Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe

dear fang with loveWhen seventeen-year-old Vera has a breakdown at a high school party, her father, Lucas, decides to take her far away from her normal routine for the summer.  When they arrive in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Lucas and Vera become immersed in the medieval city’s history and culture — and form fast friendships with the others in their tourist group.

As Vera struggles with her homesickness and the knowledge of her new mental health diagnosis, Lucas tries to bond with his impetuous daughter and track down the truth about his Lithuanian relatives.  Filled with humor and chaos, Dear Fang, With Love is a perfect portrait of a family dealing with long-buried secrets and terrifying new realities.

Quote:
I had already framed Vilnius in my mind as a liminal place, a portal between East and West, but also, as Darius had mentioned, a portal between the living and the dead, and I didn’t like the idea of crossing the river into Užupis.  It made me think of the River Styx.  But the River Vilnia was narrow and picturesque, not haunting or misty, and the bridge railings were bristling with love locks.  It was a custom around there, Darius told us, for young couples to have their initials engraved on a lock, which they attached to the bridge, and then together they would throw the key into the river.  There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of locks on the bridge, covering every bar of the railing.”

Author:
Rufi Thorpe is the author of The Girls from Corona del Mar and Dear Fang, With Love.  She lives in California.

Published:  2016
Length:  303 pages
Set in:  Vilnius, Lithuania

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

the book of memoryIn a death row jail cell in Harare, Zimbabwe, a young albino woman named Memory begins to record her life story.

Charged with the murder of Lloyd Hendricks — her wealthy, white adoptive father — Memory tells a tale of heartbreak and upheaval:  growing up poor in a local township, grieving for the deaths of several siblings, struggling to adjust to her new life with Lloyd, and slowly coming to understand his motivations for adopting her.

Written in beautiful prose that almost crackles with intensity, The Book of Memory follows a young woman grappling with a cruel fate.

Quote:
“You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people.  In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still.  The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyants that give cooling shade.  But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people.  And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets.”

Author:
Petina Gappah is the author of the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly and the novel The Book of Memory.  She was born in Zambia and moved with her family to Zimbabwe as a child.

Published:  2015
Length:  276 pages
Set in:  Harare, Zimbabwe

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant eschews interaction with strangers and acquaintances alike, ignores her co-workers’ snide comments, listens to her mother’s berating voice on the phone, and retreats to her apartment each weekend to drink a solitary box of vodka.  Her life is simple, dependable, and completely devoid of any intrusive or well-meaning questions.

One day, Eleanor and her co-worker Raymond witness an old man collapse in the street.  After calling for medical attention and visiting him in the hospital, it almost seems as though she and Raymond are becoming… friends.  And while Eleanor insists that she doesn’t need anyone new in her life, she finds herself going along with his invitations to spend time together.  But as she slowly begins to let Raymond in, the small cracks in her well-constructed life begin to show.

Quote:
“No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter.  You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you?  It’s true, though.  I do exist, don’t I?  It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.  There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar.  A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Author:
Gail Honeyman is the author of the novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

Published:  2017
Length:  327 pages
Set in:  Glasgow, Scotland

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana, with Abigail Pesta

how dare the sun riseHow Dare the Sun Rise begins with Sandra Uwiringiyimana’s recollection of a violent night in a Rwandan refugee camp — the night her younger sister was brutally killed by soldiers.

Driven to Rwanda by ethnic persecution in their homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo (also known as the DRC or Congo-Kinshasa), Sandra’s family struggled to reunite and find safety.  Eventually, they were given refugee status through the United Nations and immigrated to upstate New York.  There, Sandra faced a new set of challenges: acclimating to a different culture with unfamiliar expectations around race and gender.  As she settled into life as an American teenager, she turned her turmoil over the horrors of her past into passionate activism — and finds a worldwide platform.

Note: trigger warnings for sexual abuse and child death. 

Quote:
“Ten years before the flames, I was born in the mountains, a scenic land of jewel-green fields, bamboo trees, and forests inhabited by gorillas, elephants, and chimpanzees.  My people lived in small round mud huts with pointy roofs made of dried grass.  They raised cattle and farmed the land.  My parents grew up in these towering mountains, the Hauts Plateaux, in a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo called South Kivu.  When they were young, my mom and dad lived in neighboring villages that were about a day apart by foot.  There were no roads, no cars.  Everyone walked everywhere, and they still do.  We left the mountains when I was around two years old, in 1996, so I don’t remember much of our life there.  But today when I see pictures of the region, known as Minembwe, it looks like the most idyllic place on earth, with lush, leafy mountaintops scraping the clouds and miles and miles of green.”

Author:
Sandra Uwiringiyimana is an author, activist, and public speaker.  She has spoken at the Women in the World Summit and in front of the United Nations.  How Dare the Sun Rise is her first book.

