I’ve been slacking on my reading this year—see: now runs three businesses and has lost her mother-lovin’ mind—but the great thing about being on so many flights in the past month is that I’ve checked off three books in as many weeks that have been burning a hole in my Kindle queue for ages now.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Is there anything more indulgent that diving into a brand-new John Green read with three hours of uninterrupted plane time ahead of you? I thought not. Though Turtles is wildly different than his past few novels—my favorite of which is still Paper Towns—it’s still steered by Green’s token wit; the man has a way with words that rivals no other, and he could be writing about watching grass grow, and I’d enjoy it. In summary: Aza, 16, finds out that her neighbor and former childhood friend Davis’ father has gone missing—and that there’s a $100,000 reward for anyone who finds information about his disappearance. Raised by a single mom, Aza is concerned about how she’ll be able to afford college, and that prize money could be just the ticket she needs to get herself out of town and into school. The story follows her forming a tight friendship with Davis while secretly searching for clues about his father and simultaneously coping with her crippling mental illness, which often drives a wedge in her relationships, romantic or otherwise. The mystery of Russell Pickens isn’t so much the plot line—though it adds an element of fun among the more serious topics, which are straight-up uncomfortable at times—as is Aza’s evolution and personal growth.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
I’m pretty sure by this point, I’ve read everything Kristin Hannah has ever written with my favorite, obviously, being The Nightingale; she’s an author that my mom and I have both loved and shared for decades. But second only to Nightingale is The Great Alone, her latest complex tale about a lost family of three in the 70s who packs up everything they own and moves to rural Alaska to give homesteading a go. But winter turns out to be as brutal as everyone warned them it would be, and they quickly learn the meaning of “survival of the fittest” all too well. The protagonist, 13-year-old Leni Allbright also masters how to endure winter, as well as the rage of her dad, a former POW in Vietnam, who frequently lashes out at her mother, Cora, sometimes pushing her frighteningly close to her last breath. This is one of Hannah’s darkest reads yet, in my opinion, as Leni and Cora adopt survival tactics they never thought they’d need.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
I’ve held off watching the movie of the same name knowing it could never be as great as the book, which was released six years ago, and I’m glad I saved this one as, man, was it uplifting in a strange sort of way. Poor August Pullman, 10 years old, is born with facial abnormalities that steer his every move and keep him out of the public eye and in his house; as a result, he’s babied by his family (and understandably so) and never had to interact among peers his age—that is, until his parents enroll him in the fifth grade. Auggie soon learns he’s going to need to function as an independent human, away from the coddling of his parents and sister, who grapples with her own humiliation and resentment toward her younger brother. Kids are cruel, but sometimes they can be kind, and Auggie’s interactions with his classmates span the full gamut of emotions. This book is incredibly heartwarming and touching and should be a requirement of kids (and adults) of all ages.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
I was never wild about history class, yet historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. But take historical fiction and set it in World War II? Even better. I’d had City of Thieves in my library for years now thanks to your recommendations from previous book posts, but I don’t know what made me finally pick it up while traveling in Portugal. Once I had, though, I couldn’t put it down. Different from other WWII historical fiction reads that are typically set in Germany or France or even the UK, this one takes place in former Leningrad while it’s besieged by the Nazis and follows a Jewish kid, Lev, as he does what he has to in order to survive, even if it means traipsing across the country in the height of winter on a deadly mission for a colonel.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
The best word to summarize Before We Were Yours, published last year, is: SHOCKING (all caps needed). Not because it’s a thriller or even a mystery per se, but rather because this horrid tale of human trafficking took place in recent history in my own state. Before We Were Yours opens in 1939 on the Mississippi River right outside of Memphis with an impoverished family who lives a modest but happy life on a shantyboat. When the mom goes into labor and is taken to the hospital against her will to deliver twins, the “police” come and snatch her other five children from the boat and throw them in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, which ultimately is a cover for a massive human trafficking operation run by a tyrant, Georgia Tann, who was later investigated for widespread fraud. Crazy, right? Well, even though the Foss kids are a fictional family, Tann was very much a real person—and now I plan to go back and read more about her gruesome past, which ended with death by cancer before she could be prosecuted.
The book bounces back and forth from the 30s/40s to present day where South Carolina prosecutor Avery Stafford encounters a strange lady in one of her family’s assisted living facilities, which leads her to dig up dirt on her Senator father’s family and how they may or may not be connected to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The book winds its way through the decades and jumps back and forth in time throughout, but I never found it confusing; Wingate, a former journalist, is an ace wordsmith and delivers the story with powerful elegance and clarity. Disturbing, poignant, painfully sad, sure—yet still, hands down, one of the best books I’ve read in some time, and it should be at the top of your reading list if it wasn’t already.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
I must have gotten this recommendation from Entertainment Weekly‘s book section, which is where I find the majority of my reads, and yet I had no idea it was consider young adult fiction until I sped through it in one evening and was reading the acknowledgements and words about the author. I guess that’s a good thing, right? Kids these days need intelligent reads just as adults do, and LaCour masterfully tells the story of an 18-year-old girl, Marin, in San Francisco who loses her sole family member, her grandfather, weeks before she leaves for college—only to find out after his death that he was nothing like what he seemed. The book follows two timelines: Marin’s final months of high school and her first semester at college, though much of it takes place over three nights when her estranged best friend shows up during college break to make amends and check that she is, in fact, okay (jury’s still out on whether or not she is). All in all, a quick and easy read about the power of friendship, though quite sad in parts.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
I read this whole book on my cross-country flight yesterday, which I suppose is a sign of how gripping it is. Four teenage siblings in 1969 New York go to see an old gypsy who tells each of them the day they’re going to die. The book is then broken up into sections with each part focusing on one sibling’s life in the decades leading up to each of their dreaded death dates. It also raises the questions: Would you want to know when your time was coming? Would it lead you to live a more meaningful life or ultimately drive you to a death that may or may not have been premeditated by fate? There’s plenty of heartache and sadness woven throughout The Immortalists, so if you’re looking for happy, this is not your book. But I really loved Benjamin’s narrative style and tight storytelling skills and now want to go back and read her 2014 debut, The Anatomy of Dreams. I’m also impressed that she’s just 28 years old!