The German House (Annette Hess) — The “German House” of this disturbing and eye-opening novel is a restaurant in Frankfurt run by the parents of 24-year-old Eva Bruhns. Eva, engaged to a wealthy businessman, is a translator assigned to the 1963 Auschwitz Trials. What she learns during the Trials threatens everything she thought she knew about her family and the war.
The Giver of Stars (Jojo Moyes) — English novelist Jojo Moyes has set her latest book in the United States — specifically, Appalachia during the Depression. It’s the story of a young Englishman who marries a Kentucky coal mine owner’s son and moves to a backwater town where she’s a fish out of water. When she begins delivering books on horseback for a WPA project that brings library books to rural families, she thinks she’s found a place for herself — but her troubles are just beginning. A fun, entertaining read — and you’ll learn a little something about 1930s America.
The World That We Knew (Alice Hoffman) — I always say I don’t like magical realism, and then I read a book by Alice Hoffman and I change my mind. Or maybe I just have a thing for golems — I loved The Golem and the Jinni! Ettie, the daughter of a renowned rabbi, creates a golem, Ava, to protect a young girl, Lea, during the hideous days of World War II. It’s a beautiful story of the power of lasting love.
The Other Americans (Laila Lalami) — Recently, there’s been a profusion of novels about the immigrant experience. This mystery, a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, is one of the best I’ve read, and focuses on Moroccan immigrants (a group I knew nothing about) in California. When Nora Guerraoui’s father, the owner of a popular diner, is killed by a hit and run driver, the lives of a seemingly random group of characters intersect.
Burn the Place (Iliana Regan) — Self-taught chef Iliana Regan grew up foraging for mushrooms in the Indiana woods. In this nonlinear memoir, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award, she tells the story, through flashbacks and anecdotes, of how she became a world-class chef and a woman comfortable in her own skin.
The Grammarians (Cathleen Schine) — Identical twins Daphne and Laurel are so obsessed with dictionary and the English language that their mother, like the mother in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, begged them to watch TV. As adults, their closeness evaporates as they develop opposing attitudes towards grammar and usage. The Grammarians is funny, smart, and touching, all at once. It’s the perfect novel for word lovers.
The Dutch House (Ann Patchett) — Reviews keep describing The Dutch House as a “fairy tale”, which I don’t quite understand. Yes, there’s an evil stepmother, and yes, Maeve and Danny Conroy feel, after their mother abandons them, that they and their father “had all become characters in the worst part of a fairy tale,” but I’m not sure what fairy tale qualities Patchett’s latest novel has. It’s a realistic novel, continuing to explore the themes of sibling relationships, fractured families, and forgiveness that Patchett wrote about so memorably in Commonwealth. In fact, in an interview, she said: “I’ve been writing the same book my whole life — that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.”
Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout) — Olive Kittredge is not a likable character, but readers (including me) can’t get enough of her. In this sequel, Olive is newly married and maybe, just maybe, a little bit happy — although she hasn’t lost her edge. The linked stories introduce new characters and bring us up-to-date on characters we met in Olive Kittredge. You could read each story independently, but I tore through the whole book in a couple of sittings. Rarely has an author brought a character to life as Elizabeth Strout has with Olive.
The Gifted School — There seems to be an emerging category of books I’d call “suburban satire”, and The Gifted School is one of the best in that group. When a Colorado school district announces plans to open a “gifted school”, everyone involved loses his or her moral bearings as they scheme to get their children admitted.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Nathaniel Philbrick) — Mayflower has been languishing on my shelves since 2007, when it was published, and as part of my effort to read the books I already own, I finally read it — and what a good decision that was! It’s as close to a page-turner as any history book can be, telling the story that’s usually neglected in history classes — what happened to the Puritans during the conflict-filled years after they landed in Plymouth.
Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory and Murder (Leah Carroll) — True crime is a guilty pleasure for me, and I couldn’t resist this particular book because it’s set in my hometown, Barrington, Rhode Island. Leah Carroll’s mother was murdered by drug dealers with mob connections when she was four years old, and her father died by suicide when Carroll was a teenager. Carroll, a terrific writer, tries to piece together the puzzle of her parents’ lives and deaths in this moving memoir.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo (Christy Lefteri) — Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife, Afra, an artist, are forced to flee their home in Syria and make a dangerous journey to Britain, where Nuri’s cousin Mustafa awaits them. Lefteri, a psychotherapist and debut novelist who grew up in England as the daughter of refugees and volunteered in a refugee center in Athens, has written a compelling and compassionate novel.
Keeping Lucy (T. Greenwood) — This book kept me thoroughly engrossed — and horrified — during a long plane ride. I was vaguely aware that Down’s syndrome children used to be “put away” in institutions, but I had no idea how horrible the conditions were. This novel, based on a true story, isn’t complex or sophisticated, but it’s well worth reading and has a satisfying ending.
This Tender Land (William Kent Krueger) — Krueger’s Ordinary Grace is one of my all-time favorite books, and while This Tender Land doesn’t make it to that list, it’s still very good. Set during the Depression, it’s the story of a group of orphans who escape from an Indian training school and make their way down the Mississippi in a canoe. (Does that remind you of a certain iconic American novel?) It’s an old-fashioned novel with heroes and villains, twists, and turns, and a very satisfying ending . . . and one that will appeal to all kinds of readers.
World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children (Teru Clavel) — This author is too much of a Tiger Mother for me. While I share some of her criticisms of American schools, I don’t share her enthusiasm for the rigidity and competitiveness in the Asian schools she profiles. I found myself marking pages in which she seems excessively pushy. I also found myself correcting her grammar!
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me (Adrienne Brodeur) — The blurb for this memoir describes the author’s mother as “magnetic” and “complicated”. I’d call her an extreme narcissist — because who else would enlist a teenage daughter as an accomplice in an extramarital affair? Brodeur’s writing is lovely, and the story is disturbingly addictive. Like Educated, it’s hard to believe it’s a true story and not a far-fetched work of fiction. This would be a great book for book clubs.
The Secrets We Kept (Lara Prescott) — I almost always enjoy historical fiction about fascinating and overlooked pieces of history, and this novel, about how the CIA (particularly its female agents) was able to get Dr. Zhivago, banned in the USSR, into the hands of the Russian people, is right up my alley.
The Dearly Beloved (Cara Wall) — When a Manhattan church can’t decide between two ministers, it makes an unusual decision: it hires both young men. With these men come their wives, two women very different in spiritual outlook. This story of the lifelong relationship between the two couples, and their struggles in faith, friendship, parenthood, and marriage, is beautifully written and covers territory rarely explored in contemporary fiction.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (Abbi Waxman) — This is a rom-com on the printed page. If you’re in the mood for a light, entertaining (but clever) novel with a happy ending, this is for you — especially if you’re a book lover. I literally did read The Bookish Life of Nina Hill on the beach, and I enjoyed every page.
The Other’s Gold (Elizabeth Ames) — I usually love campus novels, but this one left me cold. It’s the usual story of four friends who meet in college and try, with mixed success, to sustain their friendship as they navigate the adult world. Everything about The Other’s Gold seemed a little “off” to me. I don’t need to feel affection for characters in a novel, but I do need to find them believable and interesting, and these characters aren’t.
Fleishman Is in Trouble (Taffy Brodesser-Akner) — Recently separated from his workaholic wife, Rachel, Toby Fleishman is enjoying a robust social life when Rachel vanishes, leaving him with their two children. This clever and insightful debut novel both satirizes and scrutinizes contemporary marriage. It bogged down for me a bit in the middle — I got tired of Toby’s exploits in the world of dating apps — but ultimately redeemed itself with a satisfying, and unexpected, ending. Reviewers have compared this book to Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, and I can see why.
The Most Fun We Ever Had (Claire Lombardo) — If you like dysfunctional family dramas (and I do!), this is for you. Marilyn and David, married (mostly happily) for forty years, have raised four very different adult daughters. Their world is rocked when a teenage grandson, given up for adoption, enters their lives.
Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short (William D. Cohan) — I wanted to like this book. It’s about four young men who went to high school with me, none of whom I really knew, who died tragically . One of them was a celebrity — John F. Kennedy, Jr. As I read the book, despite my admittedly prurient interest, I kept thinking, “What’s the point?”. I couldn’t help but compare Four Friends to Cohan’s The Price of Silence, about the Duke lacrosse scandal, which had an actual narrative as opposed to a collection of anecdotes that in the end, don’t add up too much.
Rules for Visiting (Jessica Francis Kane) — May Attaway is a forty-year-old single woman, working as a gardener at a university and living with her eighty-year-old father. When a professor wins a prize for writing a poem about a tree that May planted, the university rewards her with thirty days of paid leave. Realizing she’s neglected her friendships, May leaves her comfort zone and reconnects with four old friends. This is a lovely jewel of a book, filled with warmth and wit, that will remind you of the importance of friends, good books — and plants.
City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) — Maybe you loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love; maybe you hated it. It doesn’t matter, because you would never guess they’re written by the same author. I suppose you could say they both focus on the same theme — the freedom of women to live as they choose — but the style and tone couldn’t be more different. City of Girls covers seventy years in the life of Vivian Morris, who comes to New York as a naive college dropout in 1940 and becomes a successful costume designer as well as a sexual adventurer. What I enjoyed most about this fun book was the dialogue (plenty of witty repartee), the eccentric characters, the clothes, and Vivian’s unexpected friendship with a damaged veteran.
Searching For Sylvie Lee (Jean Kwok) — Despite all the positive attention this book has recently received (including being chosen for the Today Show book club), I didn’t think it was anything special. Was it a mystery or a literary novel about immigration and cultural differences? It didn’t work either way for me.
Disappearing Earth (Julia Phillips) — “This should win the Pulitzer!” a friend exclaimed at a recent book club meeting. I agree — Disappearing Earth is definitely prize-worthy. Set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in northeastern Russia, this highly original and beautifully written novel explores the lives of girls and women, both “native” and Russian, in this remote and tension-filled area. Each chapter is a short story, introducing new characters, but is also a piece of a puzzle. What happened to the young girls who disappeared in the opening pages? You won’t be able to put the book down until the final chapter. Maybe this is a stretch, but it reminded me of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Ask Again, Yes (Mary Beth Keane) — I couldn’t love a book any more than I loved Ask Again, Yes. Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope grow up next door to each other in New York City suburb, both the children of Irish immigrants in the police force. A tragic incident divides the two families, but Kate and Peter remain friends and eventually fall in love. I don’t want to tell you any more about the plot, but I will tell you that this is a grace-filled story of love and forgiveness that will stay with you.
The Flight Portfolio (Julie Orringer) — Julie Orringer’s first novel, The Invisible Bridge (2010) is one of my favorite books, so I couldn’t wait to read The Flight Portfolio. It’s also set during World War II, and focuses on a real-life hero, Varian Fry, who risked his life to help thousands of Jewish artists and intellectuals flee Nazi Europe. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t engage me emotionally the way The Invisible Bridge did. Also, like so many historical and biographical novels, it was too long with too much unnecessary detail. I think that if an author spends years researching a topic, it must be hard for her not to include all the fascinating information she unearthed. Still, it’s worth reading.
Normal People (Sally Rooney) — I thought this was an OK book, but I don’t know why it’s as popular as it is. An article in Interview (“We Asked New York’s Booksellers About Sally Rooney Fever”) says: “Sally Rooney has become quite the phenomenon in a certain circle of New York. Her second novel Normal People, her follow-up to the immensely popular Conversations with Friends, is the latest book-of-the-moment to fly off the shelves at indie bookstores by (mostly) millennial, (presumably) Brooklyn-based, creative field–adjacent types.” It’s a book about two young people who have an on-again, off-again romance. That’s it. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure why it’s “flying off the shelves.”