Published:  2017
Length:  304 pages
Main Settings:  Rwanda; New York, United States
Secondary Setting:  Democratic Republic of the Congo

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

7D6B70B8-0B2F-48EA-98A5-06D7B3FA7D25The Heart’s Invisible Furies begins in rural Ireland with a dramatic scene: a teenage girl is cast out of her village, shamed and ridiculed by her family and local priest for becoming pregnant out of wedlock.  With nothing to her name and no home, she boards a bus to Dublin and doesn’t look back.

Her son Cyril is adopted by an emotionally distant but wealthy couple and seeks affection in his close friendship with a boy named Julian.  Yet as he grows up and comes to understand his identity as a gay man, he faces pervasive discrimination and the pressure to conform.  From strange kidnappings to unadvised marriages and tragic losses, Cyril’s life unwinds for readers in fascinating but heartbreaking bursts.  Written with compassion and humor, The Heart’s Invisible Furies comes in at almost 600 pages yet somehow still feels too short.

Quote:
“Maude and I traveled to the Four Courts together on the final day to hear the verdict and, as I had not been allowed to attend during the trial itself, I was fascinated and a little frightened by the majesty of the Round Hall, where the families of victims and criminals alike mixed in a curious mélange of quarry and miscreant while barristers marched to and fro in black gowns and white wigs, laden down with folders and trailed by anxious-looking juniors.  My adoptive mother was seething with rage, for the case had received so much publicity over recent weeks that her latest novel, Amongst Angels, had found its way to the front table of the Hodges Figgis Bookshop in Dawson Street, a location that none of her previous work had ever come close to troubling in the past.  Alerted to the fact that morning over breakfast by our housekeeper, Brenda, who had been shopping in town the afternoon before, she extinguished her cigarette in the center of an egg yolk and started to tremble in fury, her face pale with humiliation.  “The vulgarity of it all,” she said.  “Popularity.  Readers.  I can’t bear it.  I knew Charles would destroy my career in the end.”

Author:
John Boyne is the author of books for both children and adults, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A History of Loneliness, and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.  Born in Dublin, Boyne also writes regular book reviews for The Irish Times. 

Published:  2017
Length:   582 pages
Main Settings:  Dublin, Ireland; Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Secondary Setting:  New York City, New York, United States

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Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

E2119CB3-9FC6-4F3D-A3CA-F28F0CFA3D4FIn late August 1986, a power surge at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused a days-long fire that unleashed unprecedented amounts of radiation into the surrounding areas of Ukraine and Belarus.

In Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich records the profoundly tragic stories of the accident’s victims — from members of the clean-up crew at the plant to soldiers assigned to work in the area to parents of small children affected by the radiation.  In each short, heart-wrenching story, difficult questions loom:  why did this happen, what could have prevented it, and how can life continue after such a profound disaster?  By documenting the lives and deaths of the men, women, and children impacted by the blast, Alexievich gives voice to both the survivors and the ghosts of the world’s greatest nuclear catastrophe.

Quote:
“One time I filmed people who’d been in concentration camps.  They try to avoid meeting each other.  I understand that.  There’s something unnatural about getting together and remembering the war.  People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another.  There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about.  About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative.  In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books.  Sooner the other way around.  People aren’t heroes.”

Author:
Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian author and journalist.  Her books include War’s Unwomanly Face; Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War; Enchanted with Death; and Voices from Chernobyl.  In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Published:  1997
Length:  240 pages 
Set in:  Belarus and Ukraine
Translated by:  Keith Gessen

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The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

the hour of landWritten to coincide with the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service, The Hour of Land explores how the preservation of public lands has changed American history and culture.  In a powerful and often poetic voice, Terry Tempest Williams articulates her own intimate experiences with national parks and monuments, and decries the destructive forces of development and climate change.

By focusing on 12 specific parks — including Big Bend in Texas, Acadia in Maine, and Canyonlands in Utah — Williams shows the rich diversity of American landscapes.  Also excellent on audiobook, The Hour of Land will compel you to grab a walking stick and set out for your nearest national park.

Quote:
“Knowledge matters.  Justice matters.  Hindsight shows us our blind spots and biases; we can recognize ourselves as human beings caught in the cultural mores of a specific time.  This is not to excuse the brutal and tenebrific acts of the past, but to consider them in the light of what we know now.  By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”

Author:
Terry Tempest Williams is an activist, memoirist, and novelist.  Her works include When Women Were Birds, Refuge, Desert Quartet, and The Hour of Land.  She divides her time between Utah and Wyoming.

