The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman. (Scribner, 2012)

Tom is looking for work after his stint in the army in World War I. He believes the lonely job of lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, a tiny island off the southwestern tip of Australia, will be the perfect place for him, and allow him time and space to recover from the trauma of all the killing - three years between vacations to the mainland. He marries Isabel and takes her to Janus Rock. After several years and three miscarriages, a living baby washes up on shore in a boat with a dead man. Isabel, having lost her third child just two weeks earlier, immediately bonds with the baby and persuades her husband to omit the incident from the lighthouse log - a federal crime - setting in motion the ensuing events in the story.

I'm going to say this is a must-read. It is part romance, part travelogue, part history, part tragedy, and all love story. One of the back jacket blurbs observes, "you stop hoping the characters will make different choices and find you can only watch, transfixed, as every conceivable choice becomes an impossible one." And that about sums it up.

Steadman never puts a foot wrong in building the characters and plot, and creating climaxes at several points within her novel. I got so engrossed in the characters and their stories, I couldn't put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed the author's detailed descriptions of the island, the light, the protocols, the thoughts and interactions of her characters. I particularly admire the way she leads readers to a conclusion, and then adds a single detail that throws into question everything you thought you knew about the moral dilemma so far. This is an admirable and memorable first novel that will make a great book-group title, because there is so much in it - both from the plot and the craft of the author's writing - to discuss.


http://find.saclibrarycatalog.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1638068?lang=engThe Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. Penguin, 2003.

Lily, a young, white teen runs away from her abusive father accompanied her black nanny, Rosaleen. She only knows she has to get to Tiburon, South Carolina, because one of the few remaining things she has from her mother is a picture of a black Madonna advertising honey. She believes that if she can get to where that honey was made, she would find someone who knew her mother. She winds up staying with three black sisters who are beekeepers, and who know how to keep secrets, too.

Aside from the bee-keeping lore sprinkled throughout the novel in the form of quotes beginning each chapter, we - and Lily and Rosaleen, and the three sisters, May, June, and August - learn much about history, mothering, and love.

All Our Yesterdays, by Cristin Terrill. Hyperion, 2013

In a converging story revealed alternately by "Marina" and "Em," we learn that a time machine has been invented and is being used by "The Doctor" to travel through history and wipe out all the dictators and despots in order to prevent the atrocities they were responsible for. "The Doctor" has imprisoned Em, because she is trying to use the time machine to travel far enough back to ensure it never gets invented ... but she isn't having much luck. Who is Marina? Who is Em? Who is the Doctor? Bend your mind around these ideas.


The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. W. W. Norton, 2010.

Brains are plastic, and make and erase connections based on need and use.

Reading has changed from puzzlingoutwordsandmeaningwithoutbenefitofspacingandpunctuation at the dawn of writing to consuming headlines on the Internet. This has changed the way our brains work to the point where we can no longer concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.  Reading a longer work from beginning to end is now a difficult task, because our brains expect to be interrupted often. In other words, we are now consuming a long tail of disparate information pieces, but unable to explore it in enough depth to engage our brains in real thought about any of it.

Do you believe this? I better go online and check it out. BRB.

So as software gets smarter and returns results related to what we're looking for, two things happen: 1. We stop thinking, because the software does that for us (think: point-of-need help, tailored internet search engine results,) and
2. we never see the other results, so therefore they don't exist - or, at any rate, are lost to us. The software filters what we see, based on prior searches, and our field of view gets narrower and narrower.

Carr's work is rife with references to research, and there are more than 30 pages of citations at the end of the book. Whether you agree with him or not, the evidence is compelling for his description of a major change in the way people interact with technology and the Internet: "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." Scary.


Pearl of China: a novel, by Anchee Min. Bloomsbury, 2010.

Willow is almost a street-child; she steals and begs under the direction of her father in order to eat. By chance - and quite reluctantly - she becomes friends with the missioner's daughter, Pearl, and the rest of this fictional biography of Pearl Buck follows.

Willow never existed; but by creating this fictional lifelong friend, author Min provided a vehicle for an outsider's view of the circumstances of Pearl's life in China. The narrative follows them from childhood to old age.

Although the facts may be adjusted and the reviews are mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the missionary experience of Pearl's father and the rest of her family, and about the characters that brought the religious assimilation to life. It reminds me of Kinsolver's Poisonwood Bible, and also of Brooks's Caleb's Crossing, which both also explore missionary zeal.

