All He Knew by Helen Frost: In this luminous middle grade novel, Michael L. Printz Honor author Helen Frost mines family history to explore the little-known experiences of children in state-run psychiatric institutions in mid-20th-century America. Artistic and bright, Henry was born hearing but became deaf after an illness in early childhood. At first, Henry continues to speak to his loving older sister, Molly, as well as to his parents, but the teasing and bullying of others soon silence him. When his parents seek professional help, a school for the deaf deems Henry “unteachable,” and he is sent instead to Riverview, a deplorable institution. There, Henry develops close friendships with two other boys; despite mistreatment, he manages to maintain his compassionate nature and his humanity. Henry’s life changes for the better when, after the U.S. enter World War II, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview. Henry’s story unfolds in plainspoken yet evocative third-person free verse that brings the story’s setting to life. For instance, when he arrives at Riverview, Henry reacts most strongly to its awful smell, a combination that includes “something like potatoes / forgotten in a corner of the kitchen.” Victor’s portion of the narrative includes epistolary poems in sonnet form that add context to Henry’s experiences as well as to the time period. The relationship that develops between Molly and Victor–also told through letters–is especially lovely as the two young people work together to improve Henry’s life. Although Frost’s subject is weighty, she handles it with skilled sensitivity. All He Knew is a significant and poignant exploration of a difficult moment in American history and serves as a loving tribute to the young people whose experiences it brings to light.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: Bea hunches over the earth, burying her stillborn daughter. She’s broken with grief, even for this child she did not want, whom she couldn’t envision bringing into such a hopeless world. But there’s no time to linger, as Bea lives in the wilderness. Animals are circling, hoping to find food for their own young, and Bea’s community is about to move on. She must redirect her attention to her living daughter, 8-year-old Agnes. “They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living.” In The New Wilderness, Diane Cook deepens her study of the relationship between humans and the earth, which she previously explored in the short story collection Man V. Nature. Bea and her husband, Glen, are part of a nomadic community in a wilderness state. Life in the City was untenable, especially after Agnes became so ill that Bea was prepared for her daughter’s death. “The Community” starts out with 20 people, though its numbers fluctuate as members die and other procreate. There isn’t a lot of privacy–even young Agnes is aware of the adult’s personal lives–and community members know they must stick together, even with those they dislike. Community members submit to being fingerprinted, having the cheeks swabbed and other tests. They’re being studied, but for what, they can’t say. The wilderness feels dystopian to Bea, but it’s nearly all Agnes can recall. As they navigate a changing terrain and their own emotional landscapes, Cook incorporates the whole of human experience. The New Wilderness examines our relationships to place and to others as the Community considers its right to be on the land and whether others have any business sharing the space.
The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl: Leo and his father love their home in an old blue house right next to a majestic fir tree. It’s a rickety, scrappy home with peeling paint, a mossy roof, “leaks and creaks” and a heater that frequently breaks. And that is just how they like it. But the neighborhood around the blue house is changing, with nearby homes torn down to build modern apartments. When the landlord sells their blue house, Leo and his father must also move. Grief-stricken, they slowly acclimate to their new home by painting its interior; they even paint a picture of their beloved old blue house and its fir tree onto a bedroom wall. As they take their time unpacking their familiar belongings into their unfamiliar surroundings, their new house ever so slowly becomes more of a home. Author and illustrator Phoebe Wahl uses every tool at her disposal to carefully construct the details of her indelible characters and their world. Leo’s hair hangs down nearly to his waist, while his father sports a bearded, scruffy look. When they want to vent their anger about being forced to move, they turn on music, stomping and raging as a team: “They shredded on guitar, and Leo did a special scream solo.” (This may go down as the most punk picture book of 2020.) The blue house is cluttered but relaxed, filled with things Leo and his dad love, such as vinyl records, plants, art on the walls and a stereo with big speakers. Their delightfully unkempt yard includes a thriving vegetable garden, tall sunflowers, a trampoline and a clothesline. Rendered in watercolor, gouache, collage and colored pencil, Wahl’s illustrations are much like the old blue house itself–ramshackle and endearing, with nothing glossy about them. They are as worn-in, cozy and comfortable as the home Leo and his father leave behind and mourn. Best of all, however, is Wahl’s depiction of the tender and loving relationship between father and son. In one image, as the two sit dejectedly on a mattress surrounded by unpacked boxes in their new home, Leo leans into his father for an embrace, resting his head in his father’s lap, the gesture speaking volumes while saying nothing at all. The Blue House is an immensely satisfying picture book about a family acclimating to a big change.
