7 Compelling Fiction Titles
This week, I am highlighting fabulous books from prior years; I loved all of these books when I originally read them and still regularly recommend them to people. These books all stayed with me long after I finished them. I frequently find myself reflecting back on something from one of them - a storyline, certain characters, or even occasionally the setting.
Additionally, several of the books below are timely reads tying in with current events or issues that people are dealing with regularly such as aging, memory loss and the importance of community.
- And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman - As Backman mentions in his opening letter to the reader, many people fear getting older, particularly losing their memory, more than they fear dying. In his brief novella, Backman addresses both memory loss and the wonderful relationship that grandparents and grandchildren share. In this book, Grandpa and Noah are on a bench in a square that grows smaller day by day (as Grandpa’s memory is slowly fading). It is filled with the everyday items that represent all that they have shared such as their love of math and reciting the endless digits of pi, camping gear, strings of Christmas lights that decorate Grandpa’s shed, and a stuffed animal Grandpa gave to Noah when he was young. As the story progresses, the two slowly learn to say goodbye as they revisit the many memories they have shared. Backman has managed to convey some sense of how a mind impacted by Alzheimer’s or dementia is operating as it is slowly shutting down. Numerous passages are so fabulously written and create such a vivid portrayal of how the mind is functioning when muddled by memory loss. Be prepared to use a lot of tissues.
- The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor - The Cottingley Secret tells the story of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, the two British girls who in 1917 claimed they photographed fairies in their backyard, and the resulting notoriety they achieved. The book is told in a dual timeline format, which works well for this tale. Olivia lives in the present day and, after the recent loss of her grandfather, returns to Ireland to manage the bookshop she inherited and attempt to straighten out her own life. She finds a manuscript written by Frances Griffiths and slowly becomes fascinated with the girls’ fairy stories. The second story begins in 1917 when Frances and her mother come to stay with Elsie and her family during the Great War. The girls form a close bond and enjoy spending time down at the beck where Frances believes she sees fairies. She eventually confides in Elsie who concocts the idea that the girls should photograph the fairies, and with the help of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed the photographs were authentic and helped spread their tale to the rest of England, the girls’ tales take on a life of their own. The two storylines eventually intertwine in a highly satisfying manner, and Gaynor’s interviews with Frances’ daughter add depth to this intriguing story. Side note: I have thoroughly enjoyed every book that Hazel Gaynor has written.
- The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan - Bijan’s story focuses on the impact of the Iranian Revolution on present-day Iran through her portrayal of everyday life at the fictional Café Leila. She effectively conveys what life is like for those still living there (many have sent their children abroad and often emigrated themselves) and the great loss of freedom and culture that those remaining experience. I truly cannot imagine living under those conditions, especially as a woman, with music, dancing, and access to other cultures banned by the Islamic Republic. Bijan portrays the sadness felt by those who lived in Iran prior to the revolution who truly mourn how much was lost when the Islamic Republic came into power. Her writing is magical and lyrical, and her characters are authentic and genuine. I was transported to Tehran and particularly Café Leila and its inhabitants, frequently feeling like I could visualize the café and its environs along with the Persian meals and foliage.
- The Lido by Libby Page (the paperback is entitled Mornings with Rosemary) - This debut novel is a marvelous book celebrating the importance of community and relationships. The book tells the tale of Kate, a lonely 26-year-old suffering from anxiety, and Rosemary, an 86-year-old widow who swims daily at her local lido (an outdoor pool and recreation center). The lido is targeted by a development company who wants to buy the land to build an expensive apartment complex, and working together, Kate and Rosemary rally the community to build support to save the lido while simultaneously learning the value of friendship and community. Page interweaves love, loss, aging, and the value of relationships into a tale that will appeal to everyone.
- The Mothers by Brit Bennett - Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers is beautifully written and heartbreakingly sad. The book follows three characters starting in high school and progressing into their 20s. The story begins with a secret that over time impacts an entire community. Bennett focuses on the choices people make and their inability to move on from the results of these choices when everything does not work out as they intended or anticipated. She writes lyrically and thoughtfully and the inclusion of the Mothers in a Greek chorus role really adds to the storyline. I did not want to put the book down until I knew how it ended.
- The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen - This book is one of the most touching and occasionally heartbreaking stories that I have read in a while. Groen resides in a state-funded nursing home in Amsterdam. At 83 years old, he decides to start writing in his diary to pass the time. Groen hilariously and poignantly chronicles daily life as an 83 year-old. When he begins writing in his diary, he has two people he counts as friends. The diary provides Groen an outlet for his frustrations about growing old and spurs him to make something of the life he has left. By the time the year is over, he has an entire group of friends, the Old-But-Not-Yet-Dead Club - loyal and kind individuals who work to help each other when illness or tragedy befalls a member. While Groen tells many funny tales, he also addresses some important and pressing issues in today’s society, including funding and care for the aged, Alzheimer’s and euthanasia. He also reinforces the notion that the elderly deserve a great amount of respect and empathy; something that seems to be missing today. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for all walks of life – everyone can learn so much from the knowledge and insight he imparts.
- The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve - The Stars Are Fire is a superbly written book that is both heart-breaking and ultimately redemptive. The tale is based on the true story of the 1947 fire that burned a significant portion of Maine’s coastal towns. As the book opens, Grace and her family live in a small coastal town that is in the midst of a drought. As the drought continues, the land becomes so dry that fire becomes a giant fear for Maine’s residents. The fire begins fairly far away from Grace’s town, and skeptical that the fire will reach their town, residents are unprepared when the fire rapidly sweeps through and devastates the community. Grace saves herself, her children, her neighbor Rosie and her children but is left homeless and without a husband (Glen disappeared that night when he went to fight the fire). Brave and resilient, Grace builds a life for her family and spreads her wings, something she was unable to do when Glen was around. When she finally feels that her life is on track, Grace is faced with yet another stumbling block and must force herself to survive. Shreve’s prose is both elegant and stark. Shreve provides a fascinating window into Grace’s mind; Grace is constantly wanting to know more than she learns from the news and her neighbors and frequently questioning why things are the way they are. The Stars Are Fire is a particularly timely read considering the fires burning around the world presently.
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