Readers' recommendations are the heart of Book Notes. Your suggestions add a variety and depth to the column that I could never achieve on my own. Last month I featured the non-fiction favorites of local readers; this month's column covers the fiction recommendations. Here's hoping you find some books you will want to add to your winter reading list.
One of the most frequently recommended books this year was "The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" by Jamie Ford. The novel is set in downtown Seattle in the World War II era when Japanese-American families were interned in relocation camps.
Ford chronicles the life story of a Chinese boy who falls in love with a Japanese classmate and the family prejudice they face in their relationship.
Another popular book mentioned by several readers was "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout. This collection of short stories is linked together by the title character, a retired junior high math teacher who is blunt, flawed and fascinating.
One of my favorite reads this year was "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield. This well-written gothic novel within a novel is filled with secrets, ghosts, sexual obsession, murder and madness in the style of Bront?´ and du Maurier. An aging author relates her life's story to her biographer, who must then figure out the truth from the fiction.
Betsy Brinkley enjoyed Flora Thompson's trilogy, "Lark Rise to Candleford," describing English country life in the late 19th century in three closely-related Oxfordshire communities (a hamlet, a village, and a town). The story reflects Thompson's own experiences as a child and young woman growing up in the area. Perhaps you have seen the PBS series based on the book.
Trudi Shannon reports that in "Every Last Cuckoo" author Kate Maloy uses a common situation, the death of a spouse, to examine what is really important in one's life. At age 75, Sarah mourns her late husband, but before she can become embedded in her grief unexpected situations force her to accept a surprising new role in her life.
Trudi also suggests Harriett Doerr's short story collection "The Tiger in the Grass: Stories and Other Inventions." The first section of this beautifully written book is a collection of memories that she wrote down for her children. The remainder of the book is composed of essays or semi-autobiographical short stories about people she knew while living in Mexico.
Nancy Ball liked "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel. This well-written book examines the reign of Henry VIII from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry's closest advisors. Henry VIII's desire to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn sets off a tidal wave of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberates throughout 16th-century Europe.
Both husband Bill and Mike Holman thought "Shantaram" by Australian author Gregory David Roberts was one of the best books they had read this year. This thrilling, page-turning epic is based on Roberts' own life. Lindsay, the main character in the novel, is a tough guy with a tender heart who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. After escaping from a prison in Australia, he flies to Bombay in the early 1980s. He arrives in Bombay with little money, an assumed name, false papers, an untellable past and no plans for the future -- and then his adventures begin.
Pat Yenney enjoyed "The Quest of Excalibur" by Leonard Wibberley which combines Arthurian legend and Wibberley's trademark humor ("The Mouse that Roared") to give the reader a wry commentary on modern rules and regulations.
Pat also liked "Owl Island" by Randy Sue Coburn. Comfortably settled in the Pacific Northwest enclave of Owl Island, widow Phoebe Allen finally has her life under control. But when her first love, Whitney Traynor, buys a home in town, Phoebe is forced to confront long-stifled secrets from her past.
Chick Kretz liked Michael Crichton's last novel "Pirate Latitudes." This fun, swashbuckling adventure is a 1650s period piece with an eye on the corrupted morality of the times. It features Captain Charles Hunter, a privateer who's hired by the governor of Jamaica's Port Royal to steal a Spanish galleon and its cargo of gold treasure.
Chick also reports that Newt Gringrich (Yes, that Newt) and co-author William Forstchen have an excellent historical novel in "To Try Men's Souls: a Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom" detailing Washington's crossing the Delaware and generating a surprise victory at Trenton. (It might be interesting to compare Gingrich's novel with David Fischer's non-fiction "Washington's Crossing" about the same event.)
Sue Osterman enjoyed "Small Island" by Andrea Levy. The novel, set in the British Empire of 1948, follows four characters -- two Jamaicans and two Britons -- as they struggle to find peace in postwar England.
A favorite of Kris Hoffman's, "Good to a Fault" by Marina Endicott, probes the moral and emotional minefield of heroic Good Samaritan acts and compassion run amok. When Clara Purdy plows into the car of the Gage family -- father, mother, three children, and cranky grandmother -- Clara ends up exchanging more than just routine insurance information.
Alice MacDonald enjoyed "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann which follows the lives of a group of individuals immediately before and after Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center on Aug. 7, 1974. Although the book does not feature Petit as one of its central characters, the lives of all of the characters intersect with Petit's walk in a key way, creating a puzzle around the event. The book looks at people from all walks of life in New York City in the 1970s.
Thanks to everyone for their contributions. I've already started a file entitled Recommendations 2011. Here's to another year of good reading -- be it by book or Kindle.