When These Mountains Burn by David Joy: Stories about drug addiction and the emotional toll it exacts on both the addict and their family members are inherently tragic. But in the hands of a master storyteller, they can be unforgettably powerful as well. Such is the case with David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn. Joy follows up his Southern Book Prize-winning novel, The Line That Held Us, with a tale fraught with brutal consequences and heart-wrenching loss. All the stages of grief are given ample space here: shock, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 forest fire in the North Carolina foothills, the novel swiftly introduces widower Raymond Mathis, whose 40-something son, Ricky, owes $10,000 to his drug dealer. If Raymond doesn’t cover his son’s debts, he’ll have to bury Ricky instead. Raymond ultimately gives in, makes the trade and brings Ricky home, only for Ricky to steal all the painkillers in the house to support his habit. At his wit’s end, Raymond boots Ricky out, and this is the last time he sees his son alive. At the same time, junkie Denny Rattler, a Cherokee man who is with Ricky when he dies, is roped into doing the bidding of Ricky’s drug dealer. Raymond and Denny are on a collision course with far-reaching ramifications, but with a brutal drug kingpin and the Drug Enforcement Agency ramping up the pressure, finding a way out is more difficult than either Raymond or Denny could have thought. The novel moves at a brisk pace as it alternates points of view between Raymond and Denny. But what stands out here isn’t the story–harrowing though it is, this tale has been told before–but rather Joy’s unflinching and gritty depiction of his fully realized characters, from their raw loss to their helplessness and rage to their final acceptance. Joy has thoroughly captured their experiences in vivid, memorable prose that burns to be read.
The Less Dead by Denise Mina (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The Less Dead by Denise Mina opens with a personal crisis that explodes into a compelling thriller. Glasgow-based physician Margot Dunlop is facing down the chaos in her life: her adopted mother has recently passed, she’s broken up with her boyfriend, her best friend is being stalked and she has just found out she’s pregnant. Trying to make sense of her world, Margot reaches out to the agency that facilitated her adoption to get in touch with her birth mother, only to learn that she was murdered shortly after Margot’s birth. From here we descend into the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Margot’s mother was a sex worker and heroin addict, her murder left unsolved by a police force that considered her subhuman. Margot meets her aunt Nikki, also a former sex worker and addict, and learns that her mother’s case was far more complex than a trick gone wrong. Nikki believes that her sister was killed by a corrupt cop, and has received threatening letters that provide details only the killer could know. Margot isn’t sure she wants to be involved in the case, but she isn’t given a choice when the killer begins stalking and harassing her as well. Mina’s novel stands out in a genre that commodifies the dead bodies of women. Her characters are nuanced, complicated and never stereotypes, and her portrayal of the world of sex work isn’t lurid or voyeuristic. Furthermore, Margot is not the middle-class savior some would mistakenly believe that these women need. And although Margot’s mother was a victim of a violent crime, Mina juxtaposes her murder with the stalking of Margot’s best friend, Lilah, showing that women are subjected to violence by the men in their life at every socioeconomic level. As Margot seeks justice for her late mother, she’s introduced to a community of women, some still addicts, some still sex workers, who protect and care for one another, even as they are shamed and shunned by society at large. The Less Dead is at once a gripping thriller and an examination, and vindication, of a group of women who are often faceless, unsympathetic victims.
Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (e-book available on the Libby and Overdrive apps): Jennie Fields’ Atomic Love scrupulously captures both the minute (you might say “atomic”) and panoramic elements of the early Cold War. At ground zero: a female physicist, an FBI agent and a possible spy. Each has been broken, physically, emotionally or both, by World War II. They form a triangle, which brings to mind the symbol of a fallout shelter. Rosalind was the lone woman on the University of Chicago team that constructed the first controlled nuclear reaction, but in 1950, she’s unhappily selling jewelry at a department store. During her wartime service, she fell hard for Weaver, a British team member who awakened her intimately and then dumped her. As the novel begins, Weaver, “the cartoon of a good-looking man” with a “dimpled Cary Grant chin,” injects himself back into Rosalind’s life. FBI agent Charlie suspects Weaver of selling secrets to the Soviets, and he enlists Rosalind’s help to unmask her former lover. Surely among the most patient FBI agents in recent fiction, Charlie is a complex character who has repressed most feelings, though he feels a strong attraction to Rosalind. Tortured as a prisoner of war, Charlie was left with one hand so disabled that someone else must help knot his tie. When Rosalind tends to his tie, it is an intimate gesture. In Rosalind, Fields has created an anxious yet gutsy heroine who carries her Shakespearean name with aplomb. Growing up, science was her religion, yet she is horror stricken at the destructive power of the atom bomb she helped unleash. Inspired by such female scientists as physicist Leona Woods and the author’s own mother, Atomic Love is as much about undercover work as it is about women’s passions.
