Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

Century TrilogyA few weeks ago I was sitting at dinner in another state next to someone who works at a library, and I bemoaned the fact that Ken Follett’s Century trilogy – Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity – had long been sitting on my bookshelf because I wanted to read them back-to-back. When I returned home, I realized that early August was actually a great time for binge reading. So reader, I read them – all 3023 pages. And the historian in me found them enthralling.

This series is a three-volume “sweeping family saga” that calls to mind Wouk’s Winds of War, although it focuses on eight decades of the twentieth century rather than simply World War II. Follett takes a great deal of license in placing key characters in the midst or at the edges of key world events, especially in the final volume. The persistent reader has to suspend reality as to the likelihood that one set of characters could possibly have had the good or bad fortune to be an eyewitness to, or a participant in, most of the major events of their lives. But that’s often the sub silentio deal you make when you undertake reading historical fiction.

What I enjoyed most about the trilogy was the degree of historical detail for events that serve as the platform for developing the characters. A reader may not be independently interested in Oswald Mosely and fascism in England in the 1930’s, the oppression of living on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, or the political machinations of the Soviet Politburo in the 1980’s, but you can’t follow the fictional characters without getting immersed in heavy doses of history. Follett reportedly had a team of historians he drew upon for accuracy, but my opinion of the accuracy of his work was bolstered the most when I learned from the end pages that his primary historical consultant was Richard Overy, one of the most preeminent historians on World War II and the twentieth century.

My favorite volume was Fall of Giants, in large part because of my interest in World War I.

Although it’s not necessary to binge-read your way through all three books at once, I do recommend that you read them in order

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Mary Hall
Rating:  Must Read

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury holds a place in my heart for being one of my favorite authors of all time. His work inspired me to always believe in myself and my creativity and to never give up when it comes to reading and writing. This book is sure to motivate you to push yourself to write, whether you’re an everyday writer or you just scribble in a journal here-and-there writer. His writing style keeps you captivated and on your toes, he is unpredictable and practically self-taught from growing up in libraries and writing every day since he was very young.

This is not a “how to write” book, but rather an explanation on why we write to stay alive, and why everybody should write as much as they can. Writing is not just a technical aspect of language, but an expressive one; a writer’s first priority should always be to get their thoughts and words out, and then focus on perfect grammar/technical aspects of writing last. I’ll always think of Bradbury while creative writing and remind myself that writing is free and uplifting, as long as you do it from the heart.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Reilly Cook
Rating:  Highly Recommended

Santa Cruise by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

Santa Cruise

 

A fun, quick read, this is pure Higgins Clark–not crisply written but not too insulting to one’s intelligence. The premise (post holiday cruise to debut a new cruise ship) is a stretch, as are many of the characters, but the pace doesn’t bog down and you can race through the read quickly.

Read an earlier review of Santa Cruise.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Jane Kostenko
Rating: Recommended

Grace By Natashia Deón

Grace“I am dead.” Natashia Deón’s luminous first novel Grace – which wrestles with the depredations of slavery and its aftermath – begins with those three words. Naomi, the novel’s central character, narrates her entire (far too short) life from beyond the grave. In a series of “flashes,” Naomi tells of how, at 15, she murders her master, who had systematically raped and “bred” Naomi’s mother. On the run, she finds refuge in a Georgia brothel run by Cynthia, with whom Naomi develops an uneasy and emotionally complex relationship. Just two years later, she must flee again, now pregnant with the child of a while man who abandoned her. Just after giving birth to her daughter, bounty hunters shoot Naomi dead.

Between the flashes, Naomi haunts her young daughter, Josey. Born blond, Josey is first adopted by a white woman and then later enslaved by her. Emancipation, when it comes, brings no relief from suffering. As a young teenager, Josey disassociates from reality after enduring rape at the hands of her mistress’s brother George. Meanwhile, Naomi, consumed with revenge, tries to avenge her daughter.

This book is not easy to read. Deón writes of a world consumed by suffering, grief, and terror; she has the rare ability to make readers experience these emotions along with Naomi and Josey. Grace is one of the best-written novels that I’ve read in some time. Both the plot and Deón’s prose are magical and harrowing.

Near the beginning of the novel, Naomi explains that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is being spared the bad you deserve, and grace “is getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.” She explains that, had she lived, she would have named her daughter Grace. Deón’s novel explores a time in American history when justice, mercy, and grace were not easy to find. But Deón manages, in this outstanding novel, to deliver all three.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Book published in 2016. Book with a one-word title.

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

The Sugar Queen

I need to preface this review by saying that I love Sarah Addison Allen’s novels. They are chick lit to the core, so if you’re not into that, you won’t enjoy them in the least bit. The Sugar Queen is the story of Josey Cirrini. She has a complicated relationship with her mother, sugary sweets, unfulfilled dreams and a stranger who has taken up residence in her closet. The story follows Josey’s burgeoning independence from a bitter and controlling mother, new relationships with friends, and a developing romance with Adam who is facing his own internal struggle. Allen includes a touch of magic and whimsy in her novels which make them a feel-good read.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Sandi Hauenstein
Rating:  Highly Recommended

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

WildCheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild begins with herself at 26. Broke, addicted to heroin, and newly divorced because of her unfortunate habit of cheating on her husband with many men, for reasons unknown to her, she decides to hike the entire length of the Pacific Central Trail (PCT) to learn how to be something other than “the woman with the giant hole in her heart.” Strayed realizes at the start of her hike that her downfall began at 22, the year her mother died of cancer. She looks to the PCT for a means of salvation, but there is only one problem: she’s never in her life backpacked on a long-distance hike.

What follows is a deeply honest, reflective journey through hot and dry California and green, wet, Oregon, where she encounters a charging bull, dwindling water, kind strangers and brown bears. As a Washingtonian whose most terrifying hiking moment was encountering a coiled rattlesnake in Catoctin, I was floored by the relative placidity that Strayed uses when describing her multiple encounters with rattlesnakes, including one that she nearly stepped on in a dust storm. Strayed’s deeply honest writing is moving, and her journey – harrowing and beautiful, is hard to stop reading. I challenge you to not want to put on a pair of hiking boots and get outside after reading this book.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by: Andrea Gesumaria
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak

This book really opened my eyes up to how a traumatic event can really change someone’s life and alter their personality. As Melinda unfolds the story of what happened to her, I constantly found myself struggling with her, wanting her to speak up for herself but knowing that she didn’t know where to go for help. If somebody is easily triggered I would warn them before picking this book up; however, for those who may not understand from a victim’s perspective what the pain may feel like, Anderson does a good way of explaining how Melinda’s life used to be before the event, and how it changed her perspective after it happened.

Availability:  USMAI, SMCM, COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Reilly Cook
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title