December 20, 2020

Louise’s End of Year Wrap Up

2020 sure has been a crazy year: more downs than ups for most people, I expect. The silver lining of staying at home more was that I had more time to read and I discovered some truly wonderful books along the way. Here are some of my favorites that I read this year. These are all new-to-me authors, so 2020 was a year of discovery for me. At the end of this post, I also talk about two series that I love (with books published before 2020 but that I read this year) and some new ones that were a major disappointment.

A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong

A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong is the first in a new series: Thorne Manor. If the series is anything like this first book, I’ll be devouring every title as soon as it’s available. In her Acknowledgements to A Stitch in Time, Armstrong calls it a “time-travel-Victorian-haunted-house-mystery-romance.” That about sums it up! 

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O'Neal

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal gripped me from the very first page and held my attention to the last one. While the plot involves a mysterious disappearance, the main thrust of the book is the complicated relationship between four generations of women in one family. Each of the women has to grapple with the impact of past actions/interactions, from the teenager up to the octogenarian. In addition to the inner lives of these women, the author provides vivid descriptions of the landscape in and around Devon, England. She brought the area to life for me and made me want to visit it (if we ever can start traveling again!).

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune: I loved, loved, loved this book! How to describe it? The blurb says: “An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.” Set in an alternate vision of England, Linus Baker is a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth. His life changes suddenly as he finds himself responsible for determining whether the six magical charges at an island orphanage are a danger – to each other, to the nearby village, and to the world as a whole. Heartwarming and delightful.

Confessions In B-Flat by Donna Hill

At its heart, Confessions in B Flat by Donna Hill is a romance, but what a romance! It is set against the backdrop of the civil unrest of the 1960s. The female main character, Anita, is a follower of Malcolm X and the male main character, Jason, is a follower of Dr. Martin Luther King. They spar verbally but they have an innate attraction that allows them to “agree to disagree”, realizing that they have the same goals, just different approaches. I loved the family dynamics of both families.Hill beautifully brought to life two New York City neighborhoods: Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. There are some lovely extras, including historical photos and links to speeches by Malcolm X and others. The book features cameo appearances by many heroes of the civil rights movement: MLK, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Bayard Ruskin, Andrew Young and others. The book is dedicated to John Lewis, who we lost so recently.

The Wartime Nanny by Lizzie Page

The Wartime Nanny by Lizzie Page: As the title implies, the main character in this book is a Jewish teen, Natalie, who leaves Austria to be a nanny in England, starting in 1936. She wants to improve her English and possibly become a professional translator. The novel mainly covers the years from 1936-1939, in both Vienna and London. Because of the time and place, we in 2020 know the outcome of history, so there is a sense of dread as we are reading. Of course the characters in the book don’t have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, but some, like Natalie’s cousin Leah, who is also working in England, have a more clear-eyed view than Natalie does.

There are plenty of light-hearted moments in this novel. I really enjoyed Natalie’s reactions to some of the oddities of the English she encounters. One example is her reaction to some of the unusual food names, like “bubble and squeak.” The other staff in the home of the Caplins, where she works with a little boy named Hugo, are delightful and are well-drawn as individuals, not “types.”

The author highlights the difficulties Natalie endures when trying to navigate the English bureaucracy while trying to get visas for the rest of her family to leave Austria. She also highlights how pervasive anti-semitism was in England.

My Husband’s Daughter by Emma Robinson was a terrific story. The blurb explains the setup, so it’s not a spoiler – a woman shows up at a married couple’s house with a four-year-old girl in tow, explaining that the girl is the man’s daughter. An additional twist is that the married couple were in agreement that neither of them wanted to have children and raise a family, so this turn of events threatens to utterly and completely up-end their lives.

The characters felt very real, not stereotypical “types” and the situation absolutely tugged at my heart. If you’re like me, have some tissues handy while you read. All is not dark and dreary, however. There are some rather comical situations which the wife, Rebecca, has to handle as part of her event planning business. Will Rebecca learn that “sometimes it’s the stuff you don’t plan for that brings you the most happiness”?

Daniel Silva: The English Spy and The Black Widow. Kelley Armstrong: City of The Lost, Darkness Absolute, This Fallen Prey, Watcher in the Woods, and Alone in The Wild.

Favorite Series:
I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series for a long time. I’m still catching up, reading them in order, and in 2020, I read The English Spy (#15) and The Black Widow (#20). Allon is an Israeli spy and his cover is as an art restorer, so many of the books have something to do with art. Mr. Silva’s latest book, The Order is #20, so I still have more reading to catch up on!

The second series that I’ve been obsessed with is the Rockton series by Kelley Armstrong. Until this year, I had never read anything by Ms. Armstrong and now I’m a huge fan. The Rockton series is completely different from A Stitch in Time (see above). This series centers around a hidden town in the middle-of-nowhere Yukon Territory. “Dont look for Rockton on any map of the Yukon. This tiny, off-the-grid town doesn’t exist. Neither do the people in it. They’re all on the run from their pasts, needing a place where they can disappear for a few years.” I strongly recommend reading this series in order. So far I’ve read the first four and will read the fifth one shortly, in anticipation of her newest book, A Stranger in Town, Rockton #6, coming out in February 2021

Hamnet, The Night Circus, All Adults Here, Such a Fun Age, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, If I Had Your Face, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, and The Night Watchman

Disappointments:
These books all had a lot of positive hype but they were just not my cup of tea (and I’m a constant tea drinker!). I’m very obviously in the minority. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell; The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern; All Adults Here by Emma Straub; Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; If I Had Your Face by Frances Chat; Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; and The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Some I read all the way through and some I DNF’d (Did Not Finish).

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