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8 Tender Books with Characters You’ll Want to Hug

Karen Bellovich
May 24 2022
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It’s the storytelling that I love best: the words on the page arranged in just the right way to make us feel, to make us believe, to make us hope and even to share in sadness and loss. Books have a way of becoming part of us, part of our lives. I have countless books on my shelves with characters I love, characters I relate to, characters that have something to say, something to teach me. It is those books, these characters that I hold close to me and reach out to. They are always there when I need them. I hope the books in this review, some filled with joy, some filled with sadness, will find you when you need them the most.

Sea Music
by Sara MacDonald

In a cliffside cottage on the Cornish coast, Martha Tremaine, a woman who had known much pain in her life, is finally happy. She lives with light all around her, a husband who loves her, a garden to work in and a baby on the way. Martha has said goodbye to the past and roots herself in the sandy soil of this beautiful place by the sea. But the past can never really be gone. As the years pass, Martha and Fred’s daughter, Anna, who does not have the same love for this cottage by the sea, moves to London to become an esteemed lawyer, while their son, Barnaby, stays put as the small town’s vicar. Anna has always felt out of place and never knew why. When Anna’s daughter, Lucy, finds a hidden box in the attic of the cottage, the secrets of the Tremaine family come to light. This tender story of three generations of one family who must face hidden truths will touch your heart.

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Sea Music
Sara MacDonald

Three generations of the Tremain family have occupied the idyllic cliffside cottage on the Cornish coast. There's Fred, the country doctor who built this house for his wife, Martha; their daughter Anna, an esteemed lawyer, and son Barnaby, a vicar to the local parish; and beloved granddaughter Lucy, who, on the cusp of adulthood, is faced with the prospect of leaving home -- and her family history -- forever.

But the past is never far behind, and before long Lucy discovers that the Tremain estate also harbors tragic lies and dangerous truths. When she finds a cache of long-hidden documents, the family will be forced to confront upheavals caused by wartime secrets and domestic disputes -- and unlock the door to new beginnings, and new loves. Set in Cornwall, London, and Warsaw, Sea Music is a sonorous, transcendent journey that no reader will soon forget.

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The Selfless Act of Breathing
by JJ Bola

What does it feel like to be in your life but not really living? This is a question Michael Kabongo struggles with. Michael is a British-Congolese teacher living in London; he is much loved by his students, but pain just underneath the surface fills him with despair. When he decides to go on one last adventure, Michael quits his job and sets out for America. With his savings in hand, Michael travels from coast-to-coast meeting new people and experiencing different ways of living. But the question remains: Will this journey help Michael to find his way through his pain? Will he be able to find hope?

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The Selfless Act of Breathing
JJ Bola

A heartbreaking, lyrical story for all of those who have fantasized about escaping their daily lives and starting over.

Michael Kabongo is a British-Congolese teacher living in London on the cusp of two identities. On paper, he seems to have it all: He’s beloved by his students, popular with his coworkers, and the pride and joy of a mother who emigrated from the Congo to the UK in search of a better life. But behind closed doors, he’s been struggling with the overwhelming sense that he can’t address the injustices he sees raging before him—from his relentless efforts to change the lives of his students for the better to his attempts to transcend the violence and brutality that marginalizes young Black men around the world.

Then one day he suffers a devastating loss, and his life is thrown into a tailspin. As he struggles to find a way forward, memories of his fathers’ violent death, the weight of refugeehood, and an increasing sense of dread threaten everything he’s worked so hard to achieve. Longing to escape the shadows in his mind and start anew, Michael decides to spontaneously pack up and go to America, the mythical “land of the free,” where he imagines everything will be better, easier—a place where he can become someone new, someone without a past filled with pain.

On this transformative journey, Michael travels everywhere from New York City to San Francisco, partying with new friends, sparking fleeting romances, and splurging on big adventures, with the intention of living the life of his dreams until the money in his bank account runs out.

Written in spellbinding prose, with Bola’s trademark magnetic storytelling, The Selfless Act of Breathing takes us on a wild ride to odd but exciting places as Michael makes surprising new connections and faces old prejudices in new settings.

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Bloomsbury Girls
by Natalie Jenner

This is a delightful and beautifully written story. The girls in BLOOMSBURY GIRLS are Vivian, Grace, and Evie. They work together in Bloomsbury Books in 1950s London. How wonderful it is to walk the aisles of the bookstore with them and to see what they see. There is nothing quite like a bookstore, especially when change is in the air. Bloomsbury Books is a store based in tradition, run by men who don’t embrace any change. But Vivian, Grace, and Evie, inspired by the words on the pages of the books they read and the authors who put those words on the pages, want to break all the rules and keep moving forward into a new world of endless and exciting possibilities.

