I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.
Every reader knows the feeling. As you turn the final pages of a book, you start to think, But what will I read next? You look at the stack of unread books on your nightstand, or you search your computer for that list of must-read books you saved. You hunt for that little scrap of paper with the title of a book that a friend said you absolutely have to read. You plan a trip to the library or bookstore to pick up more books to add to your pile.
Of course, you can always hedge your bets by reading several books at a time. When you finish one, you just move on to the middle of the next one. Sooner or later, though, you have to choose a new book. Sometimes the choice is made for you — you need to read your next book club book, whether it’s something you’re in the mood for or not. Many of my favorite books have been books I’ve read out of obligation.
January was a terrific reading month for me, leaving me with several books I highly recommend and only a couple of disappointments. If you’re looking for your next great book, here are my most recent favorites:
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Four teenage narrators, each with a unique and memorable voice, tell the story of the events leading to the worst maritime disaster you’ve never heard of: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea during the final days of World War II. Nearly 10,000 people died, most of them refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Author Ruta Sepetys brilliantly constructs an addictive historical narrative that will appeal to readers who enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale. (And isn’t that almost everyone?) Don’t be put off by the YA categorization — Salt to the Sea, like The Book Thief, is perfect for both teenagers and adults.
The Wall Street Journal calls Salt to the Sea “masterfully crafted”, noting that “Ruta Sepetys seizes on this tragic and forgotten episode to create a superlative novel.”
Sepetys is now on a national publicity tour — I’m looking forward to meeting her on Monday, February 8 at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. For her event schedule, check out her website.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Comes Air is one of those books you want to give to everyone you love. If you start reading the book with a pen in hand, ready to underline your favorite passages, you’ll find yourself underlining almost the whole book. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 37-year-old neurosurgeon, wrote the book after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He didn’t quite finish, but the memoir he left behind — with a beautiful foreword from Abraham Verghese and an equally lovely epilogue written by his widow, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi — is a masterpiece.
Ann Patchett says: “It’s a brilliant piece of writing and a singular and profound piece of thinking, but it’s also more than that: When Breath Becomes Air makes us stop and think about how gorgeous life is, how heart-wrenching and brief and amazing.”
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store chose Challenger Deep because it was the 2015 National Book Award winner in the YA category. After I read the first 30 or 40 pages, I had no idea what was going on. I considered calling my co-leader and suggesting we apologize for our selection and pick another book. However, I decided to trust the National Book Award judges, and I persevered. I ended up loving this novel, which vividly recreates a teenage boy’s struggle with mental illness. The narrative switches between straightforward accounts and hallucinations, dreams, and distorted versions of reality. I don’t know if it’s ever really possible to comprehend mental illness, but Challenger Deep, more than anything I’ve ever read, helped me gain a bit of understanding.
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s debut novel is a literary page-turner, perfectly blending evocative writing and deft characterization with a tension-filled — and creepy — plot. The novel is worth reading just for its setting, the isolated and dangerous Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. Miranda, a nature photographer, accepts a one-year assignment there, with only a few odd and unfriendly scientists for company. Not long after her arrival, one of them is found dead. Accidents happen all the time on the “islands of the dead”, but was this an accident?
The Chicago Tribune says:
Part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part ode to one of the western world’s wildest landscapes, this dark, compelling tale is an astonishingly ambitious debut . . . In this, her first work of long-form fiction, Geni shuns predictable protocols of plot, character and setting. Taking a leap off the literary cliff is not for wimps. It’s a testament to Geni’s skills that she takes her readers with her.
My next two books will be While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Sanders,to scratch my true crime itch, and The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, because a page-turner about parental love and reincarnation sounds irresistible. How about you?