Miracle Creek (Angie Kim) — One of the book clubs I moderate chose this as their favorite book of the past few years. It’s a terrific page-turner, with plenty to discuss (experimental medical treatments, raising special needs children, the experience of immigration, cultural differences, marital secrets). When a hyperbaric therapy chamber explodes, killing two people, law enforcement quickly recognizes this was no accident and accuses the chamber’s owner, a Korean immigrant. But could it have been the mother of a patient, or perhaps one of the fanatics who had been demonstrating against the controversial therapy? A series of unreliable narrators provide their version of events, leading to a surprising conclusion.
Out East (John Glynn) — There was some good writing in this coming-of-age memoir about a shared summer house in Long Island. I liked reading about the author’s close relationship with his family. However, the scenes set in the Montauk rental house and nearby bars were boring and repetitive. I didn’t care about what cocktails Ashley and Shane drank in June, and I was even less interested in these people and their partying escapades in July and August. If you like reality TV about self-absorbed twentysomethings, you’ll like this book.
The Lost Girls of Paris (Pam Jenoff) — I thought this was a pretty terrible book — poorly written, with undeveloped characters and a ridiculous plot that hinges on unbelievable events and coincidences. Also, the novel is rife with factual errors. All that aside, I was glad I read it because it led me to spend hours researching the brave young British women who risked everything to serve as couriers and radio operators in France just before D-Day.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies (John Boyne) — I’ve liked all of Boyne’s books, especially The Absolutist, but this one is truly unforgettable. It’s an old-fashioned, Dickensian tale, spanning seven decades in the life of Irishman Cyril Avery. I laughed and cried my way through this wonderful book and I can’t imagine who wouldn’t do the same. I’ve been afraid to read Boyne’s most recent novel, Ladder to the Sky, because I can’t imagine it could measure up to The Heart’s Invisible Furies.
A World Without “Whom” (Emmy J. Favilla) — The author of this book is the copy editor at Buzzfeed, and maybe that tells you all you need to know. Her main point is that language is always changing and evolving, and that our approach to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage should be flexible. In the beginning of a chapter called “Language is Alive”, Favilla says: “If you prefer your grammar rules packaged neatly . . . you may be moved to tears — and possibly violence — as you attempt to get through these pages in one piece.” That’s me. I don’t want a world without “whom”.
All That You Leave Behind (Erin Lee Carr) — Erin Lee Carr’s memoir about her relationship with her father, journalist David Carr, rubbed me the wrong way. Carr does a great job bringing her father to life, including dozens of emails and texts he wrote to her. However, I found both father and daughter to be self-absorbed and unlikable.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Lori Gottlieb) — When an unexpected crisis sends therapist Lori Gottlieb into a depression, she seeks the help of another therapist to reassemble the pieces of her life. With humor and compassion, Gottlieb weaves her story with the stories of several patients she’s treating, including an insufferably egotistical Hollywood producer, a lonely elderly woman who’s planning to commit suicide on her next birthday, a newlywed recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, and a millennial who can’t seem to form meaningful relationships. Although it’s nonfiction, this book has twists that will keep you turning the pages. You’ll root for Gottlieb and for her patients — even that obnoxious producer, who has a backstory that will bring tears to your eyes.
The Unwinding of the Miracle (Julie Yip-Williams) — I must be a masochist because I can’t seem to stop reading memoirs written by people who are dying: The Bright Hour, When Breath Becomes Air, and now The Unwinding of the Miracle. Each one is more heartbreaking — and yet more inspiring — than the last. Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams barely survived childhood; her family tried to euthanize her because of her disability. So it truly is a miracle that she escaped Vietnam in a leaky boat, received surgery in the United States that allowed her to see, graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, married, and had a family. Her book, based on a blog she started when she was diagnosed with cancer, is a beautifully written account of a life well lived.
