I read 103 books in 2011, down from 116 in 2010, but I went through a bit of a reading slump during and after my July vacation. Still, I’m happy with the books I read last year, and that’s all that matters. I wanted to highlight the best books I read last year, and I managed to narrow down my favorites to 10. Nearly all of them are historical fiction and set during World War II. That wasn’t intentional, but it certainly doesn’t surprise me. These are the books that are still with me, months or weeks after reading them.
The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
(from my review) “The Lost Wife emphasizes the difficult decisions people in love are forced to make during times of war and chaos and how true love lives on even when all hope has been lost. There are scenes of tenderness, agony, and despair, and yet because Richman begins the story at the end, there is still hope. I didn’t want to put the book down because it was so good, but at some points, it hurt too much to continue so I had to lay it down for a bit. I cried several times while reading The Lost Wife, but to be so affected by an author’s writing and to fall so in love with the characters are, to me, signs of a fantastic book.”
The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones
(from my review) “Jones does a great job enabling readers to feel the tension that built up in Germany prior to WWII, and showing the lasting effects on one family made it all the more heartbreaking. Though the impact of power on art and the passion for preserving creativity are at the forefront, The Woman Who Heard Color is also a story about relationships and how sometimes history conceals the truth. The Woman Who Heard Color is a must-read for fans of historical fiction set during WWII and for those who are as passionate about art as its main character.”
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
(from my review) “Between Shades of Gray was sad and heartbreaking, but at the same time, I couldn’t put it down. I finished this 344-page book in about a day. When I wasn’t reading, the story and the characters were with me…and about a week after finishing the book, they still are. I’ve read dozens of World War II books over the past couple of years, but none dealt with the Lithuanian deportations. The thousands and thousands of deportees who survived were forced to keep the trials they endured at the hands of the NKVD a secret long after the war, given that Lithuania remained under Soviet control until the 1990s, but Between Shades of Gray gives them a voice and aims to ensure we never forget.”
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
(from my review) “Small Wars is a powerful book about the impact of war on the individual and on relationships, how a sense of honor and right and wrong can eat away at the soul, and how traumatizing experiences can cause people to turn away from those they love. The novel is sometimes quiet and sometimes exciting, and because I knew nothing about Cyprus and the war over unification with Greece when I picked it up, I found it hard to put down.
Jones writes with a tenderness for her characters and their marriage, without assigning blame. It’s the same when it comes to the skirmishes between the British and the Cypriot terrorists. Jones doesn’t choose sides but shows the good and the evil in both. Small Wars is about the small battles played out between nations, between soldiers, between spouses, and inside ourselves.”
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
(from my review) “The Night Circus is a book to be savored. Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus are so vivid and detailed that you almost feel as if you are part of all the excitement, and you will finish the book wishing and hoping that it will spring up in a field nearby so you can enjoy the sights and smells for real. In fact, the circus is so brilliantly painted and feels so alive within the pages of the book that it almost becomes the main character. The other characters, the creators of the circus, its performers, and its ardent followers, are just as interesting, and even thought they aren’t so developed that you know everything about them, you still feel like you know them enough.”
When We Danced on Water by Evan Fallenberg
(from my review) “In When We Danced on Water, Evan Fallenberg covers so much ground and takes readers on a whirlwind journey, but the book is written so beautifully and reads so easily that they won’t realize the enormity of it all until they turn the last page. When I reached the end, I just had to sit still and contemplate its depth and breadth. When We Danced on Water is a novel about passion and art, love and obsession, war and survival, and how the hurts in our past don’t have to dictate our future.”
Far to Go by Alison Pick
(from my review) “Pick’s writing is tight, beautifully conveying emotion in few words. I became so involved in the lives of her characters, and as I watched their world fall apart, I felt a deep sadness in my chest. It’s amazing how writing can hit you so hard, but even though Far to Go is fiction, I kept thinking about all the Jewish families who actually lived through what the Bauers and Marta experienced — people losing their family businesses, being forced to choose whether to keep their children close or send them away, not knowing who to trust.
Far to Go is a powerful novel about a painful part of our world’s history. It’s about loyalty and family, love and loss, betrayal and guilt. It’s about how a single action can change everything. Most importantly, it’s about remembering and makes you wonder how many survivors of the Holocaust — especially children — had to piece together the story of their families and even their own existence before the war from letters and scant memories.”
Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz
(from my review) “Displaced Persons is a quiet novel about the long-term affects of the Holocaust. It is not a light novel, but there are periods of light when you think the characters will be okay. It’s a book that really gets you thinking about survival — how the Jews survived the horrors of World War II only to face more years of struggle and hardship; how they were threatened and forced to leave when they returned to their former homes hoping to find something left; how they continued to live in overcrowded conditions in the refugee camps; and how those who moved to Israel were called “the weak of the diaspora, Old Jews, the ones who let themselves be slaughtered for fear of fighting” (page 214).
This was a very emotional read, one that made me sad and angry, one that kept me blabbing to my husband about the unfairness of it all. But then I reread the passage I included at the beginning of this review and recognized the beauty of the characters’ survival. Displaced Persons touches upon ordinary people who will never know the paths they would have taken in life had war not taken its toll, and rather than thinking of the survivors as a nameless and faceless group, Schwarz personalizes the survivor experience through characters both brave and haunting.”
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
(from my review) “The Last Brother reads like poetry, and I’m convinced that nothing was lost in translation because the words just flow beautifully. Appanah pulls readers into the scene so that they can feel the dirt crusted on the skin of the villagers and the fear before the torrential rain that will soon become mudslides. They can feel the innocence of childhood friendship and the sorrow and guilt that Raj has carried with him for 60 years.
Appanah barely scratches the surface of the Holocaust, as Raj understandably has no idea that a war has been raging around the world. Readers will understand David’s story even when Raj doesn’t, and although David’s suffering is not talked about in the open, his story is still moving and heart-breaking. The Last Brother is a novel about innocence lost, how friendship can change our lives forever, and how stories can help us heal wounds that have festered for decades.”
The Katyn Order by Douglas W. Jacobson
(from my review) “Jacobson obviously did his homework, infusing The Katyn Order with fascinating historical details and describing in detail well-known landmarks in Warsaw, Krakow, and Berlin and how they fared after the war. He does a wonderful job showing how personal losses and participation in combat affect the characters and how the desire for revenge drives them to commit acts they never would have dreamed of during peacetime. The horrors of combat — particularly the atrocities committed by the SS and NKVD against both Polish civilians and the AK fighters — are emphasized in much detail (though not too graphic), which creates much tension and excitement during the battle scenes. By focusing on a small group of people, whether a mother and child hiding in a cellar, helpless patients in a makeshift hospital, or brave AK fighters not much older than my 10-year-old daughter, Jacobson personalizes the experience of hundreds of thousands of people during the war and drives home the point that the SS and the NKVD were ruthless killers and that war is heartbreaking and senseless.”
The 2011 Honorable Mentions:
The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston — A feast for the eyes!
Next to Love by Ellen Feldman — A novel that drives home the point that soldiers aren’t the only ones traumatized by war.
The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney — A far-fetched but captivating WWII adventure that is all about the storytelling.
The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi — A touching pre-Civil War novel about a broken girl who learns about love and hope after witnessing the horrors of slavery.
To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell — A novel that is both heart-breaking and hopeful, sad and hilarious, and sprinkled with fun characters.
What are your favorite books from last year?
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.