I know it’s February 2015 already, but I have one last “best of” list to share.  These titles might not have made the more famous year-end lists, but they are some of my favorite books published in 2014 from across the pond.

Elizabeth is Missing book jacketElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was billed as a psychological suspense novel, but it definitely wasn’t an edge of the seat thriller. It was an interesting exploration of aging and how disconcerting and frightening memory loss can be.  I was completely engrossed in Maud’s story and felt like I had a better sense of what the elderly go through when their minds begin to fail them.

Why didn’t anyone tell me about Jonathan Coe??? Apparently, he’s been writing novels for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I read Expo 58 book jacketone.  Expo 58 is a funny, yet serious book about a minor civil servant’s experience overseeing Britain’s pub, The Britannia, at the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium.  Brussels is full of beautiful Expo hostesses, visiting dignitaries and Russians who may or may not be who they say they are.  Thomas Foley has no idea what he’s getting himself into when he leaves his wife and baby behind in England for six months in Belgium.

And speaking of Belgians, there’s a new Poirot! Agatha Christie died years ago and her detective supposedly had his last case in Curtain, but suddenly Hercule Poirot is back to solve another mystery in The Monogram Murders.  Sophie Hannah has done a bang-up job recreating one of the world’s most famous literary detectives.  And the plot is pretty good too.

These are just three of my favorite British books of 2014.  See my list for six more.

Popular book jacketThis summer I was over at my mom's going through some things from my youth and found several diaries from middle and high school.  I glanced through the entries that mostly consisted of "Went to the football game", "Hung out at the mall", "Stalked the cute guy who works at the bowling alley".  Given my lack of meaningful (or even remotely interesting) teen years writing content, I am always somewhat suspicious when I see teen memoirs. What could they possibly have to write about in their short lives? Well plenty it turns out!  In her brand, spankin’ new book, Popular a memoir: Vintage wisdom for a modern geek, Maya van Wagenen tells us about the school year she spent figuring out the meaning of popularity and trying to achieve it.  At first, this sounds like what many middle and high school students attempt, but here’s the twist:  she used a book written for teens in 1951 for her popularity experiment! 

When Maya’s family was clearing out the house one month, she came upon a book her dad had bought at a garage sale, Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide, and thus was born an exciting but scary idea.  Each month of her 8th grade year she would read a chapter and then put into practice Cornell’s advice.  Hilarity ensues as she buys and wears a girdle, tries out a bunch of different hairstyles including a Princess Leia-esque do (“Love your buns, Maya!”), and infiltrates different cliques at their lunch tables.  Does Maya go from being an introverted sort-of-slob to a neat-as-a-pin, pearl-wearing popularity princess?  Can advice from the 1950s still be relevant to today’s teens?  Read Popular and find out!

Take a look at this list for some memorable teen memoirs.

The Miniaturist book jacketBefore learning that I had a Dutch great-grandfather, I wasn't particularly interested in the Netherlands.  Since then, though, I have taken a trip to Holland, found a new appreciation for Edam cheese, and read a number of books about the place.

Two excellent novels published in 2014 are set in 17th century Amsterdam. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton follows the first months of Nella Oortman's marriage to Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant who is rarely around.  He pays scant attention to her when she arrives at his home in Amsterdam after a very brief marriage ceremony months earlier in her own town.  Weeks after her arrival, Nella is still waiting for Johannes to come to the marriage bed.  Roaming around a big house with two servants and her dour sister-in-law and only rarely seeing her husband is not how she thought marriage would be.  In order to make up for his inattention, Johannes purchases a wildly expensive dollhouse, or cabinet, for Nella to furnish that is an exact miniature replica of their home. When the furniture and dolls begin arriving from the miniaturist, Nella becomes intrigued (and slightly concerned).  The miniaturist sends objects that Nella has not requested and seems to know things that only someone living in the merchant's house would know!

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is told by several people who were involved in the story of Rembrandt's painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp. The Anatomy Lesson book jacketThis exquisitely told tale throws us right into the day Adriaen Adriaenszoon (aka Aris the Kid and - spoiler alert - the corpse in the painting) is hanged for being a thief. As the events of the day unfold, we see Rembrandt working in his studio, Aris contemplating his life, and Aris's lover making her way to Amsterdam in order to try and save him or at least bring his body home if he cannot be rescued.  French philosopher Rene Descarte and Jan Fetchet, the man charged with preparing the body for the anatomy lesson, also make appearances.  I was so absorbed in the novel that when I looked up from my e-reader, I was surprised to find that I wasn't walking out in the cold, flat Dutch countryside or on a canal in the middle of Amsterdam.  I was, however, happy to be secure in my home knowing that I didn't have to face the hangman or figure out how to paint a hand on a corpse that was missing one!

