The first book on this list was one I finished before the holidays but the rest were the result of lovely downtime during the holidays (much of which was provided by a huge thunderstorm, Southwest and the TSA, but that's a different story). I hope you enjoyed your vacation reading as much as I did!
Isaac's Storm, Erik Larson
Following the trail of the Johnstown Flood, the next book on my list was Isaac's Storm. Again, it is nonfiction but Larson tells the story so well that it flows like a novel. His descriptions of the storm are absolutely poetic...my favorite is "he heard the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze." The storm is actually a character in the story. Not to worry for those rational minded readers; the book is packed with facts and data. I was struck by the parallel of the attitudes of Americans in this time to those of the British who built the Titanic (I highly recommend Walter Lord's A Night to Remember if you're interested in learning more about that). Isaac's Storm is an insightful look not only at one of the worst natural disasters in American history, but at the people and attitudes that shaped the time.
Olive Kitteredge, Elizabeth Strout
I had read a number of good reviews about this but somehow missed the fact that it is a collection of intertwined short stories (think Spoon River Anthology). I am generally not a short story person but I really enjoyed this collection of tales revolving around a teacher in Crosby, Maine. Although the collection is named after Olive she is an incidental character in many of the stories. Each one made me care about the characters with remarkable swiftness. The tales have a dry humor but are poignant as well. The book had the added benefit of getting me excited for a cold wintry Christmas as I flew toward Philadelphia!
The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean
I found this on the sale shelf at the bookstore and enjoyed a second story about the siege of Leningrad from another perspective. This book follows Marina, an elderly woman falling into dementia. When she leaves the present she finds herself back in Leningrad where she worked at the Hermitage, a huge art museum. As the war came to Leningrad the employees packed away all the art and Marina memorized the entire museum. We learn about her past as her family does. I was completely enthralled by the story, both past and present.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
This was the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and as such I had read numerous reviews. Wolf Hall tells the story of Oliver Cromwell, a man who rose from unknown origins to become one of the most powerful advisors to Henry VIII. Most books I have read about this time period are either from the perspective of one of the royals or take a broader historical perspective so I enjoyed this different look. My only criticism is that Cromwell is always referred to simply as "he", which is extremely confusing when there are many men talking and which led me to reread many exchanges. Overall though I definitely recommend it.