Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Books I Couldn't Put Down


Here are the best novels I've read lately: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo, Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen, The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton and The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane.

Sworn to Silence (Minotaur, 2009) by Linda Castillo instantly intrigued me because its main character, Kate Burkholder is a Police Chief who was raised Amish, a great premise that made me want to know more about how she got from there to here. Kate still speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, but does not live by their credos. Two years ago she came back to her small hometown of Painters Mill, Ohio to accept the chief position. Now someone is torturing and killing young women, and there may be a connection to a criminal who figures darkly in Kate's own past. I'm currently reading this one so don't yet know how it turns out, but just give me every spare moment I can find today to get to that last page and hopefully I'll see justice for all. Castillo has had a number of suspense paperbacks published, but this hardback looks like her breakout title. I was glad to learn she is working on her next Kate Burkholder thriller.

I love books about hyphenated-American immigrant experiences. In Short Girls (Viking, 2009) by Bich Minh Nguyen, the focus is on the relationships between two Vietnamese-American sisters and their eccentric father. Van Luong is the studious older sister who became a lawyer, married a Chinese-American and moved into a McMansion, except the mansion is empty because her husband has left her, and her job is far from perfect. Yet she finds herself unable to tell anyone in her family that her world is falling apart. Her sister Linny, a caterer, is in a relationship with a married man. Yes, they are the "short girls" of the title, always measuring themselves against much taller Americans. When their father, a tiler and inventor of products for short people, summons them home to Grand Rapids, Michigan for his citizenship party, the sisters are forced to reconnect and reevaluate their lives as well as the myths their family has been raised on. Nguyen's first book was the well-received memoir, Buddha's Dinner (Viking, 2007).

If you enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale (Atria, 2006) by Diane Setterfield, try The Forgotten Garden (Atria, 2009) by Kate Morton. Both are door stopper whoppers with gothic elements, perfect for fall reading. We meet one of The Forgotten Garden's main characters on its first pages, a four year-old girl abandoned on a dock in Queensland, Australia. How did she get there? She doesn't even know her name. She carries a small white suitcase containing an exquisitely illustrated book of fairy tales. Much later in life, she begins to investigate the mystery of her origins. But not until after her death when her grand-daughter travels to England to take ownership of the cottage with an overgrown garden her grandmother has left her, does the whole story really begin to unfold. Long lasting fat novels of this sort give me a particular satisfaction; often they are enchanting and more substantial than most standard modern fare.

The Walking People (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) by Mary Beth Keane starts in 1963, when teenagers Greta and Johanna Cahill leave their home in remote west Ireland, bound for America. With them is Michael Ward, a boy who walked away from his nomadic clan, the travelers or walking people. These characters do the usual things once they get to New York: they work, love, marry and raise families. They struggle and survive. Yet there is a secret buried deep within their lives that both divides and unites them. I found myself caring deeply for all who populate the pages of The Walking People. Keane's writing style is deceptively simple, straightforward and well-crafted, especially for a first novel.

All of these titles came to my by way of the Texas Library Association (TLA) Lariat Award task force assignment I accepted upon retirement. I can't believe this commitment started only four or five months ago. I feel like I've been reading much faster and more critically since I started on this journey. The novels above are only a handful of the 2009 titles being considered for the final Lariat Reading list. It will be very interesting to duke it out and vote for favorite titles when our group sits down for a marathon discussion and voting session at the 2010 TLA conference. Until then, back to reading!

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