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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, Feb. 2024

February is not the most cheerful time of year. Sure, the days are getting noticeably longer—at least in the Northern Hemisphere—and that’s a plus. It has Valentine’s Day as well, which is great if you have a Valentine (and check out our own Courtney J. Hall’s A Valentine Date for a quick, sweet read), but not so great if you don’t. And here in the Northeast, the weather is still iffy, with possible snowstorms right when they’re least expected. But the one thing you can count on is a good book. So grab a warm cup of cocoa, tea, or your beverage of choice and dive in to one of these Books We Loved.

And for Valentine’s Day, page down: we end the post with a lovely, thought-provoking romance.

A young woman in early 20th-century trousers, jacket, and hat aims binoculars at a clear blue desert sky. She is standing in a rocky desert. Cover of The Ways of Water.

Teresa H. Janssen, The Ways of Water (She Writes Press, 2023)

Josie Belle Gore is only six years old when we meet her in 1908, yet her father has tied a rope around her waist and is lowering her into a dark well to retrieve a dead animal that is poisoning the water. The third daughter of a growing family, Josie has moved with her family from western Texas to Arizona, then eastward again, settling in the New Mexican desert region known as the Jornada del Muerto. Her father, a railroad engineer,  spends much of his time away, and it is her mother who holds the family together through poverty, sickness, and drought.

From an early age, Josie learns that her lot in life is to subsume her own interests to those of her family. Although she yearns to become a teacher, even mastering basic literacy is a challenge in a region where schools are few and far between, household chores never-ending, and such basic needs as food and water not always met. As her father falls prey to alcoholism, loses one job after another, and repeatedly uproots the family in search of a better future, Josie clings to the principles her mother has inculcated in her—until one day, she realizes that the price for tolerating that life has risen too high.

Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Josie’s story sounds grim, but the telling of it is not. Hauntingly beautiful in its evocation of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico, this novel will draw you in, even as it gives you a new appreciation of the hardships that many of our ancestors endured.

You can hear us talking on the New Books Network about the family history behind this novel and how the author transformed it into fiction.—CP

A small yellow bird with red markings and green wings perches on a mossy stone against a dark blue background. Cover of Wish You Were Here.

Jodi Picoult, Wish You Were Here (Ballantine Books, 2022)

Diana O’Toole has a posh but challenging job negotiating art acquisitions for Sotheby’s in New York City. She is herself a talented artist, but she chose the career path more likely to provide for a future of creature comforts over the lifestyle that is the fate of most artists. She has been working with a wealthy widow (easily recognizable as a Yoko Ono double), who is considering selling a painting given to her by her famous, now-deceased husband (a Lennon double) to Sotheby’s.

Securing this kind of transaction will just about guarantee Diana’s career future, just as her marriage to Finn, her handsome resident doctor boyfriend, will likely guarantee a satisfying love life. Both events are on the verge of happening. Diana, who lives with Finn, finds a ring in his sock drawer. Since they are about to leave for a trip to the isolated Isabella Island in the Galapagos, she is certain he will pop the question there. But just then COVID happens, and immediately it becomes clear that Finn must stay at the hospital to care for the sick and dying. He insists (or at least Diana remembers it that way) that she travel to the island by herself, for safety reasons, as much as because the trip costs are nonrefundable.

The story takes a sharp turn here. Diana is one of the last people to arrive on Isabella before authorities shut it down, indefinitely, as a precaution against the rapidly spreading virus. Diana finds herself stranded. The hotel she booked closes; so does the bank. She doesn’t know the language, and the residents are mostly sheltering in place anyway. She is unable to communicate with the outside world, and while Finn emails her daily, describing the death and chaos that have become his life, it is only infrequently that she is able to download his messages—and he is unable to get any of hers.

Many recently published novels are tied to the pandemic, some more tightly than others. In Wish You Were Here, the pandemic is not merely a backdrop; it is the catalyst that drives the plot, start to finish. Like so much of Picoult’s work, this story is well imagined. Her details concerning the impact of the virus on the lives of New York’s first responders (as well as its COVID victims) is breathtaking, as are her descriptions of Isabella Island. The challenges Diana encounters there force her to reexamine the choices she has made over the course of her life. Wish You Were Here, which is scheduled to become a feature film, is in one sense a historical document illuminating a time we will need to remember so as not to repeat it. Entertainment-wise, it is absolutely riveting.—JS

A man and a woman walk on separate paths within a park while he looks back at her. Cover of The Space Between

Sarah Ready, The Space Between (W.W. Crown, 2023)

Romeo and Juliet meets Gossip Girl in this story of a boy from the Bronx and a girl from the Upper East Side who find each other, then lose each other, and in the space between end up finding themselves.

The story kicks off with a chance encounter between Jace, the orphaned teenage musical prodigy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Andi, the daughter of one of the wealthiest couples in New York, who’s aware that they consider her nothing more than a cog in their business machinations and who’s eager to escape the future they’ve planned for her. She finds that escape in Jace, and while he can’t offer her much else, he does offer her a way out when his band goes on tour across the country and she has the chance to join him.

The heady rush of teenage love is done very well here—Jace and Andi are obsessed with each other more than they’re in love with each other, which feels more realistic than expecting us to believe that two seventeen-year-olds have any idea what real love is. But as they fight what becomes more and more obvious is a losing battle against real life, their different views of the world, while initially pulling them together, end up being what drives them apart.

In their time apart, their lives branch off in different directions. But as children grow into adults, obsession mellows to love and Jace and Andi learn that no matter how much time and space lie between them, forgiveness has the power to bring them back to each other.—CJH

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