Manhattan Beach (Jennifer Egan) — I really enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s foray into the traditional historical novel, so I was surprised when I moderated a book discussion about it and found that not one of the dozen or so smart, well-read women in the group liked the book at all. We still had a great discussion, but the experience made me a little hesitant about recommending the book again. The gist of the group’s criticism was that they felt emotionally distant from the character and they found the narrative less than compelling.
The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs (Janet Peery) — Peery is a beautiful and poetic writer, and her subject is a timely one: the cost of opioid addiction to an individual and a family.
Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir (Amy Tan) — I love memoirs by writers, and I love Amy Tan, so I thought this book was absolutely wonderful — but I think it has some broader appeal, in that it focuses on Tan’s complicated relationship with her mother.
Turtles All the Way Down (John Green) — More sophisticated than his earlier novels, Green’s latest focuses on a teenage girl, Aza, struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with all the usual adolescent angst. Bibliophiles will love all the literary references and quotations sprinkled throughout. So many novels fall apart at the end, either tying everything up too neatly or leaving us hanging, but the ending of this book is absolutely perfect.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (Amy Ellis Nutt) — After reading This Is How it Always Is, my curiosity about transgender issues was piqued. This nonfiction narrative about a family raising twins, one of whom is transgender, was absolutely fascinating.
This Is How It Always Is (Laurie Frankel) — Based partly on the author’s experience raising a transgender child, this novel will certainly inspire a lively discussion in any book group.
What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen (Kate Fagan) — As a freshman recruited athlete at an Ivy League school, Maddy Holleran should have been having the time of her life. Instead, at nineteen, she jumped off a building in downtown Philadelphia, leaving a heartbroken and bewildered family behind.
Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Bruce Handy) — Bruce Handy doesn’t just take the reader on a delightful trip down memory lane in his stellar book about the delights of children’s literature. He takes kids’ books seriously, proving what many adult readers suspect: classics like Charlotte’s Web, Ramona the Pest, and Little House in the Big Woods are sophisticated and complex novels and picture books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Bedtime for Frances, and Goodnight Moon are literary masterpieces.
Morningstar: Growing Up With Books (Ann Hood) — I read a digital review copy of Ann Hood’s story of her love affair with books, and loved it so much that I bought hardcover copy so I can reread and underline it . . . and keep it on my shelf forever.
Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir (Jill Bialosky) — In this highly original memoir, poet Jill Bialosky shows how poetry has been a constant source of comfort and inspiration throughout her life. In each chapter, she discusses a pivotal event or period of time in her life, relates that to one or two poems, and provides an in-depth analysis of each poem. Some of the poems struck a chord with me and some didn’t, but Bialosky’s life story moved me and inspired me to read her poetry.
Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (Beth Ann Fennelly) — The perfect book to keep on your nightstand — some of these essays are only a few sentences long, and many of them are absolute jewels. Some are sad and some are hilarious. Beth Ann Fennelly covers topics from not wanting to talk to strangers on airplanes to the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age in the Front Lines of American Medicine (Rachel Pearson) — An aspiring creative writer, Rachel Pearson decided to return to school in a program that would award her both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in Medical Humanities. Her experiences as a medical student working at a free clinic in a poverty-stricken area of Texas inspired her to write No Apparent Distress. The combination of Pearson’s literary talents and her urgent message — that there is a huge and shameful disparity in the kind of medical care available in the United States — makes this book a must-read.
Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (Lenora Chu) — I had a hard time with this book. The author, who grew up in the United States as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, decides to send her very young son to a Chinese school when her husband accepts a job in China. The methods used at the school sounded downright abusive to me, and I couldn’t believe the author not only continued to send her child to the school but used her child’s painful experiences as material for a book.
George and Lizzie (Nancy Pearl) — Sad to say, this novel was a disappointment. I kept reading, because I’m such Nancy Pearl fan, and I had high hopes for her debut novel — but the characters, particularly Lizzie, just didn’t make sense to me.
