Bourke's Bookshelf: Some of my favorites
This month's reads include "Lady Susan" by Jane Austen, "Tara Road" by Maeve Binchy and "The Next Person You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom.
BRAINERD — As those who have read any of my columns know, my goal over the past couple years has been to break out of my comfort zone and explore genres and authors I wouldn’t normally choose. While I’ve had a great adventure and have found some brilliant hidden gems, sometimes I still just want to settle in with an inviting book that I know before I even open I’m going to love.
So this year I’m going to celebrate my birthday all through May by reading works by some of my favorite writers. These are all books I haven’t read before but are written by authors I’ve come to know and love.
'Lady Susan' by Jane Austen
Jane Austen is most famous for her six full-length novels — “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” Persuasion,” “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey,” all of which have been adapted into numerous TV and movie productions. Lesser known, though, are her shorter works. “Lady Susan” is a novella included in a collection I have along with various short stories and her two unfinished works — “Sanditon” and “The Watsons.”
I held off reading her last couple novels for quite a while because I didn’t want to be out of Jane Austen material to read. But I rejoiced when I realized she had so much more work to her name.
“Lady Susan” is a short epistolary novella, with the story told through a series of letters. The titular character, Lady Susan Vernon, is recently widowed and comes to stay with her late husband’s brother and his wife after spending time with friends. But her in-laws are not excited to see her, especially sister-in-law Catherine, who implores her brother to come stay at the same time so he can see for himself that the rumors about Lady Susan’s captivating beauty yet poor character are unequivocally true. Lady Susan’s notorious reputation precedes her, and Catherine soon learns that she’s in over her head.
I don’t know that I’d say “Lady Susan” quite compares to my beloved “Pride and Prejudice,” but I will always adore Jane Austen’s writing and was glad to revisit her work.
‘Tara Road’ by Maeve Binchy
As soon as I finished my first Maeve Binchy novel last year, I knew I wanted to read everything she wrote. Her writing has a way of drawing me so completely into a story that I lose myself in the colorful world of Dublin every time.
“Tara Road” is no exception.
Ria Johnson feels her life is pretty mundane until she meets the enchanting Danny Lynch, who takes an instant liking to her. But as the years go by, she has to face the harsh reality that their life together isn’t as perfect as it seems.
Meanwhile, American woman Marilyn Vine is struggling, too, and needs a change. By chance, Ria and Marilyn connect over the phone and agree to swap houses for the summer. Ria will see if she can find what she’s missing in Connecticut, while Marilyn will try to clear her head in Dublin.
As with all of the Binchy novels I’ve read so far, it’s the lively cast of side characters who really make the story what it is. There’s Ria’s best friend Rosemary Ryan, who looks on the outside like she has it all; Gertie Brennan, who is too tangled up in her husband’s abuse to realize her worth; Colm Berry, the quiet restaurant owner harboring his sister’s secret; vibrant Orla King who frequently lets alcohol get the best of her; and of course Danny Lynch and his powerful business partner Barney McCarthy, a dynamic duo in the real estate business who put their entire lives on the line for the sake of money.
I felt as if I myself were a part of the close-knit Tara Road community, up to date on all the gossip and riding the same emotional roller coaster as all the neighbors. I cannot recommend Binchy’s writing enough.
‘The Next Person You Meet in Heaven’ by Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom is another author who I know will instantly captivate me with anything he writes.
Known for his bestsellers “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” Albom has such a beautiful way with words, evoking deep emotion with every sentence.
I was so excited upon finishing “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” last year to find out there was a sequel.
And it’s just as beautiful as its predecessor.
The first novel dives into the life and death of amusement park mechanic Eddie, who dies in an accident on his 83rd birthday and enters heaven, meeting along the way people with whom his life intersected, even if he never knew it until then.
Eddie’s death means another shot at life for Annie, the little girl he saves on his last day on Earth. “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven” follows Annie’s own journey through life up until the tragic accident just hours after her wedding, propelling her into the afterlife with her own five people.
This story is a reminder that the mistakes we think we make in life aren't always mistakes at all, and that every tiny decision we make can have monumental impacts down the road.
The only criticism I can think of for Albom’s novels is that I tend to speed through them and finish them in only a day or two and am always left wanting to read more.