During the strange and tragic year that was 2020, I was lucky to stumble across many excellent books. Here are a few, in the order that I read them. I’ve included codes for intended audience: MG=books for children; YA=books for teenagers; A=books for grown-ups.
Where possible, the links send you to the authors’ pages, so you can buy their books as they recommend.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (A)
I read this at the beginning of the year and barely remember it, but the feeling remains: a sparkly, romantic adventure in a druidic, magical world. Best click the link above to read what it is about.
Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes (MG / YA)
Stuck at home while all her friends leave for spring break, 12-year-old Amelia makes friends with Casey–the first time she’s ever had a boy friend (boyfriend?). They are both artists and have some adventures. The story is real-life pain and joy, told in lovely prose.
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk (MG / YA)
I was super-lucky to get a copy of this to review for the Historical Novels Society. Lauren Wolk is one of my favorite new authors. Echo Mountain is an incredibly emotional and engaging story, with complicated, real characters and a plot that is difficult to summarize. Read my review or visit the author’s page (links above.)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (A)
A Japanese teenager decides to kill herself–right after she documents the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. An American novelist living off the coast of Washington state finds some debris washed up on the coast and believes it might have been swept to her by the 2011 tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people. A journal that she finds and reads might have been written by the Japanese teenager…. This story moves between stories and time and space and dream in a marvelous, magical way.
The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali (A)
In 1950s Tehran, a young man and woman meet in a stationery shop and fall in love. On the eve of their wedding, they are separated and will not meet again for sixty years. The story moves between past and present, slowly uncovering what happened that night and why, visiting their memories, their loves, and the lives they lived apart. It is a beautiful love story, and I enjoyed learning about Iranian history and culture.
Strangers and Pilgrims / The Hedgeway / Mechant Loup all by Vivienne Tuffnell (A)
Strangers and Pilgrims is about a small group of people who are feeling lost and meet in a retreat where things don’t go as they thought they would. The Hedgeway is about a couple who inherit an old house that is haunted, sort of. Mechant Loup is a collection of “modern fables for sensible grown-ups.” I’m incredibly fortunate to have discovered Tuffnell in 2020. Her prose or … story telling style or … something makes me feel more solid, more comfortable, more like everything will be OK. It’s hard to explain and so far I’ve been unsuccessful in figuring out how she does it. Read her and see what you think.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier (A)
This story haunted me– I couldn’t get it out of my head. An alcoholic woman and a quiet, apple-obsessed man raise apples and children in a swamp in Ohio in the 1830s. Their story is depressing, violent and enthralling. The book follows two of their children who manage to get away. Chevalier is another of my favorite authors.
Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams (A)
I got lucky again and was sent this book to review for the Historical Novels Society. Williams took the Amelia Earhart story, mixed it up with a bunch of fiction, and produced the story of aviatrix Irene Foster who disappears while flying around the world. A young journalist searches for the truth about Foster and Foster’s mentor, pilot Sam Mallory. Great characters and an exciting story.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (A)
Harold Fry sets off one morning to mail a letter at the post box on the corner and just keeps walking. He recently learned that a friend he knew decades ago is dying. If he walks to her, perhaps she’ll live until he gets there. The story of Harold is uncovered as he makes his way across England. This is not a fast-paced thriller but the solid, character-driven story of a man trying to understand himself and make peace with life. Wow, that summary is awful, but I’m getting tired of writing this blog post. Trust me, it’s a spectacular book.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte (MG / YA)
Mary Lambert lives on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1800s. She is deaf, and so are many of the other residents; everyone uses sign language, and Mary doesn’t see deafness as “different.” But an ambitious young scientist does, and when he arrives in their community, trying to understand why so many of the residents are deaf, the story takes a turn I never saw coming. A nail-biting story with a great heroine and fascinating historical detail. Probably in the running for the 2021 Newbery Award.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews (A)
In a small, South American, Mennonite community, a series of horrible crimes were committed. Afterward, eight women of the community gather in secret to decide what to do. If I tell you what happened, it will misrepresent the story. As the title indicates, this is the story of women talking. Women of faith in danger of losing their faith. Illiterate women with no knowledge of the world. They are funny, philosophical, ignorant, in pain and lost, angry and hurt, kind and loving. It is a staggering fictional conversation, based on a real-life event.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (MG / YA)
This is my vote for the 2021 Newbery Award. (Note: I have no vote.) The narrator of this story is Della, a tough, ten-year-old girl entering foster care with her older sister. She unveils their story little by little, carefully, warning us that “some parts are hard, so I’ll leave them for later.” The hard parts are sexual abuse and suicide. Many will flinch at a book for ten-year-olds about this topic. But, there are ten-year-olds who experience sexual abuse and need this book. The story is handled appropriately: not vague and not graphic. Della is the most magnificent of characters. Fighting Words is true to life: sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always engaging. I’m getting goosebumps just remembering everything. I hope it wins.
Well, that’s my list. I hope you give a few of these books a try and let me know what you think.