The Storm on Our Shores (Mark Obmascik) — Probably, most readers don’t know much about the only World War II battle fought in North American — the Battle of Attu, which took place in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in 1943. This well-researched account personalizes history by focusing on two soldiers — a Japanese medic named Paul Tatsuguchi, educated in America and drafted into the Imperial Army, and an American coal mine, Dick Laird who killed him — and found his diary. Versions of the diary were distributed to American soldiers. Many questions are left unanswered at the end of this book, which I suppose is inevitable because this is real history, not historical fiction; still, I felt the author could have spent more time addressing some of the moral controversy raised by the diary.
The Island of Sea Women (Lisa See) — The best part of this book was learning about a culture that I had no idea even existed — the lives of haenyeo (female divers who can hold their breath for up to three minutes and earn their living by harvesting animals and plants from the ocean) and their matrifocal community of Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Beginning during the Japanese colonial period in the 1930s and moving through decades of rapid change, The Island of Sea Women tells the story of the friendship between Mi-Ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-Sook, the daughter of the diving collective’s leader.
I Miss You When I Blink (Mary Laura Philpott) — One review anointed Mary Laura Philpott as a successor to Jean Kerr, Nora Ephron, and Laurie Colwin. Not quite . . . but this book of linked essays about what to do when you have everything you ever wanted but you still want more is a gem.
Nanaville (Anna Quindlen) — How could I not love this book? Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite authors AND I recently became a grandmother. This is going to be my go-to gift for all the new grandmothers in my life. That said, I don’t think you need to be a grandmother to enjoy Nanaville; if you’ve had a beloved grandparent in your life, that’s enough.
The Only Woman in the Room (Marie Benedict) — Before I read this book, I was vaguely aware of Hedy Lamarr as a World War II-era movie star. Marie Benedict’s biographical novel shows that she was much more than that — first, the Jewish wife of a highly ranked Nazi who escaped from him and from Austria, and later the inventor of a groundbreaking communication system. The writing style is a bit plodding, but the story itself is fascinating.
Southern Lady Code (Helen Ellis) — This northern lady really enjoyed Helen Ellis’s collection of sharp and snappy essays, Despite the title, they’re not all about being Southern. And anyway, how can you not adore a writer whose idea of a fun evening is to invite her girlfriends over to drink wine and put together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of “a spooky owl in mid-flight”? I just want to know how I can get on Helen’s guest list. If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love Helen Ellis.
Save Me the Plums (Ruth Reichl) — I loved every page of Ruth Reichl’s behind-the-scenes look at at her career as editor of Gourmet magazine. At a time when print magazines are becoming an endangered species, Reichl’s love letter to Gourmet — and her talented colleagues — is particularly poignant.
The Honey Bus (Meredith May) — You know you’re reading a really good book when the topic is one in which you’ve previously had no interest — but you still can’t put the book down. The topic here is beekeeping and the natural world of honeybees, and it’s absolutely fascinating — both in its own right and as a metaphor used by Meredith May’s beekeeper grandfather to teach her life lessons. Meredith May’s memoir of growing up in a rural area of northern California, near Big Sur, ranks at the top of my list of coming-of-age memoirs.
Inheritance (Dani Shapiro) — If you’re looking for a terrific book club choice, this is it. I recently moderated two discussions about Inheritance, and both were lively and thought-provoking. Dani Shapiro’s personal story of learning that her biological father was a sperm donor, not the loving man who raised her, is an exploration of the search for identity, nature vs. nurture, and what makes a family.
If the Creek Don’t Rise (Leah Weiss) — I had a hard time with the dialect in the beginning of this book but gradually adapted to it. It was supposed to be realistic, but it seemed pretty gothic/unbelievable to me. For one thing, the characters were very simplistic — most were either good or bad. I didn’t love it, which puts me in the minority — the reader reviews are terrific.
Sadie (Courtney Summers) — If you’re an adult reader who’s a bit wary of YA fiction, Sadie is a great place to start. This smart and original thriller, about a missing teenage girl, is also perfect for fans of true crime podcasts. Half the book is narrated by Sadie, the runaway girl, and half is a transcription of a podcast called “The Girls”. It’s an addictive read for both older teenagers and adults.
