“A book is a gift you can open again and again.”
So … this was supposed to be a post about brainstorming my next novel. Or jumping back into queries for Reflections of Me. Or how surreal it still feels to be finished edits on Dear Ellie. But it’s not. It’s not any of those things, because even when your bronchitis calms a little and you feel human again, it also decides to continue hanging around and making you miserable, exasperated, and disgusted. My take two for the week? Only sorta worked. One outing a day is still about all I can manage without going into coughing spasms that make people stare and me want to dart from the store. That said: holiday shopping is (almost) officially finished, cards are being written, and gifts will be wrapped today. Everything else will still have to wait, though, because the balance of my time is being spent resting so this bronchitis will finally leave me alone (note to body: PLEASE? not sure how much more of this coughing I can take without losing my mind!).
Anyway, since I have nothing writing-related to talk about (grrrr), I thought I’d go with the next greatest thing: reading. With the end of the year quickly approaching, “best of” lists are starting to pop up. I did one for my favorite books in 2010 and wanted to continue the tradition this year. It was hard to narrow the wonderful choices down to only a few – each book had its own unique journey unfold through its pages – but there were some that stood out, stood above, stood forward in a way that will resonate for a long time to come.
My favorite reads of 2011 are…
Happy Ever After – Nora Roberts: My friend Mary Kate bought me the first book in Nora’s Bride Quartet series (A VISION IN WHITE) as part of my Hanukkah gift last year, and I fell in love with the concept right from the very first sentence of the prologue. Four childhood best friends, four girls who used to “play wedding” when they were little, four women who have created their own wedding planning business and work every day to make it flourish. They’re living out their dreams, following their passions, doing what we all wish we could: spin our hearts’ truest desires into a career, a journey, a way of life. And best of all? They’re doing it with each other, sharing the dream-come-true with their sisters by choice. Through the series, we learn all about Mac, Emma, Laurel, and, in this book, Parker. We see their strengths and witness their vulnerabilities. We see their fervent adoration for their work of heart – be it photography, floral design, cake catering, or overall wedding planning – and we also see their hearts twist and turn, bend and mold to let love in. These women become like friends, so relatable and true that you feel as though you’ve known them forever. You laugh with them, cry with them, and, in this book, are so genuinely thrilled to get a glimpse into their “happy ever after.” These novels? They make you believe that magic is real.
Skipping a Beat – Sarah Pekkanen: Sarah’s second novel is … resonant, that’s the best word I can find to describe it. Nearly ten months after reading it, I still find myself thinking about the story. I still find myself reflecting on the life Julia and Michael Dunhill had together, reflecting on the ways that life was rewritten after Michael went into cardiac arrest and his perspective shifted so drastically, and – what I’ve always found to be the sign of a very special book – reflecting on what may have happened to Julia beyond the pages. Michael’s epiphany taught them both how to live again, helped them see clearly what had become foggy, and brought vibrant color back into a world that had faded. It changed them both for the better – and, even though the ending brought tears to my eyes more than once, it was fitting. It was right. It was also open-ended enough that I am hoping, hoping, hoping Sarah will write a sequel. I want to see how Julia carries out her husband’s inspiring dreams. I want to see how she carries out her own. I want to know so much more about these characters, these relationships, these journeys that are waiting in the wings. Julia grew so much over the course of the novel and took readers down that path right along with her. She reminded us that life really can change in a heartbeat – and that can be a beautiful thing.
Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen: So many people recommended this book that I just had to read it. It’s not the kind of novel I normally pick up, but I was intrigued from the first page and literally could not put it down. In it, we’re introduced to Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who inadvertently joins a traveling circus. Jacob’s story is told through current reflection (as a ninety-some-old man) and flashbacks to his days with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. We see his valor in protecting performer (and love) Marlena from her often violent husband, his heart in working with newly-acquired elephant Rosie to train and care for her, and his wisdom in sharing all the lessons he’s learned. We see him as a young man, as an old man, and as everything in between. We root for him, we root for Marlena, we root for Rosie as she becomes so much more than an elephant. She becomes real, becomes human-like. And when the story comes full-circle at the end, shedding a new light on what happens in the very beginning, we understand. We understand it all. The flashbacks make the present scenes even more poignant, and the ending? It is truly perfect.
The Bake-Off – Beth Kendrick: This one’s a bit tough for me to write about now, because the storyline with Amy and Linnie’s beloved Grammy hits a little too close to home. But what also hits close to home is the love, the bond, the beautiful connection the women share with their grandmother. So when she sets the estranged sisters up to participate in a baking contest together? Despite their misgivings, they agree. What initially seems a recipe for disaster becomes one of lessons learned and love repaired. The crack in the sisters’ relationship slowly begins to be pieced back together. And, although Amy and Linnie couldn’t be more different (Amy is a mom of toddler-aged twins and Linnie is a child prodigy who dropped out of college when the pressure became too much), they come together in important ways. They remind us that life does not follow a recipe. Mistakes are made, betrayals are irrevocable, and other people’s choices influence our own. But sometimes the most unlikely combination can mend ties, just like the most unlikely combination can bake an award-winning pie. We only have to be willing to try. And when we do? Life can change all over again.
The First Husband – Laura Dave: Annie Adams is many things – a writer, a traveler, and, after her long-time boyfriend drops a bombshell and leaves, she becomes something else – a wife to a new man she’s only known for three months. Griffin is a chef about to open his own restaurant, and when a chance meeting brings them together, the connection is instantaneous. It’s magnetic. It’s the kind fairytales are made of. When Annie moves clear across the country with Griffin, going from Los Angeles to a tiny town in Massachusetts? The fairytale fades a bit. As she struggles to adjust to this very different life, Annie questions everything, most of all who she is and who she’s become. Laura cleverly intersperses excerpts and advice from Annie’s travel column into the book – and through her views on what traveling is and what it represents, we gain insight into Annie’s personality, opinions, and her own life. She’s an endearing character. The whole cast is – Griffin, his brother and twin sons, even Griffin’s ex-girlfriend Gia. We believe in them all. We feel like we know them all. We want them to be happy, to believe in their own identities and then connect them to one another. And isn’t that what any great novel should achieve?
Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert: Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a ginormous I Love Lucy fan. It’s the one show I can watch over and over (and over and over), never once getting tired of the episodes. So when I found out about this book, a comprehensive tell-all about Lucille and Desi – complete with quotes from their daughter and many of the show’s original cast, crew, and creators – I couldn’t wait to read. The real-life story paints a picture quite different than what we saw on the show, a story filled with intense love and laughter, but also loneliness and pain. There were parts that were sad to read, but others that were inspiring and uplifting. And fascinating. It was fascinating to read about Lucille and Desi – their lives, their marriage, their work and their company. They were true visionaries in the television industry and it’s amazing to see how very much they accomplished. And though their personal lives were rockier than Lucy and Ricky’s endearing marriage, it’s also obvious how much love was there. Lucille, Desi, Vivian, and William … we’ll always love them.
What are your favorite books of 2011?