuster) $15.99  None of us here had read this, and then we saw the video where billionaires Bill and Melissa Gates interviewed the author and admitted to giving away dozens of this to friends and others who they thought might benefit from it.  It was their novel of the year!  Rosie has been a New York Times best-seller, an international sensation, on NPR, and widely touted as a well done, thoughtful bit of romantic comedy writing. (And yes, there’s a movie in the works.) Here’s the gist: Dan Tillman is a genetics professor, and he is getting married. Or at least he is confident that he will, once his sixteen-page scientifically valid survey yields a candidate, in what he calls “The Wife Project.” His questionnaire is, for this socially-challenged academic, the most logical method to find the perfect partner.
Rosie Jarman has her own little project though (“The Father Project”) as she is trying to find her biological father.  
rosie effect.jpg
You can imagine the take-aways; do you find love, or does it find you? Nature or nurture? Head or heart? The Gates thinks that this really could help people have b
etter relationships, be wiser in their dating, and deepen their marriages.  How ’bout that.
We just got the sequel in today —The Rosie Effect.  It looks like fun and, again, just might impart some good sense to a generation unschooled in wise relationships.  
lila.jpgLila Marilynne Robinson (FSG) $26.00  Will this get the Pulitzer? While she be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature? You may know that Robinson is one of our finest essayists, and a John Calvin scholar, as well; she is most esteemed, though, as a mature, thoughtful, serious novelist. Gilead (for which she did win the Pulitzer) is the story of a small town, mid-Western pastor telling his life story.  This fall I met a young college student who said (in what warmed my heart) that she was “obsessed” with this novel.  It is that good.  The sequel, you may know, was Homecoming and now we have the third, Lila.  Lila is the wife of John Ames, the pastor in the town of Gilead, and she appears in the earlier novels.  This is her story, and what a story it is.  She was neglected as a child, homeless and desperate at time, crafted a life “on the run” quite unlike that of the man who marries her. Lila is a beautiful, intriguing story that you won’t soon forget. As Lev Grossman writes in Time, “As writers go Robinson is among the superpowered…” After noting her “beautiful work…” James Wood writes in the prominent The New York Times Book Review, “Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction.”
To Rise at a Decent Hour .jpgTo Rise at a Decent Hour Joshua Ferris (Back Bay Books) $16.00  Well, this may be the weirdest novel I’ve read all year — no, not as weird as Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets Do They Live Forever that I read in one long sitting. That was the most provocative, odd story I’ve read all year.  Ferris’ To Rise Again stunning, and, for all it’s odd-ball plot, I just couldn’t put it down.  I guess that is why it has been so widely reviewed, with the author quite the star on the talk shows, NPR and the like.  Here’s the short plot: the main character is a dentist, he hates the internet but somebody opens a website for him (without his knowledge) and then these weird religious passages — sounding like the Bible, but actually not — start appearing. His dental practice continues, his office staff are perplexed, we learn of his own religious views and escapes (some driven by, uh, romance, shall we say) and his longing to belong.  I absolutely will not spoil this breath-takingly curious book by telling you the source of these religious testimonies, or how our faithful dentist deals with the religious proselytizing/harassment. It sounds weird, but I’m telling you. Sit back and open wide. Let this story wash over you; it’s funny and sad and you will see in this dislocated 21st century New Yorker something vital.  At least I think so.  What a book.
Neverhome Laird Hunt.jpgNeverhome Laird Hunt (Little Brown) $26.00  What a beautiful cover — just makes me want to hold it and carry it around for a while! This is a book I had hoped to have read by now — I read a chapter when if first came into our shop — but just haven’t gotten to it. The reviews of the writing have been so moving, so glowing, I obviously am interested; while Civil War books come in all varieties and styles, this looks to be literary fiction at its finest. It is about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight.  Have you heard of it?  Here are some of the moving endorsements, that makes us want to sell it:
“Rarely, a voice so compels it’s as if we’re furtively eaves-dropping on a whispered confession, which is how I felt reading Neverhome:
I was marching alongside Ash, eager for more of her well-guarded
secrets….Hunt says he was inspired by the real-life tale of Sarah
Rosetta Wakeman, who disguised herself as ‘Lyons Wakeman’ and enlisted
with the Union Army. Ash, however is entirely Hunt’s own creation. His
ability to evoke her demeanor and circumstances in a gorgeously written
sentence or two is one of the book’s many pleasures.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A spare, beautiful novel, so deeply about America and the language of
America that its sentences seem to rise up from the earth itself. Laird
Hunt had me under his spell from the first word of Neverhome to the last. Magnificent.”–Paul Auster, author of The New York Trilogy and Report from the Interior

“Rarely, a voice so compels it’s as if we’re furtively eaves-dropping on a whispered confession, which is how I felt reading Neverhome:
I was marching alongside Ash, eager for more of her well-guarded
secrets….Hunt says he was inspired by the real-life tale of Sarah
Rosetta Wakeman, who disguised herself as ‘Lyons Wakeman’ and enlisted
with the Union Army. Ash, however is entirely Hunt’s own creation. His
ability to evoke her demeanor and circumstances in a gorgeously written
sentence or two is one of the book’s many pleasures.”–Karen Abbott, The New York Times Book Review

“In fiercely gorgeous prose, Laird Hunt’s Neverhome
traces the mesmerizing odyssey of a singular woman, who stretches and
shimmers from these pages, and stakes a piercing claim on our hearts.
You won’t soon forget Ash Thompson’s voice or this astonishing novel.”–Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

Hunt’s new novel is a beguiling and evocative story about love and
loss, duty and deceit. Through the assured voice of his narrator and the
subtle beauty of his writing, Neverhome took me on a journey so thoroughly engrossed that there were times the pages seemed to turn themselves.”

–Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds

Civil War has given us so many great literary works that I couldn’t
have imagined a new fictional approach that was both stunningly original
and yet utterly natural, even inevitable. But this is just what Laird
Hunt brilliantly delivers in his new novel. The key is his central
character: in her voice, her personality, her yearning, she deeply
touches our shared and enduring humanity. Neverhome is masterful work by one of our finest writers.”–Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

“The wiry, androgynous and mysterious Hoosier of Hunt’s haunting novel Neverhome
pushes through its pages like a spring crocus shoot….This is
mystical, transcendent storytelling full of sun and shadows, memories
and dreams, in a language and syntax from another time and place.
Hunt…is an extraordinary, original writer.”–Jane Sumner, The Dallas Morning News



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