Min lived through the times described in the setting - Mao's rise and fall - and eventually emigrated to the United States, where she lives today. Like Pearl, her works are banned in China, and for the same reasons. They depict a reality that is uncomfortable.


The Art Forger: a Novel, by B. A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012

A bold plot to copy art works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner art museum and sell them as originals ... it could have been a standard-issue novel, but in fact, it is much more. In addition to the forgery plot, there are a couple of romantic sub-plots, and a great deal of information about how paintings were made long ago, and - more surprisingly - about techniques used to artificially age forgeries and make them pass all the tests normally used to detect them.

This novel is based on a real incident - the still-unsolved theft of works from the Gardner museum - and adds an interesting side-story of Mrs. Gardner's "relationship" with the painter Degas. I was less interested in the stories of the characters than in the processes of painting, forging, and antiquing art.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Crown Publishers, 2010.

In 1950s Baltimore, Henrietta Lacks knows there's something wrong inside her. Poor, and facing racist laws regulating medical care, the cancer grows and finally kills her. Unbeknownst to her or her family, cancerous cells from her cervix were harvested, cultured, and sold to researchers. They were unusual in that they didn't die after 3 generations, as all other harvested cells had done. Due to their genetic uniformity, longevity, and aggressive growth, researchers were able to use Henrietta's cells, known as "HeLa," to study polio vaccine, as well as in AIDS and cancer research, effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, parvovirus, distemper, and papillomavirus research, and much more.

The author uses interviews with family members to highlight the story of the exploitation of Henrietta's family and the HeLa cells. I listened to the audio edition, and was simply astounded by the two-pronged investigation into the privacy and rights of the family, vs. the benefits that came from using HeLa cells in medical research. The research is ongoing.


Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. Blackstone Audio, 2011.
Bethia's journal entries begin in the 1600s when she is twelve. Her family has moved from the mainland to an island off the coast of Massachusets, and her father, a preacher, is homeschooling her brother, Makepeace. Bethia performs chores in the same room and easily absorbs the rhetoric, Greek, Hebrew and Latin lessons her older brother cannot grasp. When it becomes obvious she knows more than him, she is banished during lessons, and uses her new free time to explore the island.

On one of her forays, she encounters an Indian boy who, over time, becomes a friend and gives her the name, "Storm Eyes." When her father takes this boy, Caleb, into the household as a student as part of his mission to convert the heathens, the family's way of life is turned upside down. And when it is time for Caleb, Makepeace and others to be sent to the mainland to continue their education, Bethia is indentured to the school's headmaster to help defray the cost of tuition. How she deals with these changed circumstances that alter her life forever is the subject of  the rest of her journal.

This title has some similarities to the author's Year of Wonders: a female narrator with a strong character, lust for learning, and a stubborn streak. Add a disruptive sequence of events, then watch the resulting chaos erupt and settle.

The narrator's measured, yet emotional, reading conveys the frustrations, joys, griefs, and questions Bethia expresses privately in her journal, as one tragedy follows another in this harsh land. I found her stilted enunciation distracting at first, but I believe it was in character - written language is more formal than spoken language, after all. This book might also appeal to teens, despite its length.


http://www.saclibrarycatalog.org/record=b2230566*engMargot, by Jillian Cantor. Riverhead Books, 2013. 

So, what would have happened if Anne Frank's sister had survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and come to America?

This first-person tale explores this outcome. The premise is that in the Annex, a romantic relationship grew between Margot Frank and Peter. They conspired to take new names and meet in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, after the war,  marry, and raise a family. Margot is now Margie Franklin.  She is passing as a Gentile legal secretary, hiding her identity and her prison camp tattoo under a cardigan sweater, and calling directory assistance regularly to search for any sign of Peter.

Like Life of Pi, Before I Go To Sleep, and The Double Bind, the borders between fantasy and reality blur and shift. In this case, layers of the Holocaust experience are revealed little by little, as the author probes the feelings, memories (repressed and not,) attitudes of Philadelphians towards Jews, and attitudes of American Jews towards European Jews. The relationship between Margie and Anne is brought into sharp focus when the film Diary of Anne Frank is released, triggering guilty memories surrounding Margo's escape from the prison camp.

It's clear from the outset that this is pure fiction, but it provides Cantor an opportunity to understand her culture, and brings attention to the motivation of some Jewish people to put that part of their lives behind them in America, the Land of the Free.