Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall 2021 TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books on My Fall 2021 To-read List. It’s so hard to stick with just 10! There are so many books I’m dying to read… but for purposes of this list, I’m sticking with upcoming new releases this time around.

Looks like my October and November will be especially busy!

Going by release date (except for #1), my top 10 are:

Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon

Release date: November 23rd

The book I’m most excited for! My family will have to excuse my anti-social obsessive reading behavior over Thanksgiving.

Horseman by Christina Henry

Release Date: September 28th

Ambush or Adore by Gail Carriger

Release date: October 1st

The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

Release date: October 5th

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Release date: October 5th

A Twist of Fate by Kelley Armstrong

Release date: October 5th

Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

Release date: October 19th

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Release date: October 26th

Gilded by Marissa Meyer

Release date: November 2nd

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Release date: November 30th

What books are on your TTT list this week? Please share your links!

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Book Review: A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester disguised as a patient, who now stands in the cross hairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

Jodi Picoult—one of the most fearless writers of our time—tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.

In A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult presents yet another ripped-from-the-headlines scenario: At the last remaining clinic that provides abortions in the state of Mississippi, women seeking services must brave a gauntlet of protesters to get inside the doors, where they’re treated with kindness, despite the convoluted laws that dictate timing, method, and communications around care. But on the day this story unfolds, the normal tensions and emotions are disrupted by a gunman who bursts into the clinic, shooting indiscriminately and taking hostages, so blinded by his own rage that he feels no compassion for the people whose lives he’s endangering.

We see events through the eyes of multiple characters: The doctor, who flies from state to state to perform the services that give women choices; the teen seeking birth control for the first time; the older woman who trusts the clinic staff to help her understand a medical diagnosis; the woman seeking an abortion; the relative there as an escort, and more. The author has chosen an unusual approach to this story: Instead of starting at the beginning of the day and taking us through it step by step, the narrative starts at the end, at the climax of the hostage situation. From there, the story moves backward, hour by hour, so that with each chapter, we learn a little more about the people involved, the events that have already happened, and how these different people all ended up in this crisis together.

I have mixed feelings about the backwards chronology. There are plenty of “aha” moments with each chapter, as another piece of the puzzle slides into place. So THAT’s why this person came to the clinic! So THAT’s why this other character acted this way! So THAT’s how these scenarios are connected. As with all of the Picoult books I’ve read, there’s a fairly large twist toward the end that further explains things. But does this work in terms of the actual power of the story? Well, for me, not so much. Yes, it’s satisfying to see the pieces come together, yet the horrific opening scenes would have been more powerful if I’d actually felt like I knew the people involved. Instead, we start with a bunch of strangers in a terrible situation, and have to work through each chapter, each going backward by one hour, in order to get to know their backstories, their personalities, and their motivations.

At the same time, A Spark of Light does a good job of making the various sides of the reproductive rights battle comprehensible. The author does not depict anti-choice protesters as mindless fanatics. Instead, as we get to know characters from all sides of the issue, we’re given insight into why they believe what they believe. Whether we agree with a particular character’s viewpoint or not, we come out of this reading experience at least understanding why a person could feel what they do, and even more importantly, get to understand how a person’s individual experiences and struggles often play into the stance they take as adults.

To be clear, there’s a sharp distinction between belief and action, and the author in no way supports the actions of the shooter in this story. What he does is unforgivable. Still, there’s a backstory provided, to explain how a man might snap and take such extreme action. I have to say that this is where the story feels weakest to me: I don’t really buy the chain of events that led this man, in the blink of an eye, to change from family man to mass murderer.

In the author’s notes at the end of the book, the author provides some fascinating statistics about abortion law and how it’s changed, the restrictions placed on women who need care, and the ways in which choice continues to be curtailed. She also makes compelling arguments for the need for greater access to contraception and healthcare in order to reduce the need for abortions. She draws on interviews with countless medical providers, political advocates from both sides of the issues, and women who’ve contemplated or chosen termination of pregnancies, and presents a powerful portrait of what this means for the people involved.

A Spark of Light is though-provoking and absorbing. While I do feel that the backwards chronology is not effective, I still found myself caught up in the characters’ lives by the end of the book. This book has both dramatic action and interesting moral dilemmas, and is sure to be a hit with Picoult’s many fans.

Warning: In addition to the gun violence, some readers may find the graphic description of the abortion process particularly disturbing. 

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The details:

Title: A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

small great things

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

 

This is another example of a book that I tore through and couldn’t put down… but with time passing after finishing the book, I find my reaction to it shifting the more I think about it.

