The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

An epic novel of love and war, spanning from the 1940s to the present day, and the secret lives of those who live in a small French town. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.

My Review

I read this book at the wrong time. I should have loved it. It’s historical fiction, set in France, with romance. But it’s also heavy World War II terrible stuff and in the few months before picking up this one I had only read other heavy subject matter books.

It didn’t start out too heavy though. I actually first listened to the audio book and then switched to ebook. I was completely caught up throughout part 1 in the French language and culture and description of the scenery, the family relationships, and romance. I enjoyed the poetic language that was so fitting for the time and place. Though I did find the detailed descriptions of clothing and food a little too frequent and over the top.

Then the Nazi’s invaded France in the book and turmoil and trauma invaded my La Vie en Rose experience. I just wasn’t prepared for it like I thought. After having recently read so many books about our current and real world tribulation I realized that I really wanted a little “fluff” to read.

I was interested in the characters though so I kept pushing through until I could see the writing on the wall that things were only going to get more “real” and I wasn’t even halfway through the book. I just couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the emotional stamina.

But I still wanted to find out what would happen to these characters, and I had to know who the elderly lady narrator really was. So I skipped to the end and skimmed backwards until I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the major events. What I found out made me glad I stopped where I did, but I feel sad that at another time, in a little different mood, I could have really enjoyed the depth of character and plot.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. This is a war story and also a romance. Readers should be mature enough and knowledgeable enough about WWII to follow characters through horrible trauma and deprivation,  but also find purpose and joy in love.

Appropriateness: There is sexual content, both between married and unmarried characters as well consensual and not. There is war related violence and injustice. I didn’t read the whole book, but from what I did read some of it was more graphically described than what I was up for at the time, but it may not bother other readers. Had I been in more of a mood for something deep and epic it may not have bothered me either.

This book would provide plenty of discussion material for book club in regards to are historical and cultural factors, family relationships, communication, how best to stand up for truth and morality, what is most important in war or where their is injustice.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Nightingale is of interest to you then you should also try The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Zion Covenant series by Bodie Thoene, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

 

 

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The Spy

The SpyThe Spy by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.

But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested and accused of espionage. Told in Mata Hari’s voice through her final letter, The Spy is the story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.

My Review

I couldn’t get very far into this one before the details of rape and abuse were just too much. I picked The Spy up because I really enjoyed Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I thought with the uplifting and even Christian theme in that book certainly Coelho could tell the life story of a prostitute convicted of treason with some class and delicacy. Unfortunately, for me the first chapters of The Spy felt more like an excuse to romanticize sexual abuse rather than an effort to present truth, fact, or history.

“A Novel” is clearly printed on the front cover so I should have been expecting this to read like fiction, but because it’s main subject is the life of a real person I was expecting a more biographical feel.

The narrator in the introduction of the book sets up Mata Hari as a hero. Then in the first chapter Coelho begins to tell the story through Mata Hari’s own voice; unfortunately with the voice he gives her she comes off as completely selfish, even narcissistic. She certainly was a “broken” person which is understandable given the abuses she endured, but Coelho’s choice in presentation of her life events and her reactions to them left me unimpressed and sad. I didn’t feel like cheering for her as a hero; I felt pity that a traumatized woman didn’t get the help she deserved.

Through Coelho’s characterization of her, Mata Hari says, “My only crime was to be an independent woman.” I find it sad that Coelho would equate self-destructive choices from a victim of abuse with independence and heroism. Since I didn’t actually finish the book I guess it’s possible that the author actually finds her heroic for other reasons, but based on the first few chapters I was pretty sure his ideas of heroism and mine are very different. I don’t know much about Mata Hari (I had hoped this book would help me learn more), so I can’t really say whether she was heroic or not, selfish or not, but I don’t think Coelho’s book is going to give me an accurate picture of this complicated woman.

Age Recommendation: With the sexual content I would say this for mature adult readers.

Appropriateness: I found the author’s choice of how to present the sexual content very inappropriate and I would not recommend this book.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Mata Hari’s story I have found several nonfiction options on Goodreads that you should try before picking up this book. I am interested in reading Mata Hari: The Controversial Life and Legacy of World War I’s Most Famous Spy  by Charles Rivers Editors.