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Bloomsbury Girls
Natalie Jenner

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What Could Be Saved
by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

Set in Bangkok in 1972 and Washington, DC, in 2019, WHAT COULD BE SAVED is a story of loss and grief but also hope. In 1972 the Preston family—Robert, Genevieve, and their three children, Beatrice, Philip, and Laura—have lived in Bangkok for several years due to Robert’s work as an engineer. The Prestons’ lives are filled with dinner parties, ballet and riding lessons, and everything a child could want. One evening when nine-year-old Philip goes missing, the family’s lives are turned upside down. In the forty-plus years that follow, secrets will be revealed, and trust will be broken. But in 2019 when Laura, the youngest Preston child, receives an email from a man claiming to be her brother, perhaps what is missing will be found again. The story of the Preston family and what has been lost and perhaps been found stayed with me a long time.

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What Could Be Saved
Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

When a mysterious man claims to be her long-missing brother, a woman must confront her family’s closely guarded secrets in this “delicious hybrid of mystery, drama, and elegance” (Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author).

Washington, DC, 2019: Laura Preston is a reclusive artist at odds with her older sister Beatrice as their elegant, formidable mother slowly slides into dementia. When a stranger contacts Laura claiming to be her brother who disappeared forty years earlier when the family lived in Bangkok, Laura ignores Bea’s warnings of a scam and flies to Thailand to see if it can be true. But meeting him in person leads to more questions than answers.

Bangkok, 1972: Genevieve and Robert Preston live in a beautiful house behind a high wall, raising their three children with the help of a cadre of servants. In these exotic surroundings, Genevieve strives to create a semblance of the life they would have had at home in the US—ballet and riding classes for the children, impeccable dinner parties, a meticulously kept home. But in truth, Robert works for American intelligence, Genevieve finds herself drawn into a passionate affair with her husband’s boss, and their serene household is vulnerable to unseen dangers in a rapidly changing world and a country they don’t really understand.

Alternating between past and present as all of the secrets are revealed, What Could Be Saved is an unforgettable novel about a family broken by loss and betrayal, and “a richly imagined page-turner that delivers twists alongside thought-provoking commentary” (Kirkus Reviews).

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The Shore
by Katie Runde

Brian and Margot Dunne and their two daughters, Liz and Evy, have made a life for themselves living in Seaside, a beach town with a lively boardwalk. Brian and Margot run a real estate company renting houses to tourists. Liz and Evy both work summer jobs on the shore. They are young, busy, and happy. But their lives change forever when Brian is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Now Margot, Liz, and Evy must navigate the unknowns of Brian’s illness, watching someone they love deeply become a stranger as the illness takes hold. This is a heartbreaking tender story of love, learning to let go, and learning how to become stronger together.

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The Shore
Katie Runde

Set over the course of one summer, this perfect beach read follows a mother and her two daughters as they grapple with heartbreak, young love, and the weight of family secrets.

Brian and Margot Dunne live year-round in Seaside, just steps away from the bustling boardwalk, with their daughters Liz and Evy. The Dunnes run a real estate company, making their living by quickly turning over rental houses for tourists. But the family’s future becomes even more precarious when Brian develops a brain tumor, transforming into a bizarre, erratic version of himself. Amidst the chaos and new caretaking responsibilities, Liz still seeks out summer adventure and flirting with a guy she should know better than to pursue. Her younger sister Evy works in a candy shop, falls in love with her friend Olivia, and secretly adopts the persona of a middle-aged mom in an online support group, where she discovers her own mother’s most vulnerable confessions. Meanwhile, Margot faces an impossible choice driven by grief, impulse, and the ways that small-town life in Seaside has shaped her. Falling apart is not an option, but she can always pack up and leave the beach behind.

The Shore is a powerful, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting novel infused with humor about young women finding sisterhood, friendship, and love in a time of crisis. This big-hearted family saga examines the grit and hustle of running a small business in a tourist town, the ways we connect with strangers when our families can’t give us everything we need, and the comfort to be found in embracing the pleasures of youth while coping with unimaginable loss.