The story itself is completely absorbing. We have three point-of-view characters: Ruth, the African-American nurse; Turk, the White Supremacist father; and Kennedy, the white public defender who describes herself early on as someone who doesn’t see color (race) at all.

It’s an interesting approach. We often see the same sets of interactions through more than one person’s eyes, so that when Kennedy makes a point about how supportive she is and how she’s devoted herself to defending people of color, Ruth perceives these statements as coming from a woman of privilege who does not even recognize how her privilege pervades her own life. This leads to interactions throughout the book in which Kennedy is caught short, forced to recognize the unacknowledged racism that informs her life, despite considering herself a force for good and a champion of social justice.

Picoult makes many good and important points in this novel about the way privilege and racism go hand in hand, and how people with privilege seem not to recognize that for one person to succeed because of their skin color and economic status, someone else must not. Where I think Picoult is on somewhat shaky ground is in her chapters using Ruth’s POV. While any author should be able to write convincingly through the voice of his/her characters, whether or not they have anything in common personally with those characters, the use of Ruth’s voice here occasionally made me uncomfortable.

Should a white author be able to write as a black character? Yes, of course. And yet, so much of Ruth’s POV is focused on her experiences as a black woman, explaining how her life has been shaped by boxes society assigns her and the implicit racism in her daily encounters. At some points, it started to feel like appropriation to me. Picoult is essentially explaining blackness to her readers — presumably, a mostly white audience — and it can feel disingenuous.

At the same time, I understand from a few blog mentions I’ve seen that the publisher made early copies of the novel available without the author being disclosed (the concept was #ReadWithoutPrejudice), and I wonder about that experience. Might I have felt differently about Ruth’s voice if I didn’t know the identity of the author? It’s possible.

On the other hand, I didn’t have a problem with her portrayal of Turk, the white supremacist who is also a grieving father and devoted, loving husband. Understanding from within his mind how his life has led him to this point and how he became such a strong believer and advocate for hate is fascinating and informative, and also scary as hell.

Kennedy feels like a pretty typical Picoult lawyer. She’s a working mother, a dedicated professional looking for her opportunity to take on a case she feels passionately about, and thinks she knows about justice in America by virtue of her work as a public defender. Ruth forces her to confront her own assumptions and biases and tear down a bit of the wall that keeps her from seeing just how her white privilege has enabled her to be the person she is now.

In terms of the plot, it’s a doozy of a set-up. At the parents’ request, a note is added to the baby’s medical file saying that no African American personnel are to touch the baby. But Ruth is the only African American staff member in the labor and delivery ward, so this is clearly an order targeted specifically at Ruth, and only Ruth. I wish the book had explored the legalities of this a bit more. Hospitals honor patients’ requests, when reasonable — but this seems so blatantly unreasonable that it never should have stood as an order to begin with.

I had a hard time accepting that the criminal case could or would go forward as described. There was no evidence against Ruth to begin with, and the rush to judgment against her seems simply unrealistic. I just wasn’t convinced at all by the set-up of the legal case.

Further, Kennedy tells Ruth repeatedly that race is never brought into the courtroom — that it’s a sure-fire way to alienate the jury, and that it JUST ISN’T DONE. That may be, but I wish Picoult had fleshed this out a bit more with examples or explanations. This becomes a turning point in the trial, and only knowing that it’s not done because Kennedy says so doesn’t really drive home the real-life situation. I wanted to know — is this a plot device, or is this really borne out in real-life courtrooms? As it was written, I wasn’t really convinced, and like Ruth, didn’t buy that there wouldn’t be merit in telling the story as it played out in terms of the race relations of the people involved.

Finally, there’s a plot twist at the very end. I haven’t read every single Jodi Picoult novel, but I’ve read enough to know that a huge twist is pretty standard for her books. I won’t get into what the twist is in Small Great Things, but I will say that I thought it was rather unbelievable and unnecessary. The story didn’t need it, and the timing and delivery were just odd.

Overall, I’d say that Small Great Things is a fast and compelling read, but that it left me feeling like I’d been lectured to in a way that detracts a bit from the power of the story. The story itself is complicated and twisty, although there are so many side elements thrown in (the charismatic TV personality, the darker skinned sister who chooses to refuse the path that Ruth has taken, the wealthy white family that Ruth’s mother worked for as a maid for 50 years) that by the end, the courtroom scenes, which should be the dramatic climax of the book, feel a little rushed and curtailed.

From reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, it’s clear that Picoult poured her heart and soul into her research for this book, and has embarked on her own personal journey to recognize the inherent racism that’s a part of white privilege. I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, but all this earnestness doesn’t necessarily translate into great fiction. When the storyline takes a back seat to the message, it can start feeling overly preachy. I was fascinated by the unfolding story and become involved in Ruth’s struggles and her quest for true justice, but the use of POVs and the shoe-horning in of everything Picoult has learned about race in America weaken the power of the legal drama at the center of the narrative.

Still, I’d say that Picoult’s fanbase will of course love Small Great Things, and I’d recommend it to others as well. Jodi Picoult’s books are always thought-provoking, and she’s a master when it comes to taking even abhorrent characters and showing their humanity. She lets us see Turk and his wife as bereaved parents, and their pain is no less real and heartfelt than anyone else’s, despite the fact that they’re absolutely revolting in every other way. This, I think, is a great example of the power of Picoult’s writing: She takes us inside lives and minds we might otherwise never see, and always manages to show us the sparks of humanity to be found in the most unexpected places.

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The details:

Title: Small Great Things
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 11, 2016
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller

(Goodreads): Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses… and then he confesses his darkest secret—he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?

How do I even begin to describe a book as powerful and devastating as The Storyteller? While I knew the basic premise, I had no idea what I was in for when I first started reading it.

At the outset, we meet Sage, a reclusive young woman bearing scars of a tragic accident that cost her her parents. Sage lives alone in a small town in New Hampshire, where she works nights — again, alone — baking a miraculous, marvelous assortment of breads for the small bakery that employs her. Baking is both Sage’s passion and an escape, providing her with distraction and a focus, as well as a good excuse to avoid almost everyone.

It’s silly to anthropomorphize bread, but I love the fact that it needs to sit quietly, to retreat from touch and noise and drama, in order to evolve.

I have to admit, I often feel that way myself.

Sage is forced out of her comfort zone only when she attends a grief support group, where she meets and befriends a newer member, Josef, a sweet old man in his 90s who seems to be just as lonely as Sage. Gradually, the two connect and begin to share bits and pieces of their lives, but Sage’s pleasure in the friendship grinds to a crashing halt when Josef confesses his Nazi past to Sage and asks her to help him die.

Sage is aware that her beloved grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor, and remembers catching a brief glimpse of the tattoo on her arm. But Minka has never said a word about her experiences and refuses to answer questions. Sage doesn’t know where to turn. Josef is a well-respected member of the community, a man known as an excellent teacher, kind to all, a man who always did his best to help the town. How can he be a Nazi? In desperation and disgust, Sage tries to connect with law enforcement, and is finally directed to the Federal agency which investigates alleged war criminals, where an agent named Leo Stein takes Sage’s call. Leo encourages Sage to get more information. It’s not enough to know that Josef has claimed to be a former SS agent. In order to take any action, they’ll need to be able to tie him to the historical records through facts, witness reports, or other details that can’t be fabricated.

Why is this book called The Storyteller? Within the novel, we get story upon story. The book opens with a scene that seems like something out of a different world — a tale with a folkloric flavor set in a small Polish village, in which the main character is the baker’s daughter, who feels a growing attraction to a strange young man who’s just arrived in the town, which is also beset by strange animal attacks. It’s not obvious, at first, how this tale, which weaves in between chapters of the contemporary story, actually fits into the main narrative, but it does, and is worth paying attention to.

After the initial section of the book sets up the story of Sage and Josef, we move into the heart of the book, which consists of two more sets of stories. First, we hear from Josef, who tells Sage that he is not Josef Weber after all, but Reiner Hartmann, an SS officer whom Leo is able to find in the historical record. Josef relates the story of his life to Sage, from his childhood in a typical German family to his growing success in Hitler Youth, to enrolling in the SS and becoming a part of the death machine that rolled through Poland. His story includes unflinching looks at the horrors in which he participated, slaughtering men, women, and children in village after village, and finally becoming a lead officer at Auschwitz, overseeing all female prisoners.

Josef’s confession to Sage isn’t enough, though. In order for Leo to take legal action and start the long process that could lead to extradition, deportation, and facing trial for his crimes, they need to be able to tie Josef’s story to something contained in the secret files on Reiner Hartmann, something that couldn’t have been gleaned from the public record. And at this point, Sage takes Leo to meet Minka — and Minka breaks her decades of silence by relating the terrible story of her girlhood, the fate of her family, and her own experiences in Auschwitz.