The Child Finder (Rene Denfeld) — If anyone thought Rene Denfeld was a one-hit wonder (The Enchanted) — don’t worry, The Child Finder is spectacular. The “child finder” of the title is Naomi, a private investigator who has a mysterious gift for finding missing children — and who was once a missing child herself. A heartbroken couple hires her to find their little girl, Madison, lost when they were cutting down a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. As Naomi searches for Madison, she comes closer to discovering the secrets of her own past. Echoes of fairy tales resound throughout this gorgeous novel, reminding the reader of the power of stories and imagination to heal and redeem.
Crimes of the Father (Thomas Keneally) — The author of Schindler’s List takes on the Catholic Church in his latest novel, set in Australia. Keneally is a beautiful writer, but Crimes of the Father felt flat to me, probably because the characters never come alive and the story hold few surprises.
Midnight at the Electric (Jodi Lynn Anderson) — This smart and ambitious YA novel brings together three narratives: Kansas in the future, Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years, and England in World War I. Our YA book group enjoyed it, but thought maybe the author tried to cover too much ground.
After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search (Sarah Perry) — When the author was a young girl, her mother was murdered in the small house the two shared in rural Maine. Sarah Perry’s heartbreaking memoir tells two stories: how Perry survived not only the horror of this event, but the rest of her childhood and adolescence as she was passed from one relative to another and even blamed for the crime, and the quest to find her mother’s killer. Although it’s nonfiction, After the Eclipse is more of a page-turner than any fiction I’ve read recently.
Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler (Bruce Henderson) — The workmanlike subtitle not only summarizes the book, but tells readers two things about Sons and Soldiers: 1) It’s one of a seemingly endless stream of books about fascinating but little-known aspects of World War II; and 2) The writing will be competent but not brilliant. I will read almost anything about World War II, and I’m particularly drawn to relatively undiscovered stories, nonfiction and fiction. Sons and Soldiers tells the story of more than 2,000 German-born Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and joined the United States Army as military intelligence specialists, making a major impact in the Allied victory.
Ginny Moon (Benjamin Ludwig) — If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, you will love Ginny Moon. Narrated by the title character, a fourteen-year-old girl with autism, Ginny Moon holds surprises on nearly every page. Your heart will go out to Ginny, who is misunderstood at every turn.
Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng) — It’s hard to believe that Celeste Ng could top Everything I Never Told You, her debut novel, but I think she has. In many ways, the books are similar. Everything I Never Told You starts with the mysterious death of a teenager; Little Fires Everywhere starts with a mysterious house fire. Both novels are concerned with the secret lives of teenagers and clashes between cultural groups. But Little Fires Everywhere adds even more layers of depth, with more characters and subplots. Don’t start this book until you have plenty of reading time ahead of you — you won’t want to stop.
The Ninth Hour (Alice McDermott) — Alice McDermott is one of my very favorite writers, and I’ve had to wait four years for The Ninth Hour. (Someone came out in 2013). Every time I read one of her books, I think, This one is her best, and that’s exactly what went through my mind when I finished The Ninth Hour. In Brooklyn, about one hundred years ago, a young husband commits suicide, leaving behind his pregnant wife. His widow, Annie, and his daughter, Sally, are taken in by nuns in the nearby convent. Sally marries a local boy, Patrick, and their children and grandchildren are the narrators of this beautiful and poetic novel.
The Burning Girl (Claire Messud) — I expected a lot more from Claire Messud. There wasn’t much of a story here, and the main character, a teenage girl, seemed far too sophisticated and self-aware.
Quiet Until the Thaw (Alexandra Fuller) — From reading Fuller’s memoirs, I know that she has been struggling for years to write and publish fiction. Quiet Until the Thaw, set on a Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, is a novel that takes a lot of risks. Fuller writes outside of her own experience and experiments with structure. It’s a lovely book and I applaud the author for writing something different from her other work.
The Captain’s Daughter (Meg Mitchell Moore) — I loved Meg MItchell Moore’s previous novels and was surprised that they didn’t receive more attention. The Captain’s Daughter, like Moore’s other books, is a family story with marvelous characters. Readers’ hearts will go out to Eliza (the “captain’s daughter”), Charlie (her father, a Maine lobsterman), and Mary (a young girl working in a coffee shop that Charlie frequents who’s facing big problems). Set in coastal Maine and Massachusetts, it’s the perfect vacation book — J. Courtney Sullivan meets Elin Hilderbrand?
Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship (Michelle Kuo) — An idealistic young teacher at a school in one of the poorest and most remote areas of the United States forms a friendship with a teenage boy and introduces him to the joy of reading . . . sounds like a corny movie, doesn’t it? This story, about race, justice, and the power of literature, is not so simple. Perfect for fans of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, who will find this book slightly more hopeful.
The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) — I finally read last year’s National Book Award/Pulitzer Prize winner, and yes, it was excellent. But I still don’t understand the purpose of the imagined “real” railroad.
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying (Nina Rigg) — The frequent comparisons to When Breath Becomes Air are apt. This memoir also is a chronicle of finding joy and meaning in life when faced with imminent death. I loved Nina Rigg’s writing style, and her frequent references to Montaigne led me to revisit his essays.
Beyond the Bright Sea (Lauren Wolk) — Who can resist a story about an infant who lands on the shore of an island in a little rowboat? Not me, especially when the book is set in the Elizabeth Islands of Massachusetts, where I spent time during my childhood summers. Lauren Wolk’s second book for young readers is just as lovely as Wolf Hollow, and will appeal to adult readers in the same way.
My Life with Bob (Pamela Paul) — I’ll read and enjoy just about any book about books — but My Life with Bob is the most captivating and original “bookworm book” I’ve read. Oh, how I wish I’d done what Pamela Paul has done her whole life — kept a written record of all the books I’ve read. (FYI — “Bob” is the affectionate nickname/acronym for Paul’s “book of books”.)
Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (Claire Dederer) — I really liked Claire Dederer’s previous book, Poser, about her adventures in the world of yoga, which is why I picked this one up. Wow — the blurb isn’t lying when it says the author “exposes herself utterly”. Basically, this book made me cringe. I will say that it is well-written, but I’m not sure she needed to be quite so frank; it seemed like she included some things just for shock value.
Saints for All Occasions (J. Courtney Sullivan) — I’ve enjoyed all of J. Courtney Sullivan’s novels, but this one could be my favorite. As always, she excels at creating characters who come to life on the page. At the heart of Saints for All Occasions are two sisters who emigrate from Ireland to Boston. After a painful falling out, one sister becomes a nun, while one marries and raises a family that includes a troubled son. The secrets from their pasts drive them apart, only to bring them together when a family crisis occurs.
Do Not Become Alarmed (Maile Meloy) — Don’t start this book until you have an uninterrupted stretch of time, because you won’t be able to stop reading. When two families decide to spend their Christmas vacation on a luxury cruise, a shore excursion turns into a nightmare when the children disappear into the jungle. Ann Patchett’s blurb, “smart and thrilling and impossible to put down” is right on the money.
‘Round Midnight (Laura McBride) — As she did in We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride brilliantly weaves together the stories of several characters with Las Vegas as the backdrop. The writing is gorgeous and the story is perfectly paced and constructed, with surprises at every turn. The reader’s heart goes out to the four women whose lives intersect: June, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey turned nightclub owner; Honorata, a Filipina forced to become a mail-order bride; Engracia, a Mexican immigrant who has suffered a tragedy; and Coral, a music teacher trying to understand her mysterious past. I loved every page of this special novel.
Lab Girl (Hope Jahren) — I really admire how Hope Jahren structured her memoir. Divided into three sections (Roots and Leaves, Wood and Knots, Flowers and Fruit), the chapters alternate between meditations on the natural world and stories about her life and career. She’s a beautiful writer as well as a brilliant scientist — doesn’t seem fair!
Anything is Possible (Elizabeth Strout) — Elizabeth Strout can do no wrong! I loved these linked stories about Lucy Barton’s family and neighbors. Her writing is gorgeous. simple on the surface but actually profound.
City of Saints and Thieves (Natalie C. Anderson) — This fast-paced, well-written thriller fills a hole in the YA market, and it will appeal to both male and female readers. I’d recommend to actual young adults, not grown-up readers.
Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Coming Home (Amy Dickinson) — I enjoyed Dickinson’s earlier memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, and this follow-up is even better. It’s a delightful collection of essays about family, home, and rolling with life’s unexpected punches.