If you are interested in historical (or historically based) heroism I recommend The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, or Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

My Review

How did I go so many years as a book devourerer and not read this one until now? The forward by Anna Quidlen describes my thoughts and feelings about the book so well. It’s not one that you can easily sum up if asked “what is it about?” As Quidlen puts it, “It is a story about what it means to be human.”

The lives of the Nolans are full of hardship, poverty, hunger, uncertainty. Yet somehow the book is not depressing. I found myself feeling such gratitude for all I have and the things my children and I don’t have to face because we have money for food, clothes, and fun every month. But there was that small part of me that also admired the character of the family, of the children, that the developed because of their struggles. Francie and Neeley express that when thinking about their baby sister who will not have to collect junk to help the family get by. Lucky her they say, but she also won’t have the fun times they had either. And they feel sorry that she will miss out on that.

Certainly social issues are presented in this book, but I loved that they were not the main theme. They were there simply because it presented the scene for how these characters dealt with it. There is no preaching in the book’s pages about how poverty should or shouldn’t be dealt with. There is no cheering for “republicanism” or “democratism” while condemning the other side. It’s just showing that horrible things that are somewhat out of our control don’t have to make life worthless or unhappy for any of us. I loved Johnny Nolan’s simple explanation of what makes America a free country. He marvels at all the fancy carriages in the rich part of Brooklyn and at how anyone can ride in one of them provided they have the money. Francie asks how that’s different from the old countries to which Johnny replies that in the old countries even if you had enough money not everyone could ride in a carriage. Francie wonders wouldn’t it be better if everyone could ride in the carriages for free? And Johnny says that’s socialism “and we don’t want any of that here.”

Whether we struggle with poverty and alcoholism, or with depression, or with greed we can see ourselves in the Nolans and their reactions to the things that happen to them. Best of all, we see how they take control of what they can and work really hard so that things stop happening to them, and they start making things happen. But the Nolans also know that their survival is not only a result of their hard work. They recognize God’s hand in their lives and miracles occur.

This was a story that left me proud of those who came before me and worked so hard to make it possible for me to have the opportunities I have now. And I hope I can create an even richer future for my children. As Katie Nolan observes, the key is not money; it’s education. My children are warm in the winter and well-fed. They have toys to play with and a safe yard to run amok in and I wouldn’t trade that for anything, but I also hope that like Francie they can look at others with compassion and understanding. I hope they can value and appreciate what they have rather than judge those who have more or less. I hope they can recognize the value of hard-work and loyalty especially among family. I hope they will see their positions in life as a result of their own hard work and the support of so many around them. And then I hope they will help to lift and build others up.

The best way I can teach that is by example. Hopefully my children will learn from my good example and also my screw ups just as the Rommelys and Nolans did. I am grateful of the reminder from these characters of how precious life is. How happiness is made up in the small things. How hard work, independence, and selflessness are their own reward. And how it’s also fun to feel rich sometimes by throwing a little money around, but really the richness comes because of the memories created and the character that is built.

Age Recommendation: Experienced readers with a broader life experience will get the most from this book. I recommend for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: The lives of these characters are tough; reading this book means facing alcoholism, poverty, mental illness, social injustice, and bullying to name a few.  But on the flip side you experience triumph, courage, and hope. There is also swearing in the book frequently. It’s not for the faint of heart but for me, it’s totally worth the journey.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book or are interested in it you may also enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.

 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

My Review

This was really a 2.5 star book for me. If I had read it more regularly and not taken 3 months to finish, it may have earned a solid 3. It’s a good story. A sweet story. Humorous too. I appreciated the theme. I had difficulty relating to characters, however.

The whole point of the book is to show imperfect people, people with major differences, but they are still valuable in their own way and can even complete each other. A very nontraditional family is created throughout the book, one with struggles and mistakes, but also one with love. I appreciate that the love is created and shown through sacrifice, selflessness and acceptance.

But, many of the characters, particularly Ove, came off so dysfunctional that it was hard for me to believe that the relationships formed could really be as healthy as portrayed. While accepting others even with their flaws is certainly good and Christian, if I were to meet someone with the rudeness and anger management issues that Ove has I would be wary of getting too close. Part of the book’s message is of course giving Ove’s background to show why he is the way he is. While that helps me to understand his behavior it doesn’t make much of his treatment of others acceptable.