Minka’s story is the true center of the book, and Minka herself most aptly fits the role of the title, The Storyteller. Minka’s tale is lengthy, detailed, heartbreaking, and horrific. This is the longest section of the book, and is simply devastating to read. I won’t go into detail here; on the one hand, anyone who’s read the stories of Holocaust survivors will recognize some of the common elements here, yet on the other hand, Minka’s narrative is so personal and closely-observed that each loss and each degree of suffering feels like it happened to people we know. Within Minka’s narrative of what she lived through are more bits and pieces of the village tale that’s sprinkled throughout The Storyteller, and we finally discover the link between the book’s characters and the events of the tale.

The central question in The Storyteller is one of forgiveness and atonement. Can someone truly be forgiven for past crimes? Whose job, and whose right, is it to forgive? Can someone who’s committed evil acts ever make up for them? Do 50 years of helping others erase a heinous past? Does it make sense to prosecute a 95-year-old man for the crimes he committed almost seventy years earlier?

I don’t know what this person did you you, and I am not sure I want to. But forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. It’s saying, You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.

There are no easy answers here. Sage does what she feels to be the right thing by bringing in Leo and cooperating in the investigation, yet she feels a moral obligation toward Josef too. When she looks at him, she sees the horrors he committed, but at the same time she see a lonely, frail old man who loves his dog and mourns his wife of fifty years. Can she feel sorry for him even while feeling repulsed by all she knows? And how does hearing her grandmother’s story affect her ability to listen to the request Josef continues to make of her?

While painting a vivid portrait of a period of history that must not be forgotten, the author is also making an important statement about the power of stories:

Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Secrets, lies, stories. We all tell them. Sometimes, because we hope to entertain. Sometimes, because we need to distract.

And sometimes, because we have to.

Jodi Picoult’s fiction tends not to come with easy answers. Of the four or five of her books which I’ve read, all include moral quandaries — people put in difficult or almost impossible positions, where the path forward is murky and ethical questions abound. The same is true of The Storyteller. There’s much food for thought here, and no matter what you think of Josef himself, his request, and Sage’s actions, you’ll definitely find yourself replaying scenes in your mind over and over. I’d imagine that the ending will be controversial for many, and there are certainly plenty of arguments to be made as to why it is or isn’t the right ending, or what the characters should or should not have done.

Ultimately, The Storyteller is a tale of pain and loss, but at the same time, it inspires hope simply by allowing the reader to bear witness to the courage and sacrifice that accompany all the horrors which Minka shares through her story. The Storyteller is not a light or easy read, but it’s an important one, and I applaud the author for creating a work of fiction that explores such a horrible piece of history with grace and honesty.

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The details:

Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: February 26, 2013
Length: 460 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Flashback Friday: The Pact

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight. If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My picks for this week’s Flashback Friday:

 

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

(published 1998)

From Goodreads:

For eighteen years the Hartes and the Golds have lived next door to each other, sharing everything from Chinese food to chicken pox to carpool duty– they’ve grown so close it seems they have always been a part of each other’s lives. Parents and children alike have been best friends, so it’s no surprise that in high school Chris and Emily’s friendship blossoms into something more. They’ve been soul mates since they were born.

So when midnight calls from the hospital come in, no one is ready for the appalling truth: Emily is dead at seventeen from a gunshot wound to the head. There’s a single unspent bullet in the gun that Chris took from his father’s cabinet– a bullet that Chris tells police he intended for himself. But a local detective has doubts about the suicide pact that Chris has described.

I initially picked up The Pact because I was drawn to the cover — that one right up there ↑ (a quick Google search shows several different versions, but the one on this page is the one that sucked me in and made me buy the book). The Pact was my first encounter with bestselling author Jodi Picoult, and although I’ve read several of her books since then, I still think The Pact is the best.

As a parent, I found this book devastating to read. It’s hard to imagine being on the receiving end of such a horrifying phone call — but from that shocking beginning, the book moves forward to reveal countless layers of family dynamics, expectations and failures, love and secrets. There’s a mystery to be solved, and a legal case to see through to a shocking conclusion. The truth about what happened to Emily is sad yet believable, and the tragedy of the young lives ruined is hard to shake even when you’ve finished the book.

Even many years later, The Pact has really stuck with me. If you’ve read it, please let me know what you think! And if you haven’t read it, and especially if you’ve never read any of Jodi Picoult’s works, give this one a try. But be prepared to be put through the emotional wringer. It’s a tough one.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!