For more books - both fiction and non-fiction - about the Netherlands, check out this list.

 

I’ve played the game “Would you rather?” a few times before where you have to choose which of two things you would rather do/be/have etc.  Some decisions were hard because both choices are equally yucky:  “Would you rather eat a worm or a spider?”  I’d rather eat neither.  Some decisions were hard because both choices seemed to have potential:  “Would you rather be a troll or a Viking for Halloween?”  One choice that frequently comes up in this game is “Would you rather be deaf or blind?”  That one was easy for me.  I need my eyes to do most of the things I enjoy:  reading, crafting, watching TV, observing flora and fauna as I hike, etc.  If I were deaf, although I would have to live without music, I also wouldn’t have to hear the garbage men at 6:00 a.m. or my upstairs neighbors walking around (fortunately, the current ones are really considerate!).  To me, it seems all around easier to be deaf than blind.

El Deafo book jacketBeing deaf is no piece of cake, though, as Cece Bell shows us in El Deafo, her memoir in graphic form. When she was four years old, she contracted meningitis and was left with a severe hearing impairment.  She was able to hear with the help of several devices, but her deafness still set her apart and, at times, left her feeling lonely and isolated.  In addition to dealing with the usual childhood concerns like making friends and keeping up in school, Cece had to cope with people who couldn’t understand her condition.  Although she really, really wanted to help them figure it out, it was hard to communicate what she needed.  El Deafo was her superhero alter ego who could stand up for herself and right the wrongs inflicted on her by mostly well-meaning, but frankly clueless kids and adults.  Her superpower was the ability to hear people – like teachers - from very far away (with the help of her Phonic Ear device). The illustrations, in which people are portrayed as rabbits, are colorful, charming and full of expression. We experience Cece’s big anxieties, but also her joys like her first crush and the fun of discovering a new best friend.  By the time you read the last panel, you’ll want to be pals with Cece!

For other memoirs for kids that are illustrated or in a graphic format, check out this list.

I am the product of a English teacher/homemaker mom and a history professor dad.  Dig deeper into the family dirt and you’ll find coal miners, farmers and engineers.  My paternal grandmother even served as a Chief Yeoman in World War I. I have relatives on both sides of the family who have done the genealogy, so I know my familial history back a number of generations.  My roots are in England, the Netherlands and the Midwest. It’s no wonder I’m an Anglophile and a Green Bay Packers fan!

The People in the Photo book jacketThe women in The People in the Photo and The Sea House are not so fortunate.  They can’t even get a grip on who their mothers were, let alone their grandmothers. In The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, Parisian archivist Helene Hivert doesn’t know much about her mother except that she died when she was four.  For years she didn’t even know how her mother died because nobody would talk about it, and her father would get very upset when Helene asked.  Years later as an adult, Helene finds a newspaper clipping with a photo of her mother and two men on a tennis court and decides to find out who those men were. What follows is a series of letters between Helene and Stephane, the son of one of those men.  Peeling the layers of family mysteries was fascinating and if I hadn’t had to go to work, I would have finished this novel in a day.The Sea House book jacket

In The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford, Ruth similarly knows little about her mother.  Her mother also died when she was young, but not before she had told Ruth stories about her grandmother’s grandmother: She “was a seal woman.  She cast off her seal skin, fell in love with a fisherman, had his child and then she left them.  Sooner or later, seal people always go back to the sea.”  Well Ruth goes back, not to the sea, but to an island in the Outer Hebrides where her mother said she had grown up and buys a house, and soon she is deep in investigating secrets involving a dead child who just might have some Selkie (seal people) blood in her.  I loved the way the book shuttled back and forth between the 1860s occupant’s story and that of Ruth, the present day owner. I definitely want to get to the Hebrides one day, even though, as far as I know, I have no Selkies in my ancestral pool.

If you love books about family secrets, you’ll enjoy these two titles.

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