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  • Writer's pictureJenna Miller

Books That Kept Me Up At Night

Some books have a way of getting under your skin, either from the remarkable storytelling, or the enthralling content. I have lost many hours of sleep due to pondering the books I am reading or have recently finished. The older I have gotten and the more children I have had, the pickier I have become regarding what books to read before bed. That does not always mean I follow my own advice! Here is a list of great books from different genres that have occupied my mind into the wee hours and over the years.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah: Hannah has a gift for making her readers feel deep emotions about hard subjects. I have a couple of her books on this list. Winter Garden is set in two places: the present day American Pacific Northwest and WWII Stalingrad, Russia. Present day: two grown women struggle with caring for their emotionally distant mother whose only real tie they have to her is a Russian fairytale she shared throughout their childhood. Stalingrad: a young woman falls in love, marries, and has children with an aristocratic man on the eve of the Siege of Stalingrad. However, this man and her father are both men of ideals and ideas--dangerous things to stand for in Russia. After her husband is arrested and forced into military service, she struggles to keep her children and aging mother alive in the midst of unimaginably severe starvation as the city is closed around them. In the midst of these two seemingly unrelated stories lies the question: Can a daughter know herself if she does not know who her mother truly is? This book is overwhelming for the horrifying realities people dealt with during the Siege. I had never researched or read in any detail about this part of WWII history. This was such a good read, but it will break your heart. (Historical Fiction)

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker: In a small college town, a university student falls asleep and cannot be woken. Then the same thing happens to another student, and another, until the entire campus is in some way affected. Doctors cannot figure out what is happening or how to wake the 'dreamers' up. The National Guard is called in to place the town in quarantine. No one in and no one out. Families encircle the town waiting anxiously to hear about their family members. The 'dreamers' seem to be having highly heightened dreams. This novel delves into the contagion of fear, and how people react to a crisis, and respond to one another when fear and anxiety become their all-encompassing focus. It was published in January 2019, but seems so relevant considering the same fear and anxiety many are dealing with now in regards to Covid-19. (Science Fiction)

Before They Were Yours by Lisa Wingate: Wingate brings to life the infamous scandal of Georgia Tann who ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society orphanage. Over decades, Tann and her cohorts routinely kidnapped children from poor families and sold them to wealthy couples wanting to adopt. Many of these impoverished mothers were told their children died in childbirth while the hospital staff was paid to look the other way. Most of the wealthy families thought they were adopting legally. The children were treated horrifically while under Tann's care, and the harder to control ones were disposed of. Before We Were Yours follows siblings who were kidnapped in 1939 while their parents were at the hospital having another baby. It jumps forward to present day, where a young prosecutor caring for her ill father begins to discover things about her father's background that draw into question his familial ties. This was a heart-wrenching story about a period in history I had never heard about prior to this book. I am so glad she wrote it and I read it. Wingate's book reinforces why it is so important to use an ethical adoption agency. (Historical Fiction)

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum: Etaf Rum, a Palestinian American woman, writes a captivating novel about three generations of Palestinian American women. Isra had no choice when her parents decided to marry her to a Palestinian American young man. She leaves Palestine and her family for her in-laws home in Brooklyn where she hopes to have some sort of freedom. Many years later, eighteen-year-old Deya is being forced into her mother's footsteps by her grandmother. She has been raised to believe her parents died in a car accident, until a familiar-looking woman delivers a note to her that shakes this belief long-held as true. A Woman Is No Man is a call for change in how women are treated, specifically in Arab culture. I also see it as a call to cultural assimilation. While there is something to be said for holding on to traditions and remembering your heritage, not all traditions are worthy or valuable particularly in light of the foundation upon which America was founded. This was a hard book to read, but I do not see how this topic could have been handled differently and been as potent. It was depressing, hopeful, and wrenching. When I finished Rum's book, all I felt was depressed, but over the last year, my perspective on it has changed. (Literary Fiction)

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: Set in 1970s Alaska, The Great Alone follows a family in crisis. Vietnam War veteran Ernt Allbright arrives home a changed man. His experience as a POW has left him violent and temperamental. PTSD was not widely understood or treated at that time--part of the reason why many homeless veterans are from this era in history. His paranoia leads him to take his wife and daughter to homestead in Alaska, an experience for which they are completely unprepared. The community rallies around them to help them prepare for the fast approaching winter, but the darkness and hardness of the Alaska wilderness cannot chase away or heal Ernt's demons. As his wife desperately tries to keep their family together, their daughter Leni begins to thrive in Alaska. This is her story. This was one of the best books I have ever read, but I must caveat that statement with the fact that triggers abound: specifically PTSD and domestic violence. It has been over a year since I read this novel, and I still think about it regularly. (Fiction)

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike: This book was written as a precursor to Camelot and follows the life of Queen Languoreth, a forgotten queen of 6th century Scotland. Her twin brother, Lailoken, became the man known as the legendary Merlin. She falls in love with one of Emrys Pendragon's warriors, but is forced into a different marriage by her father. Coming of age during a time of great tumult and bloodshed, Languoreth fights to keep the old ways alive. This is the first in a series, and it was spellbinding. I inhaled it. The sequel came out this year. Pike traveled all over Scotland and England doing research on Celtic history for this series. The Lost Queen reinforces for me the blessings we as women have now: that we can make our own decisions, that we are considered valuable and not simply chess pieces. I did not expect to love this book as much as I did, but I lay awake at night contemplating Languoreth's life. I am looking forward to reading book two! (Historical Fiction, Fantasy)

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Famous painter Alicia Berenson was arrested for violently murdering her husband and hasn’t spoken a word since. A well-known therapist takes a job at her facility determined to discover what actually happened that night. He seems to be making progress, but then that progress will deteriorate. Twists and turns abound. This is the best psychological thriller I have read to date. It was one of my Book of the Month picks last year, and one of my absolute favorite finds. I cannot get into too much detail without giving away the plot, but suffice it to say that it is worth the read. It has been over a year, and I still think back to how this novel ended. I thought I had the ending figured out. (Suspense)

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton: A fifty-year-old lost letter arrives at Edie's mother's house leaving her mother in tears. Her mother has always been a closed book and refuses to answer questions related to the letter, so Edie sets out to discover the truth herself. This novel jumps back and forth between 'present day' (1992) and 1941, when Edie's mother is sent as a child to the countryside castle of Milderhurst during WWII. These two tales are somehow related to a children's book written by the patriarch of Milderhurst called "The True History of the Mud Man". The Distant Hours entertains familial discord, madness, and how lack of communication destroys families and relationships. It is a longer book, but I swept through it! Pick this up if you are a Kate Morton fan, or enjoy gothic novels like Jane Eyre or Mexican Gothic. (Literary Fiction)

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