There certainly would be much to discuss in a book club about relationships, trials and how they affect us, how we can and should respond to difficult situations and people, the benefits of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and being careful with judgment – just to name a few topics for conversation.

The writing is enjoyable, easy to read but clever and interesting. The book as a whole was not interesting enough to draw me in to the point where I just couldn’t put it down. That likely stems a lot from not fully agreeing with Ove’s actions, no matter how his past seems to justify them. Characters play a big part in my enjoyment of a book, and since I was wary of the main character the entire time it was hard to be enthralled.

Age recommendation: Because of content and thematic elements I recommend this book to adults, at least 18 and older. Those with more life experience will likely appreciate it more.

Appropriateness: There is tragic content – accidents, death, fights, attempted suicide, anger. There are also adult topics like homosexuality, and there is a lot of swearing. None of it was so crude or graphic that I felt the need to stop reading but it certainly detracted from my enjoyment. As mentioned in my review, this really would provide a lot of material for book club discussion.

Other Book recommendations: If you liked this book or are interested in books with a similar theme you might enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Time Key by Melanie Bateman, Rebecca by Daphnie Du Maurier, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Fault in our Stars by John Green, My Story by Elizabeth Smart, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student, into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

My Review

This is one of those books that is so hard to review because there is just no way that you can do it justice. The author says it all absolutely perfectly, precisely, and poetically, so any words on my part are like fluorescent lights compared to the perfect gold of autumn sunshine. However, there is so much Truth and beauty to process and internalize from the pages of this book that I must attempt a review regardless of the inadequacy of my words. There were several passages though, that resounded with such power that I will quote them directly.

It seems almost an oxymoron to say that a memoir written by a dying cancer patient is one of the most powerful, positive, uplifting, and hopeful records of life that I have ever read, but it is the truth. Paul Kalanithi’s grasp of the meaning of life and death is so full, nuanced, and inspiring; he so eloquently describes his life journey as a son, reader, student, friend, philosopher, doctor, husband, and finally patient and father. All of it motivated by his desire to live a meaningful life and to discover what makes a life meaningful.

His interest in and search for meaning was sparked by literature. He felt like a bosom friend when I read, “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, has something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans that undergirded meaning…Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the riches material for moral reflection.”

But Paul Kalanithi didn’t just stop at reflection. He wrote, ““If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” And so he lived. He challenged his mind and body, he formed relationships, he worked hard and played hard.

His reading also introduced him to an idea that stuck with him through many years and that ultimately led him to choose neurosurgery as his career path over literature and writing:

“The mind was simply the operation of the brain, an idea that struck me with force…Of course it must be true – what were our brains doing, otherwise? Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms – the brain was an organ, subject to the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic…I began to see all disciplines as creating a vocabulary, a set of tools for understanding human life in a particular way. Great literary works provided their own set of tools, compelling the reader to use that vocabulary….I couldn’t quite let go of the question: Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect? [Medical school] would mean setting aside literature. But it would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”

I was completely fascinated by his experiences and descriptions of medical school. He illuminates the ironies and conflicts in balancing science and sensitivity in the practice of medicine. One of my favorite descriptions related to working on cadavers: “You would think that the first time you cut up a dead person, you’d feel a bit funny about it. Strangely, though, everything feels normal. The bright lights, stainless steel tables, and bow-tied professors lend an air of propriety. Even so, that first cut, running from the nape of the neck down to the small of the back, is unforgettable.”

I would describe Paul Kalanithi as a hero, but that’s certainly not what he was going for. However, his integrity and sincerity are truly bold and valiant in today’s world of instant gratification and self-interest. His words give the best sense of his convictions:

“Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them…Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.”

“I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal.”

“The heroic spirit of responsibility amid blood and failure. This struck me as the true image of a doctor.”

“In my life, had I ever made a decision harder than choosing between a French dip and a Reuben? I still had a a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well.”