The Stars Are Fire (Anita Shreve) — She’s back! I was disappointed with Anita Shreve’s recent novels, but The Stars Are Fire is one of her best. I knew nothing about the catastrophic fires in coastal Maine, and found Shreve’s descriptions mesmerizing. Perfect for anyone who wants a well-paced, atmospheric novel about a little-known event in history.
The Devil and Webster (Jean Hanff Korelitz) — I read The Devil and Webster almost without stopping, and when I reached the very satisfying ending, I actually wished the book were longer. Often, when I finish a book, I think, Didn’t anyone edit this book? I could have cut out a third of it. Not only is Korelitz a marvelous writer, whose sentences inspire admiration, she’s spun a clever tale about a topic of great interest to me: political correctness and dissent on college campuses.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See) — I loved See’s breakout novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but didn’t think her subsequent books were quite as good. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is on a par with Snow Flower. The story, which concerns a Chinese peasant woman and the daughter she’s forced to abandon, who is adopted by an American family, is terrific — and the novel is packed with interesting information about Chinese hill tribes and the tea industry.
The Women in the Castle (Jessica Shattuck) — This debut novel has received a lot of pre-publication hype — deservedly so. If you think you’ve read more than your share of World War II novels, think again, because The Women in the Castle provides a fascinating perspective unfamiliar to most readers. The “women” of the title are the widows of three conspirators who plotted to assassinate Hitler.
Ill Will (Dan Chaon) — This literary thriller by a National Book Award finalist left me disappointed. Call me lowbrow, but I am disappointed when I read a book that is partly a murder mystery and there’s no actual resolution at the end.
The Fortunate Ones (Ellen Umansky) — Rose Zimmer’s parents save her life by sending her on a Kindertransport from Austria to England in 1939. After the war, she desperately searches for her family’s Chaim Soutine painting, stolen by the Nazis. The search leads her to Lizzie Goldstein, whose father was the last owner of the painting — which has been stolen again, on Lizzie’s watch. I loved this story of family history and secrets.
A Piece of the World (Christina Baker Kline) — The story behind the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World”, this novel is a lovely exploration of family, friendship, and art.
All Grown Up (Jami Attenberg) — Forgettable coming of age novel about a woman in her thirties — much too old to be coming of age.
The Association of Small Bombs (Karan Mahajan) — Shortlisted for the 2016 National Book Award, this is one of those literary novels that failed to engage my emotionally. I’ve read many other books about India that received less acclaim but that I connected with more.
Pachinko (Min Jin Lee) — Entertaining and enlightening at once, Pachinko grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn’t let me go. I loved the characters and was fascinated by the experiences of Koreans in Japan. However . . . I didn’t love the writing style. I was frequently distracted by oddly structured or ungrammatical sentences.
We Were the Lucky Ones (Georgia Hunter) — An extended Polish family (five grown siblings, their parents, and spouses) are separated during World War II — miraculously, all survive after many years of unspeakable suffering. The story is based on the experiences of the author’s family, and is a tribute to their courage — and luck
The Passion of Dolssa (Julie Berry) — I was transported into another time and place as I read this wonderful story about a young mystic in medieval Provence, hunted by French inquisitors, and her friendship with three sisters who run a village tavern.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday (Susan Rivers) — There’s nothing I love more than an epistolary novel. The author’s use of letters and diary entries heightens the suspense in this amazing story, which is based on a real-life court case from the mid-19th century. It’s a gem of a book!
Books for Living (Will Schwalbe) — “Much love” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about this inspiring book for book lovers. I can’t imagine a better way to start your reading year than by picking up a copy of Books for Living. The chapter on Stuart Little is worth the price of the book.
Small Admissions (Amy Poeppel) — Would I recommend this title? Yes, if you’re in the mood for something light and fluffy, the literary version of a rom-com. I have a weakness for behind-the-scenes novels set in admissions departments, and I’d never read one that takes place in the crazy world of New York day schools.
Idaho (Emily Ruskovich) — One of those books that sounds promising but turns out to be a disappointment. I kept reading with the hope that the story would coalesce, but it never did. The writing is lovely, but everything about this book seemed implausible to me.