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford

An old turntable, a recording of a song long remembered, a Japanese parasol, a man between lifetimes, and the girl he loved long ago. In 1942 in Seattle, Henry Lee meets Keiko Okabe at the exclusive Rainier Elementary School where they are both students who are working in the kitchen to pay their tuition. They become friends and form a special bond. When Keiko and her family are evacuated to the internment camps, Henry visits them, promising to wait for her for as long as it takes. Keiko also promises to write to Henry. After hearing from Keiko at first, Henry is heartbroken when her letters stop coming. Both Henry and Keiko move on with their lives. Forty-nine-plus years later, Henry is standing outside the Panama Hotel where the treasured belongings of Japanese families have been discovered. When Henry sees a Japanese parasol that reminds him of one Keiko owned, his heart starts to beat with love for Keiko once again. This is a beautifully written story of love and forgiveness. And be sure to check out Jamie Ford’s new novel THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY this August!

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Jamie Ford

15 WWII Novels Beyond Europe’s Shores

Several months ago, I read GONE TO SOLDIERS by Marge Piercy and fell in love with its unique kaleidoscopic perspectives on the war. I have since been on a hunt for more World War II fiction that portrays the war from viewpoints outside of Europe. I have discovered many novels that show the war as it played out in Asia, America, and the Pacific. Here are just a few I most look forward to reading.

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This Is the Life
by Alex Shearer

This is the story of two brothers. Louis, the older brother, is dying from a brain tumor, and his younger brother has come from London to Australia to be his caretaker. They have not always gotten along, mostly because Louis seemed to have all the advantages while his younger brother always felt he was not good enough. By taking care of Louis, his younger brother gets to spend time with him, see him with his friends, and see Louis in the life he made for himself. Being able to see Louis at a distance and then be as close as he can possibly be helps the younger brother to love Louis for who he is and for who he was. A very touching story about what it means to be part of a family.

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This Is the Life
Alex Shearer

American Library Association Notable Book

In the spirit of #1 New York Times bestseller The Fault in Our Stars, a “lovely, touching book” (Alexander McCall Smith) about two estranged brothers who come together when one of them discovers he has a brain tumor and the other emerges as his caretaker.

This is the life: Not the one you thought you had yesterday. Or the one that might not be here tomorrow. Just this one. Here and now…

This is the story of Louis, who never quite fit in, and of his younger brother, who always tried to tag along. As they got older, they grew apart. And as they got older still, one of them got cancer, and the other became his caretaker. Then they became close again, two brothers on one final journey together, wading through the stuff that’s thicker than water.

Told in anecdotes as his brother remembers them, we discover who this cranky, cancerous Louis once was. That before his brain surgery he had a mind that was said to be bigger than the rest of the family’s put together, and that his heart was—and still is—just as big. That it’s hard getting a haircut with a brain tumor, and that it does no good to help your brother memorize a PIN number when he might not be able to remember where the bank is. We learn along with these two brothers how the little stuff is as big as the big stuff, how tragedy and comedy go together, and how necessary it is that they do.

Inspired by Shearer’s experiences when his own brother was dying and written with a warm touch that is at once tender and achingly funny, This Is the Life is a moving testimony to both the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of the simpler things in life, like not taking a dying man’s tea kettle away.

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Untouchable
by Scott O'Connor

Just as the uncertainty of Y2K looms in the autumn of 1999, eleven-year-old Whitley—known simply as The Kid—feels just as precarious. His life has changed drastically since the loss of his mother, Lucy, a year ago. Where once he had a partner to talk with, he now finds himself mostly alone except for his dad, David, and his best friend, Matthew. Though they try, they cannot fill the void left behind by Lucy. For Whitley and his dad, it will take going to the edge and almost losing themselves to find their way home.

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Untouchable
Scott O'Connor

“Scott O'Connor speaks softly and somehow manages to make something beautiful of unspeakable matters... a voice so insistently stirring, you want to lean in close to catch every word.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Astonishing... Introducing an amazing new talent to the world of fiction.” —Library Journal (Starred Review)

“O'Connor's prose is as beautifully terse as his plot... like the inevitable waking from a halcyon dream.” —Booklist

“When it is over you wish you could read it all for the first time, again. That is how good this book is.” —Crimespree Magazine

A heartfelt, gripping novel from the critically acclaimed author of A Perfect Universe, Half World, and Among Wolves.

A year has passed since Lucy Darby's unexpected death, leaving her husband David and son Whitley to mend the gaping hole in their lives. With the looming uncertainty of Y2K, David is haunted by questions pertaining to the events of Lucy's death and Whitley—an 11-year-old social pariah who still believes his mother is alive—enlists the help of his small group of misfit friends to bring her back. As David continues to lose his grip on reality and Whitley's sense of urgency grows, the two begin to uncover truths that will force them to confront their deepest fears about each other and the wounded family they are trying desperately to save.

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