On his way to dinner with his wife Emily where he intends to ask her for a divorce, Sandy Portman – wealthy, sophisticated, self-centered – is hit by a car and dies. Furious that someone as important as himself should die so young, he makes a deal with the angel sent to retrieve him – a second chance to make things right. The only string attached? He’s coming back as a dog. An old, smelly, not-very-attractive dog to be exact.

Emily and Einstein by Linda Francis Lee is a charming story with both laughs and heartbreak. Now known as Einstein (and as a dog) Sandy struggles to come to terms with who he was as a man. Emily learns to become her own person, not defined by her Mother or sister or husband and to move on with her life. Einstein is very funny and sarcastic (he calls the angel that’s assigned to him “old man”) and Emily’s struggles are realistic. Some might label this as “chick lit”, but the issues are deeper and have more resonance than merely “getting the guy”. This is a love story on several levels, and also a story of forgiveness both of the people in your life and of yourself.  You’ll cheer for both Emily and Einstein, because everyone deserves a second chance.

When Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies suddenly, he and his wife Ginny, without hesitation, pack up their lives and move into her house to help care for her three small children. Making Toast is a record of that time – of the grief and sadness, but also of learning to laugh again.

Amy died from an asymptomatic heart condition at the age of 38. Her sudden and unexpected loss ripped a hole in the community of family and friends whose lives Amy had touched. Rosenblatt realizes that he learns more about his daughter – her selflessness, her humor, her generosity – after her death than he did while she was alive. He struggles not only with his own overpowering grief and anger, but also that of his grandchildren who each cope differently, his stoic son-in-law, his wife who must now step into Amy’s footsteps, his adult sons, his many friends. He finds solace in the mundane – reading stories, helping with schoolwork, making toast to order. Gradually, they all learn that while cannot escape the terrible loss, they can learn to live with it and to continue.

Written as a loose collection of essays, anecdotes and remembrances,  this small book is an eloquent and understated  study on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the coming to terms with terrible loss and a fitting tribute to a life that made a difference.

Shelter MeThree months have passed since Janie’s husband was killed in an accident. She is still awash in grief, barely able to function, struggling to get herself and her two small children through each day when a contractor shows up at her house, ready to build the porch her husband had secrectly planned as a surprise for her.

Over the following months Janie finds strength and solace and even laughter from unlikely sources – her annoying, talkative Aunt, the shy, awkward priest, a neighbor she has nothing in common with, even the contractor who becomes a daily, calming presence in their lives. Slowly the pain lessens and Janie learns that moving on does not mean forgetting the past.

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay is a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny story of how one family puts itself back together after unimaginable tragedy. The writing is compelling – it’s very hard to put this book down – and the characters so real that they will stay with you long after you finish.

random-acts-of-heroic-loveTold in two parallel stories set in different times, Random Acts of Heroic Love is about the power of love, of how it can devastate but also uplift and empower us do what might seem impossible.

In one story, Leo and his girlfriend Eleni are traveling through South America when a horrific bus  accident takes Eleni’s life.  Nearly crushed by guilt and grief, Leo tries to make sense of his loss by seeking answers through science, but the weight of being left behind is almost too much.

The second story takes place in Poland where shortly after  Moritz and Lotte declare their love, Moritz is swept into the horrors of the First World War. Captured by the Russians and sent to prison camp in Siberia, he is literally thousands of miles from home. After escaping from the camp, Moritz undertakes the arduous journey back to his beloved.

At first the stories are so disconnected that you may wonder what the author is up to, but about two-thirds of the way through things begin to come together, rewarding the reader with a poignant examination of love and redemption across time and distance.

I’m going to give you a warning about this book right from the start: a baby dies in this book. It is, in the words of author Elizabeth McCracken “the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending”.

McCracken was an award winning author (one of her books, Niagara Falls All Over Again, was the All-Iowa Reads choice in 2004), happy with her career and her status as a self-described spinster was in her mid-30s when she suddenly fell in love. Within a couple years she was living in France with her husband awaiting the birth of their first child. Everything was perfect, until her ninth month of pregnancy when her baby boy died.

What follows is a touching, heartbreaking story of love and grief, of struggling to go on without forgetting what happened. Told with warmth, humor and generosity, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is a powerful and beautifully written memoir, a literary gift to us all.