Published:  2016
Length:  397 pages
Set in:  Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, United States

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The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

association of small bombsThe Association of Small Bombs opens with violence: a bomb explodes in a crowded Delhi marketplace, killing two young brothers named Tushar and Nakul Khurana.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives the blast.  While Mansoor grows up haunted by the deaths of his childhood friends, Tushar and Nakul’s parents struggle to overcome their all-consuming grief.  In a separate storyline, Karan Mahajan introduces Shockie, a bomb-maker from the northern Indian region of Kashmir.

By weaving together stories of those affected by this one market bombing — barely a blip in the fast-paced news cycle — Mahajan untangles the complex, harrowing worlds of those who cause and suffer from acts of terrorism.

Quote:
“Now Mr. Khurana, who had been a troubled, twitchy sleeper ever since he’d become a documentary filmmaker years ago, began to suffer from dreams that impressed him deeply, and he never failed to discuss them with his wife or his collaborators.  He didn’t mention that he was terrified during their nightly unspooling; that he slept in the crook of his wife’s armpit like a baby, his body greased with sweat, his leg rotating out like the blade of a misfired fan. But the dreams were truly notable, and in the first and most frequent one, he became, for a few minutes, the bomb. The best way to describe what he felt would be to say that first he was blind, then he could see everything. This is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.”

Author:
Karan Mahajan is the author of the novels The Association of Small Bombs and Family Planning.  His writing has been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.  Born in Delhi, India, he now lives in upstate New York.

Published:  2016
Length:  288 pages
Main Setting:  Delhi, India
Secondary Setting:  Kashmir, India

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

lost city of the monkey godIn The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston details the centuries-long rumors of an abandoned city somewhere deep in the remote Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras — and the thrilling, high-tech mission to find it.

By scanning the dense jungle from an airplane with a machine that maps the land with lasers, a team of scientists was able to identify large and unmistakably human-made structures.  But as they set out to see the lost city for themselves, the expedition faced danger from all sides: unseen predators, quicksand, and lethal diseases living within even the smallest of insects.

Written in Preston’s engaging voice, The Lost City of the Monkey God examines many topics:  Honduran history, controversy in modern archaeology, the cruel destruction carried out by conquistadors, and how disease can wreak havoc on populations.

Quote
“Through it all, I peered out the window, transfixed.  I can scarcely find words to describe the opulence of the rainforest that unrolled below us.  The tree crowns were packed together like puffballs, displaying every possible hue, tint, and shade of green.  Chartreuse, emerald, lime, aquamarine, teal, bottle, glaucous, asparagus, olive, celadon, jade, malachite — mere words are inadequate to express the chromatic infinities.  Here and there the canopy was disrupted by a treetop smothered in enormous purple blossoms.  Along the central valley floor, the heavy jungle gave way to lush meadows.  Two meandering streams glittered in the sunlight, where they joined before flowing out the notch.  We were flying above a primeval Eden, looking for a lost city using advanced technology to shoot billions of laser beams into a jungle that no human beings had entered for perhaps five hundred years:  a twenty-first-century assault on an ancient mystery.”

Author:
Douglas Preston is an American novelist and non-fiction author.  His works include The Monster of Florence, the Wyman Ford series, the Agent Pendergast series, and the Gideon Crew series (the latter two are collaborations with author Lincoln Child). 

Published:  2017
Length:  328 pages
Set in:  Mosquitia, Honduras

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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco with Lauren Oyler

who thought this was a good ideaWhen Alyssa Mastromonaco began working for political campaigns, she had no idea she would one day serve as President Barack Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.  Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is a collection of stories about her life, interspersed with solid career advice and the quirky lessons she learned while wending her way through the strange world of high-stakes politics.

Told in a frank and funny voice, Mastromonaco’s memoir is as much about the intricate details of working for the president as it is the importance of carrying emergency stashes of stomach medication when visiting foreign dignitaries.  From scheduling snafus to the unique challenges of finding a women’s bathroom in the White House, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is a delight from start to finish.

Quote:
“When I first met Barack Obama in December 2004, I’m not sure he liked me very much.  I had worked for John Kerry on and off for four years, and although the secretary of state has a reputation for being aloof, the two of us had had a very warm and close relationship, pretty much from the moment I started as an assistant in his press and scheduling office in the spring of 2000.  I expected my rapport with Senator-elect Obama, who was much closer to me in age and disposition, would be similar.  Plus, I was coming off the presidential campaign for the Democratic nominee. I figured Obama, who was basically unknown at the time, would be thrilled that someone with so much experience — as well as so much wit and charm and talent! — would want to come and work for him.  I was wrong; Barack Obama is tougher than that.”

Author:
Alyssa Mastromonaco was Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014.  Since then, she was worked for Vice Media and A&E Networks.  She is originally from Rhinebeck, New York, and Who Thought This Was a Good Idea is her first published book.

Published:  2017
Length:  244 pages
Set in:  Washington, D.C., United States

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