The Switch by Beth O’Leary (e-book available on the Overdrive and Libby apps): Leena Cotton was on the fast track in corporate London, where she was the youngest senior consultant at Selmount Consulting. But after her beloved sister dies, Leena loses her footing. Panic attacks are threatening to derail her career. She’s placed on a mandatory two-month sabbatical. At the same time, Leena’s grandmother Eileen is feeling lonely and lost after her husband left her for their dance instructor. Life in the village of Hamleigh is slow, and Eileen finds herself ranking the available men. (Typical pros include “own teeth” and “full head of hair,” while cons range from “tremendous bore” to “always wears tweed.”) Clearly, Leena and Eileen need shaking up, and they agree to switch homes for several weeks. Eileen–whose own London career dreams were cut short when she got pregnant so many years ago–eagerly moves in with Leena’s colorful roommates. She is immediately struck by how disconnected Londoners seem; the tenants in Leena’s apartment building don’t even know each other’s names. She begins an effort to bring the community together, particularly the lonely, isolated older residents. Meanwhile, Leena is adjusting to just how connected Hamleigh is. Everyone knows each other’s business–and has an opinion about it. When Leena volunteers to help with the annual village celebration, she must navigate the meddling of Hamleigh’s longtime residents. She also reconnects with a childhood friend who is now a single father and the village’s most eligible bachelor. Leena finds herself wondering whether she can trade her fast-paced London lifestyle for the village, where memories of her sister are everywhere. Despite the bucolic setting for much of the story, Beth O’Leary’s second novel is brisk and engaging. Her writing is warm, funny and oh-so-British. The characters she creates feel real–especially the older residents of Hamleigh, who are hilariously cranky and nosy but never lapse into caricature. In this time of increased isolation, The Switch offers a hopeful reminder to reach out to our neighbors with an open mind. It’s a cozy, lovely story about how community matters more than ever. “These people. There’s such a fierceness to them, such a lovingness,” Leena says. “When I got here, I thought their lives were small and silly, but I was wrong. They’re some of the biggest people I know.”
Letters From Cuba by Ruth Behar: Even before Nazi Germany invaded in the fall of 1939, Poland was a dangerous place to be Jewish. Determined to earn a living and raise his family in safety, Esther’s father fled to Cuba, but after years spent working as a street peddler, he can only afford to bring over one family member by the winter of 1937-38. Esther convinces the family that she should be the one to go and leaves her mother, grandmother and siblings for a long and frightening journey across the ocean. She arrives in Havana’s steamy shipyard clad in a woolen dress and stockings and is finally reunited with Papa; together, they travel to his small village of Agramonte. Once she has settled in, Esther helps her father peddle his wares. Showing fortitude and resilience, she begins to use her creative talents to sew dresses to sell in order to raise the money to bring the rest of their family to Cuba. Traveling the streets of Agramonte with Papa, Esther readily makes new friends in her new and unfamiliar country. Although Cuba is a safer place for Jewish people than Poland, Havana is still rife with anti-Semitism, embodied in the cruel Mr. Eduardo, who seems intent on bringing Hitler’s hatred to Cuba. Esther’s determination to learn about the cultural traditions of her new home and to share her own traditions with her new friends provides a striking and empowering counterpoint. Through hard work, patience, talen and the kindness of others, Esther and her father endure and eventually thrive, remaining undaunted in pursuit of their goal of reuniting their family. Letters From Cuba is told through Esther’s letters to her sister, Malka, in Poland, and author Ruth Behar creates a compelling narrative voice for Esther. She’s a preteen girl with a mature sensibility born out of the heavy burden she shoulders as she immigrates and raises the funds to reunite her family. Readers will root for Esther as she matures in her new country and keeps her dream alive. Behar shines a light on the harsh and unjust reality of life for Jewish people in Poland during this time while succeeding in filling Esther’s story with warmth and hope. Letters from Cuba‘s themes of friendship, family, faith and openhearted acceptance give this historical novel timeless resonance.
Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh: Moments after laying eyes on Lady Jessica Archer, Gabriel Thorne decides that she is the woman he will marry. But this isn’t love at first sight. It’s not even like at first sight. Freshly returned to England to make a long overdue claim on his title and estate, he’s staying incognito, getting the lay of the land, when Jessica sweeps into the nondescript inn and asserts a superior claim to the private sitting room he’s reserved. He’s unimpressed with her arrogance. She’s unimpressed with his rudeness. Love is definitely not in the air, but matrimony…is? Gabriel will need a wife by his side to manage the family drama he came to England to resolve. The right sort of wife–imperious, irreproachable, from the right family with the right upbringing, manners and connections. And Jessica, commencing her sixth (or possibly seventh–she’s lost count) season in London, is more than ready to settle down. While she’s always been praised as a “diamond of the first water,” encircled by a constant throng of smitten admirers (think of that barbeque scene from Gone With the Wind when all the men beg to be allowed to fetch Scarlett O’Hara’s dessert), she’s done with drifting through life. She has a plan to pick a groom that is every bit as practical as Gabriel’s plan to pick a bride. Then they meet in the proper society setting, Gabriel makes his intentions clear–and everything goes off the rails. Jessica realizes, suddenly and deeply, exactly what she does and doesn’t want. And a strictly proper courtship, complete with stifling social calls, stiff dances and a constant evaluation of the assets that she brings into the match, is definitely on the “no” list. It doesn’t matter that she is highly valued on the marriage mart when her value has nothing to do with who she truly is inside. She demands that Gabriel find a way to romance her as a person. She doesn’t ask for love; if anything, she shies away from using that word. But she does demand to be respected for who she is rather than for her bank balance or her pedigree. Up until that point, I was enjoying Balogh’s Someone to Romance as a stately, engaging dramedy of manners with lots of high-society escapism and the juicy fun of Gabriel’s family secrets. But when Jessica throws down that gauntlet, I started to really love this book. I admired Jessica’s strength and resolve, her determination to chart out her future on her own terms. And I was incredibly moved by Gabriel’s response to it–the tiny, deeply personal gestures with which he shows his growing esteem and trust. The happy marriage they build together is worlds away from the practical, businesslike matches they both anticipated at the start of the story, and yet it resolves in the sweetest of all imaginable happy endings. This is a love story that earns the name on every level, not just for the love the hero and heroine find but also for the love you’ll feel for everyone involved by the time you reach the final page.
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri: “A patchwork story is the shame of a refugee,” Daniel Nayeri writes in Everything Sad Is Untrue. Nayeri’s patchwork story forms a stunning quilt, each piece lovingly stitched together to create a saga that deserves to be savored. Everything Sad Is Untrue is the mostly true story of Khosrou, who becomes Daniel, and the two lives he has lived in just 11 years. First, there’s his life back in Iran, where his family was wealthy, where he went hunting for leopards and where his parents’ veins were filled with the blood of divinity. Then there’s his life now, in Oklahoma, where he has to learn to survive the bus ride home, where his mother has to learn to survive her new husband and where he realizes his memories of his first life are slipping away. In the voice of his younger self, Nayeri casts himself as Scheherazade, with readers as his king; we hold his life in our hands. Should we believe his tales? His classmates in Oklahoma don’t. No one believes that the smelly kid who is too poor to pay for lunch in the cafeteria once lived in a beautiful house and dined with the prince of Abu Dhabi. Even Nayeri admits his memory is shaky. Was that really the prince of Abu Dhabi? It’s hard to know when you’re a kid who’s just escaped a religious death squad by fleeing to a foreign country. The stakes here are life and death, not only for young Daniel and his family during their journey but also for Nayeri the storyteller, who stands before us in “the parlors of our minds,” spinning tale after tale. To stop reading is to condemn him to a death of indifference. But Nayeri is a gifted writer whose tales of family, injustice, tragedy, faith, history and poop (yes, poop) combine to create such an all-consuming experience that reacting with indifference is simply not possible. A deeply personal book that makes a compelling case for empathy and hope, Everything Sad Is Untrue is one of the most extraordinary books of the year.
His Truth Is Marching On by Jon Meacham: It’s been only a few months since the death of civil rights giant John Lewis, and though eloquent tributes from leaders like Barack Obama have attempted to sum up his legacy, it will ultimately fall to future generations to fully assess his contributions to the cause of racial equality in America. One of our most prominent contemporary historians, Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, offers an appreciative early assessment in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. Meacham frankly admits that his book makes no attempt at a full-scale biography of Lewis. Instead, he focuses on the tumultuous period from 1957 to 1966, when Lewis rose from obscurity in a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, to national prominence in the civil rights movement. This “quietly charismatic, forever courtly, implacably serene” man was motivated by a fierce commitment to nonviolence and above all by his unswerving attachment to the vision he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of a “beloved community”–in Lewis’ words, “nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth.” As Meacham describes it, Lewis’ path to attaining that vision was marked by arrests (45 in all); savage beatings, like the one he received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965; and moments of profound frustration as he fought to overcome the fierce opposition to his quest. But there were also moments of triumph, not least of all when he shared the stage with Dr. King at the August 1963 March on Washington and, as Meacham writes, “spoke more simply, but from the valley, among the people whose burdens he knew because they were his burdens, too.” Meacham makes a persuasive case for his claim that “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.” At a moment when events have once again forced Americans to confront the evils of racism, His Truth Is Marching On will inspire both courage and hope.