The Age of Light (Whitney Scharer) — I loved learning about Lee Miller, the 1920s Vogue model who was surrealist Man Ray’s muse in Paris and then become a celebrated photographer, documenting the horrors of World War II. If you enjoyed any of Paula McClain’s novels, especially Love and Ruin (about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway), you’ll adore this book.
Henry, Himself (Stuart O’Nan) — Henry, Himself is the third in a trilogy about a middle-class Pittsburgh family. In the two earlier books, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, we meet Henry only in retrospect — he has died and his grieving family is trying to move on without him. In this lovely novel, we see Henry and his family through his own eyes. Short, well-titled chapters alternate between the present, when Henry is 75, and the past, starting with his childhood and moving through his service In World War II and his adult years. The novel brims with affection for its main character, an ordinary man wrestling with big questions: What is the meaning of an individual life? What do we leave behind?
The Perfect Liar (Thomas Christopher Greene) — I really liked two of Greene’s earlier books (The Headmaster’s Wife and If I Forget You), so I had high hopes for The Perfect Liar. This one is, unfortunately, a predictable thriller (is that a contradiction in terms?) that strains credibility. The jacket copy says the book has a “shocking climax no one will expect” . . . . I’m pretty sure that most readers will guess exactly what’s going to happen.
On the Come Up (Angie Thomas) — Thomas’s sophomore novel is good, maybe even better than The Hate U Give. Bri, the teenage rapper protagonist, is a great character — imperfect, complicated, and likable, all at once.
Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie) — This novel, a retelling of Antigone, is set in modern-day London and focuses on Muslim immigrants. It’s really well-done, but it left me cold; sort of like a beautiful minimalist room in Architectural Digest.
The River (Peter Heller) — Two Dartmouth students, experienced outdoorsmen, embark on a journey in northern Canada that they intend to be a rugged adventure in the wilderness but that turns out to be a “Deliverance”-style nightmare. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, but this novel is much more than that. For one thing, Heller’s writing is gorgeous; for another, he has created two characters that are as real as any you’ll meet on the page. The last lines of the Denver Post review are “I could not put this book down. It truly was terrifying and unutterably beautiful”, and I couldn’t agree more.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Benjamin Dreyer) — I don’t know how many people like me exist, but there must be enough of us word nerds/grammar geeks to justify publishing books like Dreyer’s English. If you were the kind of kid who liked to read the dictionary, you’ll enjoy this book, which is full of humor as well as useful information. I just find it hard to believe there’s a large audience for it, based on the errors I see both online and in print, but if there is — hallelujah!
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Alex Kotlowitz) — In a heartbreaking book that offers no answers, and little hope, Kotlowitz examines the rampant gun violence in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods during the summer of 2013. He brings to life the perpetrators, victims, and their families, demonstrating their shared humanity and the twists of fate that can shape one person into a killer and another into a victim.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris) — Categorized as a novel, this book is really the true story of a couple, Lale and Gida, who met and fell in love at Auschwitz and then spent their lives together. A few minor details were changed, but the author spent many hours interviewing Lale Sokolov, the “tattooist”, about his experiences in the camp and afterwards. Were some of his and Gida’s actions immoral? Book clubs will find much to discuss.
The Huntress (Kate Quinn) — The best page-turner/World War II novel I’ve read in a long time! Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger — you can’t stop reading. And I was absolutely fascinated with the carefully researched story of the female Soviet pilots, the “Night Witches.”
The Dreamers (Karen Thompson Walker) — I’m generally not drawn to dystopian fiction, or magical realism. If it couldn’t really happen, I lose interest. But there are exceptions to every rule, and The Dreamers is one of them. I couldn’t stop reading this haunting, and yes, dreamy, story of a college town struck by a mysterious flulike illness whose victims fall deeply asleep and experience vivid dreams. This novel, which reminded me of Station Eleven, will stay with me for a long time.