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The Last First Day

The Last First Day
Carrie Brown

The Last First Day is a love story. Not a story about new love, or falling in love, but about what love looks like over a lifetime.
Ruth and Peter are in their 80s. Peter has spent decades as the headmaster at the Derry School for boys. Ruth has never had her own career but was proud to be the headmaster’s wife- offering hospitality to the faculty, comfort to sick students, and generally mothering the boys. Now, Ruth is looking to the future with apprehension and the past with regret. The one thing she is sure of is the love she and Peter have built over the years.

Then, the book does flash back to Ruth and Peter when they first met. Their history sheds more light on their choices and regrets. It also makes helps explain why their love has been so lasting.

The love story of this book is beautiful. Our culture mostly focuses on falling in love, and not what it takes to stay in love- or what love looks like when its old and grey. For that alone, I would recommend this book.
In addition, the writing in this book is FANTASTIC. Brown uses very vivid descriptions that make scenes leap off the page. She uses words judiciously- a single detail tells a whole scene. I would read this book again (and I’m sure I will) for the writing alone.

Walk into any bookstore and love stories are a dime a dozen. But a book like this is a rare and pleasing find. No question its making the list of my Top 10 novels this year.

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You might like: The Notebook, N. Sparks. Water For Elephants,  S. Gruen. Three Stages of Amazement, C. Edgarian.

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The Girl You Left Behind

The Girl You Left Behind
Jojo Moyes

In German-occupied France during World War 1, Sophie is a young woman struggling to feed her family. Her husband, an artist, is fighting in the war. When Sophie catches the eye of the German commander, he arranges for her to serve meals to the occupying soldiers at her inn. This provides Sophie with access to food for her family. She also sneaks supplies to the sick and elderly in the village when she can. But the commander wants more from Sophie than a hot meal. He is especially intrigued with a portrait Sophie’s husband painted of her when they first fell in love. When Sophie finds out her husband has been captured and sent to prison camp, in desperation, she tries to bribe the commander. She offers the portrait; he takes her to bed. The people of the village turn on Sophie (in spite of the way she shared her stolen food) and she is dragged off to prison camp herself in disgrace. In some fever-addled part of her brain, Sophie imagines the commander has done this to reunite her with her husband.

In modern day England, Liv is a young woman struggling to make ends meet after the death of her husband, an architect. He has left her a masterpiece house to live in but she cannot even pay the taxes. Her most prized possession, tho, is a gift he bought on their honeymoon: a painting called The Girl You Left Behind. Through a series of chance encounters and questionable choices, Liv aquires a Goth roommate, Mo,  and a new boyfriend, Paul. Unfortunately, Paul works for an organization that helps people reaquire belongings that were looted from them in war. After a passionate night, Paul sees Liv’s painting and realizes it is the very piece of art he is supposed to be recovering. (The Girl You Left Behind is Sophie’s portrait, in case you didn’t get that yet.)

Lawsuits ensue. Liv digs herself deeper and deeper into debt in efforts to assert her claim on the painting. Needless to say, she and Paul cannoy speak to one another anymore. Heartbroken and broke, Liz tries desperately to hang on to memories of love. Will she keep the painting and get a new chance at love? Or will she, like Sophie, trade all that she has and still not get what she wants?

After the bestselling success of Jojo Moyes last book, Me Before You, several of her books have been reprinted (I think for the first time in America; they were published  in Britain before.) I was excited to read more from an author I liked. The Girl You Left Behind was not quite as good as Me Before You, but after all there is a reason I only have ten “Top 10” books a year. This one was still quite enjoyable and I look forward to picking up the rest of Jojo Moyes’ books.

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You might like: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Ford. Sarah’s Key by de Rosnay.

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The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride
Yangsze Choo

Li Lan, a young Chinese woman in Malaysia, has few marriage prospects. Since her mother died, she has been raised by her amah (nanny) and her opium-addict father has been largely absent. There has been no one to arrange a marriage for Li Lan, although she has entertained dreams of a new, modern love match. Understandably, Li Lan is shocked when her father tells her the Lim family has approached him about making her a “ghost bride” to their dead son. She would be married to the dead son and then live her life in the Lim household as a widow, without ever getting to be a wife.
When, on a preliminary visit to the Lim house, Li Lan meets a handsome servant man, I thought, “I know where this is going.” Turns out I underestimated the author.
Yangsze Choo has written a novel that rises above the usual tales of unhappily arranged marriage and ill-fated love matches. Li Lan journeys to the spirit world, where she discovers that her marriage prospects are far more complicated than she ever imagined.
I have read more than a few novels set in Chinese culture, not only past and present but also largely fictional. This is one of the best. The writing reminded me of the late, great Pearl S. Buck. Was it the vivid descriptions of sights, smells and tastes in both this world and the next? Was it the carefully drawn unspooling of intrigue involving players living and dead alive? Was it the character of Li Lan herself on her inner journey from naivete to choosing love? Maybe it was all of that; regardless, I’m a fan.

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You might like: Pearl of China, Anchee Min. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See. Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan. Pavilion of Women, Pearl S. Buck

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Calling Me Home

Calling Me Home, Julie Kibler

This book is really two stories. In the present, Isabelle (a very old white woman) asks Dorrie (her younger black hairdresser) to drive her on a road trip. Along the way, Isabelle tells the second story, of her much younger self and her forbidden love for a black man. Eventually, the destination of the road trip is revealed, and the two stories come together in an unexpected way.

I found this book exceptional for the way it was able to address the big issues of race, love, and family – both in the past and the present – in an unflinching way. The characters are very well drawn and I got caught up in their stories, to the point that I cried at the ending (I almost NEVER cry when I’m reading.) I knew even before I finished it that I was reading an exceptional book, and the ending did not disappoint.


You might like: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd.