Literature & fiction: Our editors’ recent favorites

Erin Kodicek on August 01, 2020
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Literature & fiction: Our editors’ recent favorites

While 2020 has been a disappointment in many ways, it’s been a boon for books. And thank goodness! Because who hasn’t needed an escape, to be inspired, to learn something or be transported. Who hasn’t needed help making sense of the messiness of life? The fifteen fictions below do that and more.  


The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Abi Daré’s debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, is like a blend of Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man and Tara Westover’s Educated (so buckle up). In it Adunni, a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl, endures a series of unfortunate events in her quest to get an education. The alternative is a life of servitude, something Adunni experiences firsthand when, after escaping an arranged marriage, she lands herself in an even more precarious position in the employ of a sadistic wife and her debauched husband. Buoyed by the memory of her late mother, who wanted her daughter to buck cultural confines and find her (louding) voice, and with the help of a few unlikely allies, Adunni sets about overcoming her sorry lot. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a rousing tale of courage and pluck, and unexpectedly charming. It’s also a reminder of the power of books, especially for those of us afforded the luxury of taking reading, and learning, and dreaming for granted. —Erin Kodicek


Dear Edward: A Novel by Ann Napolitano

There are some books whose descriptions defy their own power. Dear Edward, at least from my point of view, is one such novel. The premise is stark: the aftermath of a plane crash that killed 191 souls on board except a young boy named Edward. And the structure is somewhat expected: it shifts in time between after the crash and the cross-country flight that ended in devastation. But to view Dear Edward by its plot points and form only hints at the emotions one might experience while reading. So let me tell you this, Anne Napolitano’s novel made me breathe deep with heartbreak and made me cryI mean cry-in-public, cry. But, it also made me laugh out loud and marvel at the resiliency of the human heart and the power that one person’s friendship can have on another, no matter the age. This is a novel that is more than the sum of its parts that despite the necessity of tissues, is a joy to read. —Al Woodworth


Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

Set in post WWII Japan, Fifty Words for Rain follows Noriko Kamiza, the love child of her married, aristocratic mother and an African American soldier. Left with her scandalized grandparents and kept out of sight in an attic, “Nori” succumbs to her sorry lot—which involves beatings and excruciating chemical baths to lighten her skin—until the unexpected arrival of her half-brother. Akira manages to crack Nori’s world open just enough to give her hope, triggering a nail-biting chain of events as her grandparents conspire to close it yet again. Depressing much? Actually no. You will root for Nori, her resilient spirit, and her determination to assert her own identity and live life on her own terms. Asha Lemmie has written a rousing and addictive debut you won’t want to miss. —Erin Kodicek


28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand, one of the reigning queens of the beach read, has done it again in this tale of an affair that takes place over 28 summers. Mallory Blessing meets her brother’s fraternity brother, Jake McCloud, over Labor Day Weekend 1993. The two immediately fall in lust, and inspired by the movie Same Time Next Year, decide that every Labor Day they will meet and reenact this perfect weekend of innocent love. And they succeed, for 28 summers, despite the twists their lives take. Mallory stays in the beach cottage on Nantucket she inherited from a beloved aunt, and becomes a talented English teacher at the high school. Jake marries his high school sweetheart, an exacting and cold lawyer who eventually runs for President. Hilderbrand doesn’t just focus on the three days each year Jake and Mallory spend together, so the set-up never gets stale, and you’ll find yourself rooting for this star-crossed adulterous couple. Nantucket isn’t as much of a character in the novel as in Hilderbrand’s other works, but she weaves in some recurring characters, restaurants, and locations to satisfy her devoted readers. 28 Summers is a total page-turner, and a perfect “beach read,” whatever that means in the Summer of 2020. —Sarah Gelman


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett's debut novel, The Mothers—about motherhood, female friendship, and finding love with a broken heart—was one of the most talked-about books of 2016. Four years later Bennett introduces a new cast of characters, and like her debut, The Vanishing Half examines sisterhood, black identity, and parenthood with compassion and conviction. The Vignes twins grew up inseparable in the ’60s in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town reserved for black residents with light skin. Stella and Desiree Vignes are tall and beautiful, and they dream of lives beyond the lynching of their father and housekeeping for white people, like their mother does. When they flee to New Orleans as teenagers, Stella discovers that she can pass as white, and so begins the fracture that will forever separate the twins. Stella disappears in California and continues to play the part of a white woman, keeping her past a secret from her husband and daughter. After leaving her abusive marriage, Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude, who is “black as tar.” Jude, desperate to find a place where she fits in, goes to college in California and discovers she was searching not just for herself but for her mother’s sister. Told in flashbacks and alternating points of view, this novel asks what is personal identity, if not your past. A riveting and sympathetic story about the bonds of sisterhood and just how strong they are, even at their weakest. —Al Woodworth


All Adults Here by Emma Straub

Astrid Strick is about to get her hair done when she witnesses an acquaintance being hit by a bus, an event that frees a repressed memory from the time when she was raising her three children. Said children are now all grown up, at least in age: her youngest son, a former teen star and current pothead, has just shipped his thirteen-year-old daughter to live with Astrid after an incident at her New York school. Astrid’s oldest is working on real estate development deals in town—but he seems to be seeking validation and is only sure of the fact that he wants to escape his children. And her only girl is working on a goat farm and about to become a single mother who just can’t quit her (married) high school boyfriend. Straub perfectly captures the warmth and messiness of families, and the truth that no matter how old we get, our family always reduces us to childhood patterns. While Straub takes on some big topics: sexuality, abortion, gender identity, we’ll all see our own families reflected back to us through the Stricks. All Adults Here is a fresh and not unhopeful take on family dysfunction. It’s the perfect smart summer read. —Sarah Gelman


Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

When a young Mexican girl is viciously raped and beaten by a brooding oil-slick cowboy, the small town of Odessa, Texas, must decide where the law lies and who they believe. Narrated by five women, Valentine is the story of how they survive amidst the 1970s violence, poverty, and racism that surrounds them. Despite their wounds, each of these women—whether victims or bystanders, young or old, lost or found, directly connected to the violence or not—are sunbaked strong and have been fighting for their lives as long as they can remember. Desperation, loneliness, and fear abound in this novel, but so too does care, compassion, and hope. Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut calls to mind Western greats like Larry McMurtry but supplants the hardened cowboys with fierce and courageous women. Haunting, powerful, and beautifully written, Valentine will linger with you long after you’ve finished the last page. —Al Woodworth


Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s debut Homegoing was a sweeping, multi-generational novel that covered 300 years of Ghanaian and American history. It was moving and powerful, and it announced a rare new talent. The question was, how would she follow up that novel? Transcendent Kingdom is contemporary and grounded in one time period, but it is equally impressive. Gyasi’s talent is very real and very consistent. The story introduces Gifty, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. She studies addiction and depression in mice, but addiction and depression exist in her family as well. Her once-promising brother died of a heroin overdose, and her depressed mother believes only prayer can heal her. Gifty is very much a contemporary, forward-looking character—a Ghanaian-American woman who is excelling in science at one of the best schools in the world—but she is also drawn by memories of faith and family in Alabama where she grew up. There are differences between Gyasi’s first two novels, but both are inhabited by characters that are multi-dimensional and real. And both are brilliant. –Chris Schluep


Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

This well-drawn domestic drama explores with verve and an almost scientific rigor how friendships form, especially across generational and socio-economic lines. Elisabeth, an accomplished author, slips into suburban malaise after having a baby and moving from New York City to Philadelphia where she hires Sam, a self-possessed college senior, to babysit. Their relationship quickly gets complicated as Sam makes her way into Elisabeth’s world. The author charts with uncommon grace how we ‘pick’ people, that alchemical interplay of surprise and familiarity, esteem and envy, that makes us curious to know more. As the book cups hands around those first embers of connection, it’s hypnotic to watch the spark float into the open waters of real friendship where characters are as likely to be capsized by good intentions as unexpected consequences. —Katy Ball


The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Fans of novels such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Lilac Girls, or The Chilbury Ladies' Choir should make sure to add The Jane Austen Society to their library. Set in the tiny village of Chawton, during and after World War II, it’s a story about eight people from very different backgrounds—from a farm laborer to a movie starlet—who, in saving the house Jane Austen last lived in from developers, unexpectedly save themselves from loneliness, grief, and loss. Author Natalie Jenner does a marvelous job of showing how a disparate group of villagers could go from enduring their disappointments in quiet solitude, to being united, both by their love of Jane Austen and their determination to preserve her home. With a humorous mix of characters, from both upstairs and downstairs, that would do Julian Fellowes proud, and affectionate, pitch-perfect character studies of each, The Jane Austen Society pays tribute to the power of literature to heal and bring people together. But best of all, it will charm readers and make them feel as though they share the sorrows and the triumphs of their new friends: Adam, Adeline, Andrew, Evie, Frances, Dr Gray, Mimi, and Yardley. —Vannessa Cronin


Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

In 2015, a friend informed Ariel Lawhon, author of I Am Anastasia, that if she didn’t write about Nancy Wake, said friend would no longer speak to her. Lawhon resisted and wrote I Am Anastasia instead. But she did start to read about Nancy Wake and her extraordinary life, fell in love with her, and realized that this was a woman whose name should be known. Her admiration for Wake comes through on every page of Code Name Hélène, so named for one of the four code names under which Wake operated as one of the most fearless and effective leaders of the French Resistance. With the same brio with which the Australian Wake talked her way into a job as a journalist for the Hearst Corporation, Lawhon interweaves four timelines, each one corresponding to the code name Nancy was using at the time. Armed with a code name, her signature red lipstick, an ability to negotiate arms deals over a bottle of brandy without ever losing out—or passing out—and a willingness to take to the battlefield while her husband held down the fort at home, Nancy Wake made the kinds of sacrifices that made heroes of other soldiers. That Code Name Hélène is also a wartime love story that can hold its own with such novels as The Nightingale is icing on a delicious gâteau. —Vannessa Cronin


The Golden Cage by Camilla Läckberg

Many of the reviews for the new Camilla Läckberg thriller will reference Gone Girl and Big Little Lies and those comparisons are apt. The Golden Cage has plot points in common with each: from a wife setting up a Byzantine revenge plot against her faithless husband to a woman relying on the friendship and camaraderie of other women as she reels from the blow of a life-changing setback. But as Faye sheds her housewife persona and slips back into her savvy businesswoman persona—ready to wreak revenge on her smug husband Jack, and the woman he replaced Faye with—another plot point, that of the permanent damage that domestic abuse does to women, mentally and physically, comes to a head. And gives readers one more reason to cheer a smart, sexy, indefatigable woman in a smart, sexy, full-throttle thriller. —Vannessa Cronin


Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Rue has secrets. The young midwife and all-around healer in a town of freed black slaves, Rue knows the personal stories hidden inside her neighbors’ walls, and the townspeople trust her discretion. But Rue also holds darker knowledge about the burned-out plantation that enslaved them and about Varina, the planation’s dead heiress. As Afia Atakora’s historical novel slides forward and backward in time in episodes labeled Slaverytime, Wartime, Freedomtime, or the Ravaging, Atakora juggles the puzzle pieces of Rue’s life, revealing portions here and there until finally the last few—and very dramatic—pieces click into place. Evocative and sometimes dreamlike writing, hollowing moments of crisis, and an iron-spined young woman who ignites the page make this debut novel one to savor and then pass to your favorite fellow reader. —Adrian Liang


Luster by Raven Leilani

The life of twenty-something Edie will be familiar to many people. She is living in a big city (New York). Her neighborhood (Bushwick) isn’t the best; nor is the apartment that she rents. When we meet her, she is working a low paying job in publishing—until she gets laid off. She has dated around some. On the other hand, she is now in a relationship with an older man, Eric, who is in an open marriage with his wife, Rebecca. Eric and Rebecca are white, but they have an adopted Black daughter who is twelve. When Rebecca invites Edie (also Black) to stay at their home, things have become much less familiar. It’s rare these days to come across a book and a style that’s really different, but Raven Leilani’s Luster is exciting, surprising, sometimes sad, at times awkward, even shocking. And it’s also funny. The book will make you uncomfortable, but that mirrors the discomfort that the characters, especially Edie, feel—about age, status, race, sex, salaries, you name it. Luster has an energy and an honesty that makes the words practically shimmer on the page. I am so glad I read this. --Chris Schluep


Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Clear your calendar and settle in for a brilliant and breathless read. Migrations is about a woman who goes to the ends of the earth in search of herself and to track what just might be the last migration of Arctic terns, birds that travel from pole to pole every year. It’s also about love, adventure, climate change, and what happens when a person simultaneously runs away from her past and runs straight towards it. Migrations gets richer with every scene as you learn more about Franny Stone—why she boards a boat full of fishermen, why birds call to her, how she fell in love with her husband, and how death stalks her at every turn. From Antarctica to a prison in Ireland, Australia to Galway, Franny traverses the world and with every turn of the page, you learn more about why she’s always on the move. The novel’s pacing is phenomenal—and the candor, veracity, and clarity with which it’s written make it feel like a memoir. Migrations is confessional, intimate and one of the best books I’ve read this year. —Al Woodworth


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