“The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

I went back to teaching this year after 10 years as a stay-at-home mom. There have been feelings of doubt, guilt, euphoria, and everything in between. I have had to make decisions and judgment calls regarding how to prioritize my time, how to balance my family and my students, how to keep and strengthen relationships with my children while also being effective as a teacher – both situations in which I can impact lives for good or ill. It was cathartic to read and relate to Kalanithi’s struggle to find the same balance in his life between medical school, family, research, and then ultimately illness and death. He wrote, “Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.” Both Motherhood and Teaching are my callings; this book has inspired me and strengthened my resolve that I can bring meaning to my life and to others through doing what it takes to fulfill my callings, no matter the sacrifice and inconvenience to myself.

Most powerful was the feeling of kinship Kalanithi inspires not just between him and his readers, but between the human race as a whole: “…it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer and eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.”

All of this wisdom and Truth Paul Kalanithi shares as his body and mind are attacked and destroyed by cancer. It brings such an urgency to his message, while at the same time his words are full of peace and dignity even in the face of death. He is honest and open about his struggles in each stage of his life, including at the end, but that just makes his message and decisions to put others above himself more inspiring. The epilogue written by his wife solidifies the beauty of the love that they shared as a family and that they now share with the world.

Please read this book. No matter your life circumstance or experience there is something in these words for you.

Age Recommendation: This book deals with the theme of death beautifully, respectfully, and with reverence; however, some of the facts may be too emotional for younger readers. For that reason, I would recommend this book for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: There is some swearing in the book, but not a distracting or disturbing amount. Some vague, mild, reference to sex, but nothing graphic or disturbing. There is some medical procedures and description, but it’s all scientific so even when described in some detail the intent is not to be disgusting.  There are emotional themes which ought to push us out of our comfort zones a little, but the intent is pure and good.  If any of these aspects would deter you from reading the book, please don’t let them. This is a “must-read.”

Book Club Discussion: There are so many topics and questions that could be discussed in relation to When Breath Becomes Air including the importance of literature, doctor and patient responsibilities, terminal illness, dealing with death, sacrifice for goals, and finding balance.

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in When Breath Becomes Air then I think you would also likeThe Alchemist by Paul Coelho, The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

 

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I tend to gush about the books I love, so here comes the gushing. This one is definitely in my top 10 all time favorite books, and probably even makes it into the top 5. Read it. It will make you and your life better.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads (with some of my own edits): January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb…. “ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends and their book club – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This book boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.”

My Review

This enchanting historical fiction is so well-written and in such a creative way. My husband and I (before he was my husband) wrote letters to each other for 2 years while he was a missionary, and I love the unique element that brought to our relationship. Getting to know each other through words, through time and through distance is special. This book is written completely in letters between the characters; it’s how Juliet falls in love with her Guernsey friends before she ever meets them. As a reader you fall in love with them all right along with her, in that unique way that comes through sharing letters. You don’t just read about people in this book; you meet them. They come alive and you experience their journey with them rather than reading about it like a spectator.

Each of the main characters takes a turn as narrator when you read the letters written by them, but there is one major character that you don’t “meet” so personally as she never writes a letter. But the writing is so masterfully done that she feels just as real and warm as any of the other Guernsey residents. I was awed by the author’s ability to help me love and care for a character who is only “present” in the past.

The time period is just after WWII and a lot has been written about that time period. But this one is different. Even if you are a WWII expert, don’t pass this one by. One of my favorite historical aspects of it was learning more about life after the war, particularly for those in Europe whose homes had been bombed, who were living in rubble and with very little to help them rebuild their lives. And I had no idea that the island of Guernsey even existed before reading this, and I certainly had no idea it was occupied by the Nazis. Now I want to visit Guernsey just as much as I’d like to see Prince Edward Island or Hogwarts for that matter, all because of the beauty of this book.

Even though war and the pain that it brings are a theme of the book, it still winds up as uplifting and fun. I laughed, I cried, I pondered. I learned and relished every word. I love every theme it presented including the history, the romance, the strength of character, and the power of books and reading in our lives. I have read the book twice so far and I guarantee there will be a third reading. And a 4th, and 5th…

View all my reviews

Age Recommendation: The themes will be best understood by a mature readers. The aspects of war could be too harsh for some as well. So I say this book is for 16 and older.

Appropriateness: There is some profanity. Fornication and homosexuality are in the book but they are not focused on at all. Their mention is so brief and not graphic in the least. So if these things are offensive to you, I still don’t think you would find the book offensive. This is a perfect book club read.

Book Recommendations: If you like this one you should try Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak